Syrian: How to build bridges between cultures in Austria

With the recent Presidential election success of Austria's far-right party, many voters have made it clear they are unhappy with the government's current policy towards asylum seekers. Syrian Majd Nassan, who is living in Austria, explains in his own words what the government and asylum seekers could do to alleviate this discontent and improve integration.

Syrian: How to build bridges between cultures in Austria
Majd Nassan

Since coming to Austria last December, I have come to understand the new clash of civilization that exists today between Europeans and immigrants. The current migrant crisis that Europe is facing has only brought to surface what most Europeans knew deep inside; we cannot just have a group of people from a certain culture who cannot integrate with the society. The problem comes down to the fact that the new immigrants often lack language skills. This language barrier pressures the migrants to live in areas where there are more immigrants than natives and fewer opportunities to practice German. The existence of some groups in Europe who reject migrants and even in some cases far right governments, also make it impossibly hard for refugees to integrate. Specifically with the rise of the far right in this beautiful country, I feel like it is my duty to show the true face of many Syrians.

I personally am ashamed to say that it took me four months until I decided to learn German, and now I am taking the A1 course along with several other migrants, who are not necessarily refugees. When I first came here to Vienna, I lacked motivation to do anything. I was missing my family, my friends and my entire social habitat in Beirut. The fact that I spoke English helped me a long way with getting everything done; even when applying for asylum, I was translating questions other asylum seekers had to the officer who spoke English. Yet, I was constantly ashamed that I didn’t speak German. When my housemates had friends over, they were forced to speak English if I was to understand their conversation. It was unfair of me, a guest in their country to impose on them to speak English all the time. They never had a problem with it, but for example, they often drifted in the middle of the conversation and started talking German, suddenly I lost the whole point of the conversation.

The reason I decided to mention the above personal information is because I believe this language barrier and/or unwillingness to integrate is, in my opinion, one of the main reasons why there is a rise in right wing sympathizers in Europe. It is understandable why new immigrants wouldn’t want to learn a new language or interact with other cultures. Though once the immigrant relaxes and overcomes the culture shock, he/she should show respect to the hosting nation by at least following the law and trying to learn the host language.

Governments are 'supposed to educate the masses'

When migrants, who never left their home country nor interacted with a lot of foreigners, come to a cosmopolitan region such as Europe, they will have a problem integrating. The blame is on the failed home governments that were supposed to educate the masses, and at least enforce proper second language training. Nevertheless, whether we like it or not, this is the situation today. There is a large number of uneducated migrants who may be skillful with their hands but have no willingness, no motivation or no ability to advance in learning a new language. However, those who lack the ability or motivation can be abetted by daily intensive courses and proper motivation.

In the first 6-12 months, asylum seekers do not enjoy the benefits of being recognized refugees, such as unlimited access to education and funding for language courses. Therefore, they often either choose to wait until they are recognized as refugees, or attend the once per week free language courses offered by NGOs.

Some asylum-seekers like myself who have a limited ability to pay for courses, can get discounts on intensive language courses in certain institutes, but we still have to pay 100 euros. A large proportion of asylum seekers cannot afford to pay this amount, therefore, they lose their initial motivation to learn the language. Once asylum seekers get recognized, they would have been in the host nation for almost a year without speaking the language. Why does the government discourage the asylum seeker from the opportunity to learn intensive German a month after his arrival?

The hesitance some European countries have regarding initial integration is understandable, namely because Europe doesn’t want all the migrants to stay. They have handpicked few nationalities that they wish to keep and others will be encouraged to leave. Reducing access to labour and cutting down the opportunity to learn the language and integrate could be enough motivation for a tired migrant to decide to go home.

A 'problem of unwillingness'

On the other hand, there is the problem of unwillingness. Some Syrians that I have come across who have been in Austria for anything between 1-4 years, have not advanced further than A2 level in German, which is only the second of six levels to mastering a language in European standards. The problem is that A2 enables one to communicate very basically, but it won’t give one the ability to work in a decent job and talk extensively about issues. So the result is, as is the case with the Turks in German speaking countries, the migrant society will decide to stick together rather than integrate, and integration is the founding pillar of the EU.

The solution is motivation, education, and proper social interactions primarily for the youth. Many of the new migrants are fairly young, which means that they are flexible in their thoughts, and accordingly, if the host nation can properly motivate them, they will be able to enthusiastically participate in language courses and integrate. Migrants who have already successfully integrated into the host society also could play an advisory role in the integration of young newcomers. Plus, if young people from both cultures engage more with one another in activities and try to build a bridge between the cultures, it could end the clash, which may solve the integration fears shared by Europeans.

