Magazine article Forced Migration Review

Pre-Resettlement Experiences: Iranians in Vienna

Magazine article Forced Migration Review

Pre-Resettlement Experiences: Iranians in Vienna

Article excerpt

Refugees' resettlement experiences may be shaped in the stages leading up to their arrival.

For refugees going to the United States (US), resettlement begins long before they step off the airplane in their final destination. Those selected for resettlement must first undergo pre-departure processing, which typically includes cultural orientation, official government interviews and long periods of waiting.

For many refugees destined for the US, this preparation and processing may take place in the country of asylum where they have been residing. However, for one refugee group in particular, it requires an additional temporary migration solely for the purpose of resettlement processing. The Lautenberg Amendment allows members of religious minorities in Iran to apply for resettlement to the US; since the US government cannot conduct the processing of these cases in Iran, the US has established an agreement with the Austrian government to host these refugees while they undergo the necessary procedures to apply for resettlement. Following an initial application process from Iran that may take as long as three to five years, those who have successfully passed the requisite documentation review receive a short-term visa for Austria. They then travel to Vienna about one month later to begin the pre-resettlement stage that lasts from approximately three to six months.

At first glance these seem to be the ideal conditions for a resettlement programme, as these refugees avoid physical endangerment and risky passage, and are in the country of asylum for less than one year. Some of the refugees also embrace their temporary stay in Vienna, seeing it as moment of respite between the stresses of leaving family and friends behind in Iran and the challenges that await them in the US.

Cultural Orientation (CO) is the most obvious way that refugees' resettlement experiences are shaped by the pre-departure phase. The CO classes in Vienna form the first part of what is called the 'orientation continuum' and are followed by post-arrival orientation in the refugee's community of resettlement in the US. For Iranian refugees coming through Vienna, CO consists of five days of discussion, activities and the occasional game that cover an array of topics ranging from employment to housing to cultural adjustment - and what will be expected of them in the US.

Most importantly, the instructors focus on preparation for the challenges that await the refugees in the US. One instructor talked of setting refugees' expectations low so that they would not be disappointed once they arrive in the US. Another instructor explained on the first day of class, "If you go to the US thinking life will be like the movies, you'll be disappointed. ... [The US] is a great place, but it's not easy." Many of the young refugees have their sights set on pursuing higher education in the US, and they are disheartened when they leave CO with the message that "universities... are too expensive for refugees". In addition to helping refugees begin to prepare for life in a new country, CO can also - paradoxically - contribute to the uncertainty and stress associated with resettlement.

Waiting for months on end can take a toll on the refugees' mental and emotional well-being. Two frequently cited challenges in Vienna are too much time and not enough money. Refugees have no way of knowing whether their cases will be processed in three months or drag on for seven or even eight months. …

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