In search of refuge: Tapping into people’s potential.
I was driving down a main road with my family in Vienna when a dozen or so buses and police cars passed us in the right-side lane. The line of vehicles and flashing blue lights, big enough to capture anyone’s attention, continued down the road at a steady pace. Having heard that there were several buses full of Syrian refugees from Hungary arriving in Austria that day, I quickly made the connection that these must have been them. As I started to think about the magnitude of the Syrian Refugee Crisis, the millions of Syrians seeking safety in neighboring countries and the EU, and the millions more that were internally displaced, I was overwhelmed. Each day the media was filled with debates and interviews with Austrian politicians and UNHCR representatives. Although I was deep in thought, something suddenly caught my eye. As a bus pulled up next to us, I saw a small figure move on the other side of the tinted window. Drawing closer, there was a little boy with curly brown hair, smiling greatly and excitedly waving at us. The most natural response for our entire car was to smile and wave back. And so a game of back-and-forth waving ensued for several minutes. As the road divided us, one of the mottos struck me like never before:
“Es sind Menschen die da kommen.” | “These are people who are coming.”
A few weeks before, I moved back to my hometown of Vienna, Austria to assist an organization with refugee reintegration work. Having organized the collaboration several months before the refugee crisis hit the news, I was not expecting to be in the middle of a such a momentous time. Since arriving, I’ve witnessed hundreds of refugees come through the train-station that I have known my whole life and watched as thousands of them marched on foot to the Austrian border. And I’ve seen Austrians stand up for the rights of asylum-seekers and even starting to confront the ugly face of xenophobia. Through a collaboration between people of all faiths and backgrounds, there have been protests, emergency shelters, food and diaper drives, even people sharing their homes with refugees, in order to make clear that the Austrian and German people believe in a person’s right to asylum and for safety. In short, it’s been an unexpected and amazing experience to watch all this unfold.
My hope is that all the people who are advocating for #refugeeswelcome understand the extent that the welcome needs to go, and that it continues after the media has stopped reporting on it. After the right paperwork is filed, bellies are filled, and shelter is found, this is when the reintegration process starts. This is not the end of their refugee experience, but is the initial step into their new life. Beyond just the culture shock that is experienced, many suffer from the effects of complex trauma. Having witnessed violence in their home countries, with up to 35% being tortured, and overcoming life-threatening journeys, many deal with the painful consequences of their trauma experience. In my opinion, this is where the real work begins.
In my work with refugees and asylum-seekers I have seen how overcoming bureaucratic obstacles, waiting months or years in uncertainty of whether an asylum application will be accepted, and experiencing general xenophobia and racism from the host country can make this time just as hard psychologically as the initial violence itself. Many attempt to find jobs and enroll in training programs, but are unable to due to legislative and financial limitations and unaddressed trauma (which they are then blamed for and marked as “lazy” and “taking advantage of the system”). And this is what needs to be recognized: that refugees are searching for a space where they can do more than just physically exist.
This is the first of a two-part blog. The second post, "In Search of Refuge: Beyond Just Being" can be found HERE.
The views expressed in this piece are not representative of any organizations or institutions the author is affiliated with, but are strictly his own
Michael Zuch is an Austrian-American college student in Nashville, TN studying Health & Human Services and Music. He is fascinated by the intersection of trauma, mental health, and the arts, which he plans on studying in graduate school. When not working and learning, Michael can be found swooning over soulful singer-songwriters, eating “too many” cookies, and Skyping with his nieces and nephews.