From the Outside In

The MiA Awards: five women with migrant backgrounds have made their mark in Austria

News | Vera Mair, Dardis McNamee | April 2009

"I don’t like the term integration!" exclaimed Emel Yahsi, a quality manager at the Danish pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk in Vienna. An elegant woman of 35, her olive skin and Mediterranean features could as easily be Spanish or Italian as Turkish, but although she speaks flawless German, people sometimes address her in overly accented monosyllables to be sure she understands. She only laughs. Her voice is easy, and shows no resentment.

"The mother of my former Austrian boyfriend used to accuse me of not being integrated enough," she remembers, teasing that she is sure she owns "Austria’s prettiest Dirndl." It is hard to imagine what more one could want.

On Mar. 7, in the wake of International Women’s Day, Yahsi was one of five women with immigrant backgrounds honored for their accomplishments with a Migration Award (MiA) at a gala at Studio 44, of the Austrian Lottery.

The emphasis on women is deliberate.

"Women are important multipliers, especially in regard to successful integration," explains Christine Marek, Under Secretary for Economics, Families and Youth and head of the bi-partisan MiA association.

The decision was in response to a survey by German broadcasters ADR and ZDF showing that media coverage of integration – and in particular of female immigrants – was almost always negative, Marek decided it was time to show the other side.

"We wanted to highlight all the success stories that don’t get recognized," Marek said. Marek founded MiA as a platform to encourage women with an immigrant background with positive role models.

This year’s winners were as follows: for Science and Research, Dr. Vasiliki-Maria Archodoulaki (Greece), professor at the Institute for Materials Science; for Economics, Emel Yahsi (Turkey), quality manager at Novo Nordisk; for Humanitarian and Corporate Commitment, Dr Aida Bohrn (Chile), a psychotherapist; for Art and Culture, Julya Rabinowich (Russia), author, interpreter and painter; and for Sports Mirna Jukic (Croatia), a swimmer on the Austrian national team, and student of Publizistik at the University of Vienna.

New this year was an additional special award for positive media coverage of immigration issues, awarded to Sarah Mansour, of der Standard and Markus Müller, reporter for ORF and Ö1.

Despite the mostly positive media response to the MiA, however, there have also been critical voices. One of them is Araba Evelyn Johnston-Arthur, lecturer at the Institutes of African Studies and German Literature, nominated for last year’s MiA in Science and Research.

"When we migrants get a prize, we are supposed to be grateful. But I just flipped the script!" declared Johnston-Arthur, who is the cofounder of Pamoja, a movement of the young black diaspora in Austria. When she first learned of her nomination for the MiA, she was surprised the program had been founded by a member of a government – the same government that has recently passed laws "drastically worsening" the situation for immigrants in Austria.

The MiA was just a "make-up job," she said, for which she didn’t want to be used. What irritated Johnston-Araba most was that "the MiA promotes the attitude that if the immigrants only worked hard enough, they could succeed."

So she declined and criticized the award in an open letter to the press, which was supported by several migrant organizations. Confronted with Araba Evelyn Johnston-Arthur’s accusations, Marek was surprised. Johnston-Arthur had "misused the MiA," Marek told The Vienna Review; the criticism of the 2006-8 revisions of the Foreigners’ Law wouldn’t help migrant women who were already living legally in Austria.

When research scientist Dr. Vasiliki-Maria Archodoulaki tells people that she is Greek, faces usually brighten up and they start telling her little anecdotes about their last holiday in Athens or the island of Santorini. As an E.U. citizen, she has never experienced discrimination in Austria because of her background and finds the country very tolerant.

"I don’t know if you are allowed to be such an obvious foreigner in other countries as in Austria," she said. In Turkey, for example, women are not allowed to wear headscarves at the university, as her Muslim students are able to here. This, she says, is as it should be.

Integration has been a top priority for Archodoulaki. On arriving in Austria in the 1980s at the age of 17 to study plastics technology in Leoben, she couldn’t speak a word of German. But with hard work, she says she was fluent within a year. Today, her German is native, with an almost comically broad Viennese dialect unusual in an academic setting, but fitting her disarmingly outspoken character. Mastering German, she insists several times during the interview, is essential for integration, to avoid ghetto-ization.

A visionary in her own way, Dr. Archodoulaki is also modest about the importance of her research, which focuses on how the plastic of replacement hip joints reacts with the bodily fluids.

"The world could well live without my research," she admits, gazing up at the wall by her desk where photos of her two children keep company with a large poster of Albert Einstein sticking his tongue out.

