Can Europe Make It?

Refuge, and a home, in Vienna: a young Iraqi's story

An Iraqi refugee tells us how he came to Vienna and managed to make a life for himself there against the odds.

Raluca Besliu
24 March 2016

Refugees cross into Austria. Getty images/Christopher Furlong. All rights reserved.

The young Iraqi was thrilled. After three years of living in Vienna, Austria and over a year of endless searching, D., who preferred to keep his real name undisclosed, had finally found a job. The 29-year-old beneficiary of subsidiary protection in Austria, would be working part-time at a recruiting agency.

He didn’t feel that he had been discriminated against based on his status in the job searching process. Immediately after receiving subsidiary protection, which recognized that he was in serious danger if he returned to Iraq, he was able to access the labor market, was granted a residence permit for one year and another two years after the first extension. He stressed: “Many of my friends from the United States, the United Kingdom and other foreign countries are struggling to find a job in Austria. The reason why all of us have been having trouble is because we are not fluent in German.”

He found the language very difficult to master. After finishing five different-level courses, he was still not entirely fluent. D. was nevertheless determined to speak German perfectly. Once settling a bit more in his new job, he would start his sixth German course, which he would attend in the evenings after work. Resilience seemed to be a key element to the young Iraqi’s ability to make it in Austria. By training, he was a computer scientist. While searching for job opportunities, he worked to fix people’s computer problems, which allowed him to make ends meet.

In Iraq, he worked as an interpreter for two large companies from the United States (U.S.) training the Iraqi army. This made him a target for extremist groups, who bombed his house. He managed to escape and fled from his hometown, Baghdad, to a smaller city in Northern Iraq. At that time, he decided to stay in Iraq, because he was the only son of aging parents, whom he wanted to be close to, in case anything happened. He returned to Baghdad, but lived in different areas of the city, far from his home.

Moving didn’t put an end to his struggle. In 2011, a few years after his house had been bombed, he and a friend got car chased by armed men, who tried to shoot them, as they were arriving into work in the morning. He recalled: “The only reason why we escaped is because we reached an international security company and our followers decided to abandon the chase.” D. realized that there was no place of safety left for him in Iraq and he needed to immediately flee the country. That same day, he went to visit his family for the last time, took some of his belongings and left for Austria.

He came to Vienna, where he had an Iraqi friend, who helped him quickly find a shared apartment, after spending some time in one of the local asylum centers. D. thought that, apart from his friend’s help, his knowledge of English and his professional training were essential in helping him make a relatively smooth transition to life in Austria. The young Iraqi believed that the Austrian authorities and nonprofits provide enough support to allow refugees to integrate themselves, but the drive and determination had to come from them. He stressed: ‘At this moment of economic crisis, the government is finding it difficult helping not just refugees, but even Austrian citizens find jobs.” Indeed, many young Austrians were struggling to find employment. The youth unemployment rate was 10.9 percent in January 2016. While it was not as high as in other European countries, the number was still substantial.

After he was granted protection status from the Austrian government, D. continued to give back to the refugee community. During the summer of 2015, when the great waves of refugees and migrants were daily arriving to Austria, on their way to Germany and Sweden, he volunteered as a translator with Caritas, a large international nonprofit. He was supportive of the plight of individual seeking security, due to a fear of persecution in their home country. He noted that many of those who had come for economic opportunities have already returned to their home countries. He argued: “They were disillusioned by the conditions that they found here, while also realizing that it would take them a long while to be able to work and to bring their families along.” He believed that if they had truly fled to save their lives, they wouldn’t even dream of returning, just like he couldn’t even fathom the idea of going back to Iraq, because he would not make it out alive. Knowing that there is no going back for him was partly was given him the endless drive to learn German and make it in the Austrian society.

At the time of our interview, he was still helping some of the newly arrived asylum seekers, including one of his cousins, who had been placed by the authorities in a smaller Austrian city. D. thought it was better for his cousin and other new asylum seekers to be in a place that is not as big as Vienna, which could seem overwhelming to navigate and where the locals might be less interested in refugees, because they were used to foreigners. He admitted that many of the asylum seekers remained in their accommodation centers rather than venture outside. D. explained this by saying: “The world of the newly arrived refugees can be claustrophobic and overwhelming, as they are simultaneously intimidated by a city and culture they don’t know.”

As for himself, the determined young Iraqi had a clear plan: “I want to become fluent in German and maintain a steady job for more than a year, so I can qualify for 5-years residency in Austria. Then, I can apply for citizenship and eventually bring my family from Iraq to live with me, if it proves to be possible.” 

Get weekly updates on Europe A thoughtful weekly email of economic, political, social and cultural developments from the storm-tossed continent. Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData