A Syrian Refugee Family Struggles To Start Anew In Austria

Six month later, a reporter is reconnected to a family who'd fled war in Deir ez-Zor, Syria. They wound up in a small village, where they are building a new life. Integration is not easy.

Hane, his wife Baraah and two of their children in Unterwaltersdorf
Adéa Guillot

VIENNA â€" Hane hugs us with his long arms at the Vienna Airport. It was late fall, and passersby are staring at this elegant Syrian who picked his best suit to welcome his two "sisters," as he calls us, to his new country.

"He's a refugee, isn't he?" asks an Austrian man, visibly intrigued. "He looks all right."

Indeed he does. Hane clean-shaven, well rested, looking nothing like he did when we last saw him in May â€" a worried man about to take the Balkans route with his wife Baraah and their four young children. "I wanted to go to Germany, but when we finally reached Austria, everything looked so calm, so peaceful," he says. "I remembered an Arabic song that talks of Vienna's magical nights. I asked Baraah if she would agree to stay here. She took a long look at the river and said, "OK, we're staying." I've never told her I only had 240 euros left in my pocket!" he says, laughing. "Great serenity now fills us."

Hane and his family fled Deir ez-Zor, an eastern Syrian city controlled by government forces but besieged by ISIS. It took them 44 days to reach Vienna. When we met them in April 2015, they had just arrived on the Greek island of Kos, and we followed them until the border with Macedonia.

"We then took the train there to the Serbian border, then another one to Belgrade," Hane says. "And from there, we walked to the Hungarian border."

That meant spending two days in a driving rain. Their youngest daughter, Batul, was just 1 at the time. As they were approaching Budapest, her heart literally gave out. "I managed to restart her heart and then I ran, looking for a car that would transport us to the Austrian border," he recalls. For 500 euros, one driver agreed to take them and turned on the heat full throttle to try and warm up his passengers.

The worst is over

Hane recounts all of this in the car taking us from the airport to the small Austrian village of Unterwaltersdorf, south of Vienna, where the government is accommodating them until they are granted asylum. "The first weeks here, in this countryside, I would take my bike and go cycling for hours, shouting and crying," Hane says. "It was impossible for me to do that in front of my family."

We reach the village, where Baraah and the children have set the table as if for a feast. There are fresh flowers, salads, cheese and bread. They've laid out the best offerings from their refrigerator. The landlord takes care of the basics. For all the extras, Hane cycles to the next town of Baden â€" 25 kilometers away â€" where the Red Cross distributes food once a week.

In Unterwaltersdorf, the "boss," as everybody calls him, is Gerhard Hintermayer. He owns the café-restaurant on the main square, a hotel for hunting-enthusiast tourists, a slightly sordid night club and three boarding houses where 115 asylum seekers are currently staying. The government pays him 19 euros per day and per refugee for providing lodging and three daily meals. Each month, he manages a budget of more than 65,000 euros ($70,000). "If I really wanted to make money, I wouldn't work with refugees," he says. "I'd be renting these flats."

Refugees arriving in Salzburg, Austria, in September 2015 â€" Photo: PPS/ZUMA

When we remark that he would probably struggle to find takers for such decrepit and isolated apartments, he admits he does "not run a five-star hotel," adding that "improving conditions would be a waste." The refugees are entirely dependent on this man to house them, feed them and even organize their visits to the doctor. They have free access to the Austrian health care system.

"Can we go to the park before the night falls, daddy?" asks 9-year-old Laeth, whose siblings are 8-year-old Amal, 5-year-old Hamaza and 18-month-old Batul. And off they go, running joyfully towards the swings and the slides. They play among themselves, without mingling with the few Austrian children. "We don't speak German well enough," Amal explains. "And anyway, they don't like us."

The process of integration

Since September, Amal and her older brother Laeth have been attending the local primary school in the neighboring village of Ebreichsdorf. Each morning, before they join the rest of the class, they begin with two hours of intensive language instruction with the other refugee children from Iraq, Kosovo and Syria.

"Amal is very hardworking, but her older brother Laeth struggles to respect the rules," the German teacher tells Baraah. "You know, in Austria, we have rules. He must abide by them."

Baraah, smiling, says she's very happy about the school. "I like that the teachers are demanding with the children," she says. "Back there, ISIS didn't let children go to school. Everything here is organized, and I like the order. But I know that the hardest part is still ahead of us. We need to integrate."

Hane's children playing in a park in Unterwaltersdorf â€" Photo: Myrto Papadopoulos

Integration is their greatest challenge. The obstacles are both big and small. There are the language-related misunderstandings, the veil that Baraah won't abandon but that she thinks hurts many Austrians and cultural differences too numerous to count. "We're not quite there yet," Hane says. "The journey will only really come to an end when I have a house and a job to provide for my family.

Striking a cultural balance

He also wonders how they can save some of their Syrian and religious principles in this new liberal society that's welcomed them. He would like for his daughter to start wearing the veil at around 14 or 15, but he senses that it might jeopardize her chances of integration. "She'll have to marry a Muslim," he says. Baraah is more moderate. "We'll have to change so much in the next few years," she says. "Maybe Hane will see things differently when the time comes for Amal to get married. This is a Christian land, and we need to keep a low profile."

A group of villagers is discussing veiled women whose number has grown in recent months. "Every time I see one, it's like a provocation," says 57-year-old Gerhard, a retired laboratory operator. "They demand of us a tolerance that they don't have in their own country."

Mark Ruiz Hellin, an activist from Vienna who organized a "neighbors' party" with the refugees, is worried. "I'm not scared of the refugees, but I'm starting to fear that our society can't integrate them because Austria is dividing up," he says.