"Isn’t this a fantastic view?" asks Emel Yahsi and points out the conference room window across to the Vienna State Opera. But even better than the view from the Novo Nordisk office is the support she gets from her colleagues.

"What I really appreciate here is that no one ever doubts you!" she said. "The only question you will be asked is: ‘What do you need to implement your idea?’ "

But as a child of Turkish migrant-workers, Yahsi hasn’t always been encouraged. In school she was told she would never complete the Matura, and at 17 she had to give up her Turkish citizenship to be admitted into a nursing school. Optimism and the determination to get education have been Yahsi’s key to success. When she was nearly married off to a Turkish man she hardly knew, her only condition was that she wanted to study, something her would-be parents-in-law could not accept. The engagement was broken off.

"There are no one-way streets in life," she observed. "There are always more options. Every decision has its positive and negative aspects!"

Dr. Aida Bohrn read Freud for the first time when she was 13, never imagining that one-day she would work as a psychotherapist in Vienna. Her office, a large room furnished with moss-green leather couches and massive carved antique bookcases stacked with books, make her seem even more petite than she actually is. Nothing indicates what she has been through.

"Only yesterday I had a look at a photo of my father entering an airplane with soldiers in the background making a victory sign," she relates. In 1973, the year of Pinochet’s putsch in Chile, her mother died and her father, a regional governor, was deposed, put in a concentration camp at Chacabuco. The photo was taken at her father’s release after two years in captivity. Her family was finally reunited in exile.

When Bohrn arrived in Austria at the age of 21, she spent three months in a refugee camp. With no German, she, her father and her brother found work at a plastics factory and managed to move to a flat. After that it was a matter of ambition, persistence and just plain luck. But she has no doubt about the debt she owes to others, for help and support. Bohrn volunteers with groups of first, second and third generation immigrants helping them process their trans-generational traumas, and is sees the urgency of creating public awareness for the problems refugees face.

"We didn’t want to come, we had to flee," she emphasizes. "We had survived torture; and then arrived in a country where refugees get locked up in camps, without social workers, without psychological help.

"In addition, the society constantly gives us the impression that we are not wanted, that we are parasites. And we are supposed to integrate?!"

Author and translator Julia Rabinowich – round-faced and in black from head to toe – has always had to fight for what she wanted. As a child in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), she realized that things were often not what they seemed, and wanted answers. She noticed, for example, that people avoided police stations, and wasn’t satisfied with her mother’s explanation that these were only places for bad people. So when she once saw a police car driving by slowly, she broke free of her mother’s hand and chased the car, screaming: "I’m bad! Please take me with you!" But the car didn’t stop, and she was left wondering.

Short of getting locked up in Soviet prisons, Rabinowich thinks it’s essential to support children, especially those with an immigrant background. They have a lot on their shoulders. When she arrived at the age of seven, she remembers her parents expecting her to "take the first step" and anchor them in society.

Today, at 39, Rabinowich doesn’t feel at home anywhere. In her latest novel Spaltkopf  (split mind) she explores the sense of being torn apart.

"I’m not a strong role model," she observes, even though as a simultaneous translator, her female clients often look up to her as an example of someone who has mastered German and succeeded professionally.

Most of the time Mirna Jukic smells like chlorine, which is probably inevitable when you train 25 hours a week. She doesn’t care; she just shrugs. She doesn’t notice it anymore. For the winner of the bronze medal in breaststroke in the 2008 Olympics in Peking, water and swimming pools are as normal as cell phones and computers for most people. At first glance, there is little to indicate that Jukic is one of Austria’s most successful athletes. In a tight grey dress and a black leather jacket, only her huge brown sunglasses, shielding her from recognition, reveal that she is famous. At 22, she already knows more about paparazzi than she ever wanted to know.

So you might wonder why she has chosen to study at the Universtiy of Vienna’s Institut für Publizistik. Unlike most students, she has no intention of being a journalist.

"I don’t think I could handle having to annoy and torture people," she confesses. She’s thinking about PR. Seeing how at ease she is in person, it makes sense.

Jukic too understands how important it is to have others behind you. When she was 13 and decided to take swimming seriously, her father, who is also her trainer, packed up the family and moved to Austria. Today she speaks openly about her respect for her parents and would be "proud to give back even half as much" to her own, she says.

Fifteen minutes before each competition, she retreats to a quiet corner to collect herself and then goes out ready to "give full power." Through the MiA Awards she hopes  "to encourage other women to go out and show their stuff!"

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