When Immigrants Were Welcome

News | Jelena Kopanja | April 2013

Since anyone can remember, residents of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s capital Sarajevo have been feeding the pigeons that swarmed the city’s central market Bascarsija. It didn’t matter to the hungry birds whose hands – Muslim, Croat, Serb, Roma or Jewish – dispensed the corn and bread in this multi-ethnic city. What mattered were the crumbs, and survival within the community.

With the outbreak of the war in 1992, the pigeons fled to return only when the last snipers fell silent three years later. And again it mattered little whose hands fed them.

"In their way the pigeons understood the art and value of living together in Bosnia and Herzegovina," said author Dragan Perak reading from his book Geh fort und dreh dich nicht um! (Go Away and Don’t Come Back), at the Presseclub Concordia on 6 March. It was a lesson lost to the country’s people in the war’s aftermath. The birds knew that to survive, he wrote, one must resist.

One of some 90,000 "de-facto" refugees who found safety in Austria, Perak left his parent’s home in 1992 at the age of 30. He brought a small suitcase and a few valuables he could sell if needed: his mother’s necklace, an anniversary gift from his father, and her gold tooth crown that fell out days before his departure. He never sold either.

A testimonial and a therapy, as Perak says, the book is also a thank you note to all the people who helped him stand on his own two feet in what he now calls his new homeland. It is peppered with accounts of generous Austrians who dedicated time to teach him German and acted as a surrogate family, when his own – in particular his abhorrent uncle Ilija to whom he dedicates some very unflattering passages – failed to provide proper shelter.

Over two thirds of the people who arrived during the war in Bosnia stayed in Austria permanently, something "unthinkable" today, in time when the term "asylum seeker" has become somewhat of a swear word, said Alev Korun, a member of the Austrian Parliament (Green Party) during the panel discussion that followed the book’s presentation.  In the public discourse the term is invariably linked with "criminal asylum seekers" and over the last 20 years, the laws governing the asylum process have become increasingly restrictive, panellists agreed.

In a prologue to the book, political scientist Thomas Schmidinger pointed out that the refugees of the war in former Yugoslavia were not only victims, but also resourceful actors. "The success stories of Bosnians in Austria show also from what potential is this country shutting itself off", he wrote, with its evermore restrictive laws affecting today’s refugees from Chechnya, Afghanistan and Iraq.

Both he and Korun, however, see a future of more solidarity. Although people may not be comfortable with refugees stepping out of the roles of the "grateful victims" they are expected to be and protesting for rights as they have in the Votivkirche in Vienna, where asylum seekers went on a hunger strike seeking asylum law reforms [see "Seeking Sanctuary: Refugees Protest Asylum Law" TVR Feb. 2013], even a possibility of such resistance is already progress, Korun said.

Perak’s book is reminiscent of another, more welcoming Austria, a story of departures, loss and struggle, but also of triumphs, resilience and gratitude. Finally, his is a story of arrival and being at home in, as Perak calls it, "mein Deutsch".

Order the book for €19.90 from publisher Michael Rosecker


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