A Full Day in Wien

My first full day in Wien was quite packed. I didn’t hear from the managing people at Vordere Zollamtsstraße in spite of several exchanges over a period of 2 weeks, so I gave up on that. Last night A. told me about a different refugee shelter near her flat in the former offices of Kurier newspaper, and also a demonstration planned for today. We had also discussed going to Brunnenpassage, a place I had had some correspondence with a few weeks ago about the possibility of doing an event or an intervention there. But it hadn’t worked out. My ideas were too close to what they had already planned. I wanted to do an event for Norouz and it turned out they already were hosting a similar gathering. Great, I thought. I’ll be a guest instead of a host.

So I spent the morning adding 3 more processes to the artcards, and writing and responding to emails to organize activities for the next day and in Zagreb. Around 1 pm A and I went to the demo at Karlsplatz. It was like all the other demos in all the other places I’ve been to. Long speeches through a horrible PA system and lots of people hanging back from the centre of the event and having their own conversations. I walked a quick round through the crowd listening for English, Arabic or Farsi conversations. On the second round I approached a young man who was speaking in English, introduced myself, told him about my project, and asked if he was willing to talk to me on camera. He was a 19-year-old from Damasqus and had come to Wien via the Balkan route some 7 months ago. He talked about his wish to go to continue his university education in Wien, and that he wouldn’t have left if it had been possible to stay, but he didn’t want to enter into mandatory military service and therefore have to fight in the war. We exchanged contact info and parted with smiles.

Once the march started, complete with customary banners and samba band, A and I decided to leave. She was uncomfortable in big crowds and I couldn’t afford the time to march. Walking back, I interviewed A. about why demonstrations made her uncomfortable, and what she thought of the whole situation. She made the observation that in the past several weeks the discourse has shifted from a focus on the refugees and the “humanitarian crisis” to a lot of hype about European security and socio-economic capacity for accepting so many people, etc. She also expressed her frustration because she didn’t know how to contribute to the efforts in support of refugees because they are all hidden from view, housed in buildings with security guards in front and unapproachable because “you can’t simply go to someone who’s standing on the street and say hello.” I love A. She is very observant of her environment and aware of her own responses and feelings. And she has the capacity to be honest even if that means she would look less than ideal. When I shot off the camera and sound recorder, I told her about my experience in my early years of not knowing, not having any entry point into my new society, and that I have, to this day, not been inside a “Canadian home” for more than a few times, none in a small friendly contexts. I’ve only been invited to a few parties to which everybody gets invited. And A talked about her own similar experience being a Bulgarian in Wien. This part of the interview is definitely one that I will use later.

After a couple of cups of coffee, we walked towards the former Kurier building, presently a refugee shelter. An institutional building with narrow windown overlooking a narrow street. We approached the young security guard at the entrance and I asked him if the shelter accepted donations and if people could volunteer there. He said yes and told us to go inside and talk to the folks in the office, so we walked in. A short distance form the entrance in the hallway was a gate and another security guard checking IDs. Only residents are allowed to enter there. The office was to the elft of the entrance and before the checkpoint. The front room was a reception area of sorts with a big table and a few chairs. I heard some people speaking Farsi, so I said hello, introduced myself and A. and told them about my project. They introduced themselves. A woman and her two brothers who had arrived in Wien only 25 days ago, and another young man who’s been living in Austria for a few years and was visiting the newcomers. We sat talking for a long time. They told me about the way they crossed Macedonia on foot and their experiences of multiple arrests, fines and detentions in Serbia and Hungary. She showed us her bruised and swollen lower legs, not having yet recovered from 20 days of walking through hills and forests in Macedonia and Albania. One of the brothers is a tatoo artist. I seriously considered getting a tatoo from him as part of the project. Still thinking about it.

I asked if they had any plans for Norouz. They said they had approached the management to organize a party but hadn’t been successful, so they had nothing to do. We told them about the evnet at Brunnenpassage and made plans to meet there later. We exchanged contcts and meanwhile the manager came out of her office and A talked to her about the possibility of doing some work with the youth there which received enthusiastic response. On the way home, we didn’t feel so down any more as we had earlier when we walked away from the demo. We had met specific humans with faces, names, specific stories and forms of interaction. The paradigm had shifted from a model of aid to a model of community/neighbourly interaction. That’s what I’d told A earlier, that she had to change the paradign so she wouldn’t feel so disempowered in approaching the new-comers.

At Brunnenpassage we ate some Iranian food and danced for hours to Afghani music played by a live band, intermitently with recorded music. At first it was mostly young men dancing. I had to prod myself to go in and pull A in with me to break the gender barrier. Then it became a performance as I went around asking the women who were siting or standing around the centre space to come join the dance. When I asked why they weren’t dancing, a group of young Afghani women told me they were afraid they’d be posted on Facebook the next day. My efforts did not succeed with the Afghani or Iranian women, but a few Austrians joined in. Eventually, by the end of the night, the inhibitions disappeared and young women joined the dancing whole-heartedly. By this time we were quite tired and started toward home.

Oh, at Brunnenpassage I met Dylan, the technical/facility coordinator. He encouraged me to follow up on the earlier correspondence with Ivana to organize an event in fall. I have some ideas now that I’ve seen the space and know its location.

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