Hane was among the 200 refugees who demonstrated outside the French embassy in Vienna, in support of Paris after the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks. He fears these deadly events will change everything for them. "The image of the Arab now scares people,” he says. "I ask the Europeans to be patient. One day, my daughter who wants to become a doctor will be caring for Austrians."

Hane and his family were granted asylum on Nov. 27. It's the first step towards the new life they've been dreaming about.

Photographs by Myrto Papadopoulos

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Merkel's Legacy: The Rise And Stall Of The German Economy

How have 16 years of Chancellor Angela Merkel changed Germany? The Chancellor accompanied the country's rise to near economic superpower status — and then progress stalled. On technology and beyond, Germany needs real reforms under Merkel's successor.

Chancellor Angela Merkel looks at the presentation of the current 2 Euro commemorative coin ''Brandenburg''

Daniel Eckert

BERLIN — Germans are doing better than ever. By many standards, the economy broke records during the reign of outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel: private households' financial assets have climbed to a peak; the number of jobs recorded a historic high before the pandemic hit at the beginning of 2020; the GDP — the sum of all goods and services produced in a period — also reached an all-time high.

And still, while the economic balance sheet of Merkel's 16 years is outstanding if taken at face value, on closer inspection one thing catches the eye: against the backdrop of globalization, Europe's largest economy no longer has the clout it had at the beginning of the century. Germany has fallen behind in key sectors that will shape the future of the world, and even the competitiveness of its manufacturing industries shows unmistakable signs of fatigue.

In 2004, a year before Merkel was first elected Chancellor, the British magazine The Economist branded Germany the "sick man of Europe." Ironically, the previous government, a coalition of center-left and green parties, had already laid the foundations for recovery with some reforms. Facing the threat of high unemployment, unions had held back on wage demands.

"Up until the Covid-19 crisis, Germany had achieved strong economic growth with both high and low unemployment," says Michael Holstein, chief economist at DZ Bank. However, it never made important decisions for its future.

Another economist, Jens Südekum of Heinrich Heine University in Düsseldorf, offers a different perspective: "Angela Merkel profited greatly from the preparatory work of her predecessor. This is particularly true regarding the extreme wage restraint practiced in Germany in the early 2000s."

Above all, Germany was helped in the first half of the Merkel era by global economic upheaval. Between the turn of the millennium and the 2011-2012 debt crisis, emerging countries, led by China, experienced unprecedented growth. With many German companies specializing in manufacturing industrial machines and systems, the rise of rapidly industrializing countries was a boon for the country's economy.

Germany dismissed Google as an over-hyped tech company.

Digital competitiveness, on the other hand, was not a big problem in 2005 when Merkel became chancellor. Google went public the year before, but was dismissed as an over-hyped tech company in Germany. Apple's iPhone was not due to hit the market until 2007, then quickly achieved cult status and ushered in a new phase of the global economy.

Germany struggled with the digital economy, partly because of the slow expansion of internet infrastructure in the country. Regulation, lengthy start-up processes and in some cases high taxation contributed to how the former economic wonderland became marginalized in some of the most innovative sectors of the 21st century.

Volkswagen's press plant in Zwickau, Germany — Photo: Jan Woitas/dpa/ZUMA

"When it comes to digitization today, Germany has a lot of catching up to do with the relevant infrastructure, such as the expansion of fiber optics, but also with digital administration," says Stefan Kooths, Director of the Economic and Growth Research Center at the Kiel Institute for the World Economy (IfW Kiel).

For a long time now, the country has made no adjustments to its pension system to ward off the imminent demographic problems caused by an increasingly aging population. "The social security system is not future-proof," says Kooths. The most recent changes have come at the expense of future generations and taxpayers, the economist says.

Low euro exchange rates favored German exports

Nevertheless, things seemed to go well for the German economy at the start of the Merkel era. In part, this can be explained by the economic downturn caused by the euro debt crisis of 2011-2012. Unlike in the previous decade, the low euro exchange rate favored German exports and made money flow into German coffers. And since then-European Central Bank president Mario Draghi's decision to save the euro "whatever it takes" in 2012, this money has become cheaper and cheaper.

In the long run, these factors inflated the prices of real estate and other sectors but failed to contribute to the future viability of the country. "With the financial crisis and the national debt crisis that followed, economic policy got into crisis mode, and it never emerged from it again," says DZ chief economist Holstein. Policy, he explains, was geared towards countering crises and maintaining the status quo. "The goal of remaining competitive fell to the background, as did issues concerning the future."

In the traditional field of manufacturing, the situation deteriorated significantly. The Institut der Deutschen Wirtschaft (IW), which regularly measures and compares the competitiveness of industries in different countries, recently concluded that German companies have lost many of the advantages they had gained. The high level of productivity, which used to be one of the country's strengths, faltered in the years before the pandemic.

Kooths, of IfW Kiel, points out that private investment in the German economy has declined in recent years, while the "government quota" in the economy, which describes the amount of government expenditure against the GDP, grew significantly during Merkel's tenure, from 43.5% in 2005 to 46.5% in 2019. Kooths concludes that: "Overall, the state's influence on economic activity has increased significantly."

Another very crucial aspect of competitiveness, at least from the point of view of skilled workers and companies, has been neglected by German politics for years: taxes and social contributions. The country has among the highest taxes on income in Europe, and corporate taxes are also hardly as high as in Germany anywhere in the industrialized world. "In the long run, high tax rates always come at the expense of economic dynamism and can even prevent new companies from being set up," warns Kooths.

Startups can renew an economy and lay the foundation for future prosperity. Between the year 2000 and the Covid-19 crisis, fewer and fewer new companies were created every year. Economists from left to right are unanimous: Angela Merkel is leaving behind a country with considerable need for reform.

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