Foreign Spouse

Many professionals have sacrificed their status at home to marry an Austrian. They often face an uneasy welcome

News | Annabelle Silva, Alejandra Vazquez | November 2011

Photo: Private collection

Alan had a comfortable life working as a manager for a packing company in Mexico City, earning the equivalent of €3,500 a month. As a young engineer, he was building a successful career doing what he loved most. Then, one night at a trendy club in an exclusive neighbourhood, he met a striking young woman who would turn his world upside down.

They decided to marry and start their new lives together in Austria, Daniela’s home. Alan knew he’d have to learn a new language and overcome some obstacles. But he was confident that, with his wife at his side, he would easily get by. A few months later, reality set in.

Contrary to common belief, true romantics do not marry to escape their home countries. Certainly not the doctors, lawyers, and entrepreneurs who already had successful careers at home. While the transition to the married life is never easy, dual-culture couples encounter a whole different level of challenges, especially if the imported partner does not speak the new country’s language. Socially handicapped, he or she becomes dependent on the spouse, and faces a tough adaptation process that puts strain on the marriage.

"I didn’t speak the language so I practically had no professional opportunities," Alan recalls. "After several months, I found a job working in a Mexican restaurant making tortillas while taking German lessons. I had always assumed I would work with my mind instead of my hands. Dealing with this has been hard."

Katie, a Kenyan general practitioner who met her Austrian husband in her hometown, felt similarly estranged: "If you don’t speak German, you become invisible and start losing your own personality."

It’s a common pattern. "Going from being a successful entrepreneur to depending entirely on the spouse may lead to a loss of identity and some form of depression," says María Cristina Rodelo, a psychologist at LEFÖ (Latin American Emigrated Women in Austria), a counselling service.

The stages are predictable, starting with the shock that expectations of one’s new life do not match reality. Hence, Rodelo advises her clients to be realistic. "Be aware that you won’t be able to do what you were doing at home immediately. Be willing to start with something small and to take it a step at a time."

Obstinate obstacles

But while some slippage of confidence between languages and cultures is natural, the disempowerment felt by many foreign spouses is exacerbated by Austria’s immigration system.

For Peter, a physician from Edo, it all started when he fell in love with an Austrian doctor while they were working in the same hospital in Nigeria. When he moved to Vienna, the Arbeitsmarkt Service (AMS), the Austrian employment agency, advised him to take its German course to improve his chances of finding a job.

But the lessons were hopeless. "I had to take part with a group of immigrants of whom most couldn’t even write their names and didn’t care about learning German – and the teacher didn’t care either," Peter remembers wearily. "It seems that the system does not distinguish between immigrants. You’re pretty much in the same category if you have a PhD or if you can barely read."

Upon arriving in Austria, foreign spouses fall within the so-called "integration contract" (Integrationsvertrag), entitling them to a "family member" (Familienangehöriger) residency permit and access to the Austrian labour market. But to keep the status, they must achieve a "B1" – or intermediate – level of German within three years of arriving. Yet with the state-run German courses clearly unable to deliver the expected results, individuals are left to their own devices.

For Peter, the obstacles didn’t end there. "Practicing as a foreign doctor requires such a wall of bureaucratic procedures that you are deterred from even trying to start the validation process for your degree. And that’s only to be allowed to practice. Finding employment is a whole other nightmare."

In some cases, foreign university degrees cannot be fully validated according to European standards, requiring qualified professionals to retake courses at an Austrian university, further delaying their ability to work in their field.

But the difficulties many foreign professionals encounter are not only the product of bureaucracy-, but also of prejudice.

Elena enrolled in a master’s programme at an Austrian college for higher education (Fachhochschule), but found, as she told several of her friends, that her degree from one of Mexico's top private universities, her work experience and her professional opinions were looked down on.  One friend recalls that, upon asking her lecturer why she didn’t receive top marks in an exam, Elena was told to consider a passing grade "good enough for a Mexican."

The gender and racial stereotypes she faced made it difficult for Elena to be taken seriously. "As a woman, being distinctly Latin means that you have to work three times as hard to break through people’s preconceived ideas," she notes.

According to Statistik Austria, 18.5 per cent of the 36,000 marriages each year in Austria are between Austrians and foreign nationals. As such, 3,400 foreign spouses aged between 27 and 31 have immigrated to Austria over the last five years – which is, incidentally, the most productive age group. One wonders why the Austrian government doesn’t show more effort in harnessing this human capital, rather than letting it lie idle while individuals struggle to overcome the hurdles of bureaucracy and discrimination.

Peter, meanwhile, has found a temporary job in an organisation for AIDS prevention. "I like it because I am dealing with health issues, but it isn’t really practicing medicine."

Glimmers of hope

Yet there are success stories. After going through periods of depression, Jenny, a writer from New York, decided to end months of job seeking by becoming self-employed. "I’ve always liked to bake American goods – especially cupcakes – and wanted to start my own business."

At first faced with officials’ nay-saying due to her lack of formal training, she negotiated that passing a local cooking test would qualify her for a catering license. Now, Cup Cake Company brings the sweet taste of America to Vienna.

"With my business I will recover my independence. I'm finally at a point where I'm excited about the future instead of worried about it. It feels good," Jenny laughs.

Similarly, Carol, a language teacher from Spain, recently opened Trikultur, a language school offering exchange programmes between Austria and Spanish-speaking countries. "It’s not easy, but it’s doable," she says with relief. "Starting your own business is a good alternative if you are foreign", Carol points out, saying that the Wirtschaftskammer (Chamber of Commerce) is "a great place to seek advice."

Also, it helps to recall what makes the struggle worthwhile. "Austria takes care of its people and provides a good quality of life," Alan says. "I know that it’s going to be hard to stay here and enjoy these things, but I’m giving my best to overcome the challenges."

"It is possible to reach a stage where you discover you can really have a life here again," Rodelo affirms. While some families break up in despair, others seek help or learn to cope. It’s a matter of patience, willingness and hard work. But most importantly, it’s about having a clear sense of purpose.

"Don’t mourn your losses," says Rodelo, telling clients to open their eyes to new opportunities. "Austria will not change, only you can."

Duck your head and carry on

Many immigrants learn this lesson all too soon. Katie was originally shocked by the "aggression of the sales personnel," but found that "I had to learn how to be aggressive in return."

But while some cultural idiosyncracies can be endearing, others should be challenged. Certainly when it comes to discrimination by the bureaucracy, universities or employers.

Yet in the course of researching this article, interviewees repeatedly expressed anxiety about their difficulties being quoted in public. None  of them wanted their picture to be printed.  Perhaps they feared that being seen as "criticising" their new home would lead to more social exclusion.

But the question that native Austrians and immigrants alike should ask is what sort of home they want.

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