'Integration does not come overnight'

A portion of European people also have misconceptions about Islam and refugees. Although I am Christian I grew up in a fairly conservative Muslim country, and had a lot of Muslim friends who explained to me the true spirit of Islam. If an Arab explains to the European, the difference between a Muslim and a terrorist they will become more understanding or worst case they pretend to agree. The European people need to be reminded that the refugees in their countries today ran away from those terrorists, some barely escaped with their lives.

Lastly, once the newcomer has settled down and got over the cultural jetlag, they should leave their cultural restraints at home and force themselves to go and interact with their new host country and learn about them; or else they’re no better than the ignorant European right wing extremists. Not by abandoning one’s beliefs or heritage, but rather one should be more accepting of the other, one shouldn’t hold on too tightly to his opinions in a manner that disturbs the other. Integration does not come overnight, but it does succeed with cooperation from both sides. When migrants interact with the host nation, they can show that migrants are not something to be scared of, but rather they are people who want to become part of their new country.

Majd Nassan has a bachelor of Arts in political studies from the American University of Beirut (AUB). He will be starting his post graduate studies at the Diplomatic Academy in September. Additionally Majd founded “hand in Hand” a student-led project to aid Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Since graduating in December 2014, Majd interned for the Carnegie Middle East Center, and after worked as a research assistant at AUB until he came to Austria.

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‘I’ll probably return to the UK’: Moving to Austria as a Brit post-Brexit

Moving to Austria as a British citizen is not as easy as it was a couple of years ago, but it is still possible if you’re willing to jump through a few more bureaucratic hoops.

'I’ll probably return to the UK': Moving to Austria as a Brit post-Brexit

For British people that were living in Austria by the end of December 2020, nothing much has changed to everyday life when it comes to their status and rights (apart from losing voting rights in local elections and freedom of movement across the EU).

But for any Brits arriving since January 1st 2021, they have been considered as third country nationals and subject to the immigration rules for non-EU or EEA citizens.

This has been a shock to some British people that are not used to navigating EU immigration systems – and a stark reminder of how different moving to an EU country was before Brexit.

FOR MEMBERS: How can British second home owners spend more than 90 days in Austria?

To find out how the process now works, The Local spoke to two people who have done it (or tried to). 

Here’s what they have to say about their experiences.

Navigating Austrian immigration during Covid

Helen Murray, 30, moved to Austria in 2021 after first being granted a Visa D to enter the country and then securing a settlement permit (researcher) to take up a PhD position in Vienna.

Visa D allows third country nationals to enter Austria for up to six months, but as Helen applied for the visa at the height of Covid-19 lockdowns in early 2021, it was a complicated process.

Helen told The Local: “To get the visa I had to organise everything without going to Austria. This meant that I had to sort out renting somewhere (visa required rental contract) over the internet without seeing any apartments, and needing somewhere that was furnished – not easy in Vienna – so I could see out the quarantine.”

Additionally, Helen had to book a flight to Austria to secure the visa, even though flights from the UK were banned from landing in Austria at the time due to Covid-19 restrictions.

READ MORE: Reader question: Are Brits in Austria still banned from giving blood?

Since arriving in Austria, Helen has also noticed the difference in rights between British people that have the Article 50 card (a post-Brexit residency permit for Brits that were living in Austria before December 31st 2020), and those that don’t.

Helen said: “Nearly all of my British friends here have Article 50 cards, and so have all these rights that I don’t have. 

“It’s particularly galling because I know exactly how easy it was to come here before Brexit. I think now to stay in Austria you have to want it because it’s a lot of work, time and money.”

But when asked if Helen would still make the move to Austria post-Brexit with the benefit of hindsight, it was a question she initially found hard to answer. 

She said: “It’s a tricky question to answer because I have mixed feelings about moving here, but it’s mostly personal and professional reasons which would probably still be there regardless of Brexit.

“I would definitely say though that Brexit has made it too difficult for me to want to stay once my current contract is up, and I’ll most probably be returning to the UK. 

“This is because there are an increasing number of hurdles to pass with every visa extension and, because of Austria’s policy of not allowing dual citizenship, there’s no reward for staying here and doing all that as I wouldn’t be willing to give up my UK citizenship.”

