Hoping for a Chance

Mojtaba Tavakoll (13) fled from Afganistan seven months ago | Photo: Otar Shalikashvili

The recent high-profile theft of the Stradivari violin by a group of Georgian asylum seekers has dominated the headlines, clouding the larger issues.The status of the  overwhelming majority of political refugees remains in limbo where prejudices, processing delays and restrictions on employment make lives untenable.

We arrived at midday at the Mödling Betreuungsstelle für unbegleiteteminderjährige Flü chtlinge, the official asylum shelter for male minors. In reality, the name shelter translated into a run down, two story house, holding 35 teenage boys from Afghanistan, Georgia, Angola, Belarus, Chechnya and Nigeria.

The tattered walls echoed the monotonous sound of raindrops leaking from the ceiling. The interior of the building was like a time capsule, unaltered for decades. Tattered boys of every description were scattered across the hall, a Dickensian mood hanging in the air.

Despite the sadness of the situation, though, these kids were not gloomy, eying us with excited curiosity, exchanging comments and giggling. The office walls were papered with paintings by the young residents mixed with printouts of the residence codes of conduct. Ms. Ulla, the chief administrator, introduced us to the staff who provide a range of services.

“We give the young guys not only shelter, but we are there if they need medical help or support in school and also provide leisure activities,” Mrs. Ulla explained.

Medical help is vital after the often troublesome entry into the country. The boys suffer from post-traumatic illnesses, Ulla clarified, “one way of dealing with the enormous, underlying emotional stress.”

Jonnus Amiri, a sixteen year old Afghani newcomer was complaining about headaches, sleeplessness and nightmares; “I am waiting for a doctor to see me, this is all I want right now,” he said.

Apart from healthcare the asylum seekers are in need of legal counseling. Every asylum seeker that enters the country is first directed to the main disposing camp at Traiskirchen, from where they are assigned to different shelters. Before being transferred, the asylum seekers are counseled by a government lawyer who assists them in the first steps of the asylum-seeking process. As soon as they are registered and have found a home in a smaller shelter, they are eligible for a monthly fee of forty euros, medical help and the right to apply for German classes and other educational opportunities.

In the Mödling shelter, “those boys who are under the age of fourteen and whose German is good enough will go on to attend the local school,” Ulla said, adding that the latter option made it much easier for the young asylum seekers to integrate and adapt to the Austrian society.

The shelter receives funds from the State per day per asylum seeker that it houses. This method of financing is flawed, Ulla said, as “the fewer boys there are, the harder it is to pay the rent and salaries.”

When there are fewer asylum seekers, staff has to be let go, even though the ranks of supervisors are already thin.

The house hasn’t been full in the last few years: “Theoretically we have enough space and capacity, but due to stricter regulations more people are rejected than accepted,” Ulla said.

Since 2003 UNHCR has been criticizing the new asylum seeker policy that denies the nationals of countries like Russia, Turkey, Georgia and former Yugoslavia the right to remain in the government shelters while they appeal a negative first instance decision, leaving them homeless and without legal help.

The procedure is also fragmented.  “Most of the boys get transferred to another camp, before they receive an answer so we don’t know what happens to them, but talking from experience, around 5% of the total receive status of a refugee,” Ulla said.

Whatever the criticisms of the regulations, however, Austria must be credited with keeping its borders open. The country hosts as many immigrants per capita as the U.S., according to data from the Austrian daily Der Standard. 

The acceleration of the asylum procedure would improve the situation significantly. Waiting for decisions for years discourages the asylum seekers. The shelter residents often complain they would prefer hearing a “no,” rather than remain in silence of endless anticipation, Ulla said.

Ulla believes that boys who have been with the shelter for several years deserve the right to stay. The shelter staff strives to turn its residents into full-fledged members of the Austrian society, capable of doing well once they are given a chance of employment.

“For the future I want to learn German and have a profession,” said Denis, a sixteen year old exile from Belarus. “As for today, I just want to get some job so that I could have my own money.”

A lively debate is underway in Austria as to whether asylum seekers should be furnished with an opportunity to work.

“At the moment, our boys can work once a week for the community, cleaning streets, for instance, for €5 an hour,” Ms. Ulla noted.

Money is a crucial issue. Even once inside Austria, many asylum seekers are not safe from pressure. Fleeing their countries does not necessarily mean that they can get away from the traffickers who brought them here. Once they get work, Ulla said, these organizations “put pressure on them to come up with the often large amount of money they owe.”

Of course there are cases where minor asylum seekers are not interested in learning German or interacting with their Austrian friends. The poster on the dining room door included photos of three former residents who had been denied access to the shelter for crimes committed.

“This one is a famous drug dealer now,” Ulla pointed to the middle photo, with a smile that seemed to show tender compassion towards the lost sheep.

Asylum seekers are confronted with prejudices every day.

“Our African residents are literally fed up with being asked by people to sell them drugs on their way to German classes,” Ulla said. UNHCR statistics from 2004 show that as many as 74% of the drug related crimes are committed by Austrians – not by asylum seekers who are usually associated with drug dealers.

These statistics are incorporated into a joint campaign against asylum myths of the UNHCR and Publicis Group Austria – asylum seekers associated with crime in the public mind and in the media. An article in Der Standard in June stresses that of the 238,111 people who committed crime in 2006, just over 5% were asylum seekers.

The unjust prejudices will undoubtedly create problems for young people when they go out into society. Their possibilities for interacting with mainstream society are limited to attending high school or being part of a local sports club. However, there are other opportunities, such as the program “Partnerschaft” through which the asylum seekers can find foster parents and buddies with whom they spend time outside of school and away from the shelter. This chance accelerates tremendously the process of integration for those teenagers.

Thirteen year old Mojtaba Tavakoll, who fled Afghanistan seven months ago, is the only current resident of the shelter who has a buddy, “which is great and helps me so much with everything,” he said. Being one of the youngest, Mojtaba is also one of the most extraverted and jolly, perhaps simply because of his nature, but undoubtedly also in part due to the possibility of having a boyhood somewhat similar to those of the Austrian kids. He attends the local high school, is part of the soccer club and has been assigned to a buddy and foster parents, taking him out for recreational activities.

Mojtaba gladly accepted the chance. “Maybe I could write a paper for your newspaper,” he wondered? He believes he can contribute to the society that he already feels part of.

Ideally, all the kids at the shelter would feel the same way. All the teens interviewed, having lived their own tragedies, have bitter memories of the past. However they all have the desire to leave their nightmares behind for a brighter future. The first steps, they know, are in learning German and mastering a profession.

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