READ ALSO: ‘Ashamed, embarrassed, disappointed’ – How Brits in the EU feel about the UK

Dreams of retirement in the Austrian Alps

Gerry Stapleton, a retired property developer from the UK, has owned a second home in Zell am See in Salzburg since 2008. He was hoping to gain residency in Austria to bypass the rule that states third country nationals can only spend 90 days in every 180 days in the EU.

Earlier this year, Gerry and his partner were granted temporary residence permits but came across difficulties when trying to secure health insurance – something that is mandatory for all residents in Austria.

Gerry told The Local: “What we were required to show was not that we had travel insurance but that we had proper, full medical insurance cover, similar to that provided by the Austrian and UK health care systems. 

Zell am See, in Austria (Photo by Markus Lederer on Unsplash)

“The authorities in Zell am See tried to be helpful and suggested at least six insurance companies whose cover would have been satisfactory. I tried them all, and some UK and international companies as well, but with no luck. 

“The major stumbling block was our ages – I am 74 and my partner is 77 – and none of the companies would offer cover for someone aged 75 or older.”

The solution would have been for Gerry and his partner to transfer their healthcare from the UK system to Austria. However, this would have left them without any coverage in their home country, which wasn’t suitable as they still want to spend part of the year in the UK.

Gerry added: “We have, therefore, reluctantly withdrawn our applications, although I keep trying to find something that might help.”

FOR MEMBERS: EXPLAINED: The 2022 salary requirements for Austria’s EU Blue Card

Brits in Austria

So, what are the options for British people who want to move to Austria post-Brexit? Here are a few possibilities.

First, there is the Red-White-Red Card for qualified or skilled workers from non-EU countries that want to live and work in Austria. If granted, the visa is valid for 24 months and allows visa holders to bring family members with them.

However, there are different types of visas issued under the umbrella of the Red-White-Red Card, depending on the applicant’s professional background.

For example, those with advanced degrees and management experience in the fields of mathematics, informatics, natural sciences or technology are considered as very highly qualified workers. They can initially enter Austria with a Job Seeker Visa, which can later be transferred to a Red-White-Red Card following a job offer.

Alternatively, there is a category for skilled workers in shortage occupations, such as engineers, carpenters, physicians, chefs and accountants. For this category, applicants must score a minimum of 50 points in the eligibility criteria (including elementary level German and English language skills), show proof of relevant qualifications and have a valid job offer.

READ ALSO: Can foreigners buy a second home in Austria?

Additionally, there are several other categories for the Red-White-Red Card, including one for recent graduates from an Austrian education institution (which Helen Murray would be eligible for) and family reunification. Each category has its own eligibility criteria. 

And there is the EU Blue Card, which is available for non-EU citizens with a job offer in Austria with a salary of at least €66,593.

Then there is the Austrian residency option.

Austria is a great place to live, but getting a residence permit can be tricky. (Photo by Frank J on Pexels)

Applying for residency in Austria is a big commitment and involves giving up residency in the UK (but not citizenship).

It also usually means losing access to the NHS because you will be required to contribute to the social security system in Austria, unless you have private medical insurance (an issue encountered by Gerry Stapleton).

In the case of retired people, Patrick Kainz, a Vienna-based immigration lawyer, told The Local in a previous article that the best approach is to apply for a “gainful employment excepted” residents permit (Niederlassungsbewilligung ausgenommen Erwerbstätigkeit) that allows for income through a pension or private funds. There are limits on how many permits can be issued in Austria each year.

For this category of Austrian residency, single people need a minimum monthly income of €2,060.98 and couples need to earn at least €3,251.42 a month to be eligible. An additional amount of €318 for each child also applies. These figures are twice the standard amount of the General Social Insurance Act (ASVG).

However, immigration lawyer Osai Amiri advises any British people wanting to pursue an immigration route to Austria to inform themselves about the necessary requirements and prepare for a long application process.

Amiri told The Local: “Once they have determined which permit best suits their plans, they should start collecting and preparing the documents that they would have to submit to the Austrian authorities.

“Only after that should they travel to Austria and submit their application for the respective permit in Austria.

“Since the visa-free stay of British citizens is limited, they can in that way save themselves a lot of time and would not have to travel back and forth in order to obtain the decision of the Austrian authorities during the visa-free stay.”

Additionally, Amiri suggested British people can pursue other pathways to Austria, such as permits for students, artists and scientists. 

Useful links

Federal government official migration website

British in Austria

Vienna Business Agency

This article originally referenced the standard rate for the minimum monthly income for the gainful employment excepted residency permit, as stated on the Austrian migration website. It has now been updated to include the rate for third country nationals (twice the standard rate).