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Open to all – seriously


In 2015 Austria was one of the countries in Europe that took in relation to the population most refugees in. Even though in 2016 the policy of the government has changed significantly and as a consequence less people are arriving, many children and young people have already and will find refuge here and also their way into spaces and offers of professional open youth work.


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Youth Workers in Austria understand openess to all as a founding pillar of their practice, hence open is contained in the agreed designation for their practice. Where being open to all young people regardless of gender, sex, origion or religion is so deeply routed in the self-perception, it is no surprise that in general the reaction of the field is a pretty hands-on-approach to finding solutions for a situation that is not seen as that new either.

According to a survey conducted in September 2015 by the national competence centre on open youth work – bOJA – 93% of youth workers say that asylum and young refugees are a topic within their teams and 77% of those specify that this is the case not only recently. In fact 15% state that it has been an issue since their organisation exists and almost 41% say that it is already several years part of their reality. 73% of all youth workers in Austria are working directly with young refugees.

The inclusion of young people with different cultural backgrounds and in diverse marginalised situations is in fact daily routine for most practitioners of open youth work. Nevertheless the dimensions – be it in sheer numbers or in the diversity of those newly arrived – are calling for debate and developments.

The main challenges that are mentioned in the survey and the ongoing discourse are language barriers, the traumatic experiences those young people have had, cultural differences and difficulties with integration in a prolonged situation of insecurity for the young people that wait for the decision if the asylum is granted. Many also bring up the issue of prejudices and fears of being pushed out of the regular crowd of visitors.

Awareness of one´s own professional boundaries and a good network become essential under these circumstances. Youth workers are for instance mostly not lawyers and/or therapists and their role is also in this context to understand the needs of the young people and signpost or accompany them to the right institutions. A good understanding with the refugee shelters and accommodation also facilitates the process of getting in contact with the newly arrived and handling any arising conflicts.
Where multilingualism is not an option within the team, dealing with the language barriers calls for creativity. Apart from communicating with „hand and feet“ activities that are not very verbal such as sports, music or cooking together have proven to be a good starting point.

An important understanding among most practitioners seems to be that open youth work should not create special offers for young refugees but focus on activities that foster inclusion and create spaces where local and newly arrived young people can meet and interact in a safe environment.
The biggest provider of open youth work in Vienna – the association of Viennese Youth Centres – has published a strategy paper in December 2015 in which they stress that young refugees are not a new, seperate target group but that the young people that are here and fit into the normal range of age should be included in all offers on a voluntary basis as anyone else. For achieving this information about the offers has to be communicated to them and some specific support might be needed in the begining. Also cooperation with partners around the youth centre in support measures for young refugees are encouraged and the Association of Viennese Youth Centres will offer a platform for discussion of topics like asylum law, pedagogical work with traumatized young people, inclusive pedagogy and other related field for their employees.

focus on activities that foster inclusion and create spaces where local and newly arrived young people can meet and interact in a safe environment

Also in Vorarlberg the approach of using the existing professional competence and instruments of open youth work for creating encounters among young people was chosen. They have recently kicked off a project called „Welcome.Zu.Flucht“ . Among the offers is the possibility for young refugees to act as peers and work with groups of other young people sharing their experiences. The young people get training for that task and tandems of those young peers and interested youth workers are built. Inclusive offers also include local young people showing their world to newly arrived, opening some places for refugees in the Albatros project where young people can get their basic school degrees or the organising of very succesful arabic parties in the youth centre, which is done by local and refugee young people. On the demand of the young refugees themselve also an interactive political symposium was held to explain some political and social concepts in Austria.

An informed, strategic approach, good networks and inclusion of the regular visitors seem to be crucial factors for sucessful interventions of open youth work in this context. But even if all of that is there, things can go wrong. A youth centre in Tyrol reports that they wished to create a peaceful encounter of their local youngsters with asylum seekers and deconstruct prejudices that were runing high among the target group. They planned carefuly, informed themselves and the young people, included the young locals in all steps and invited the young people from a nearby refugee shelter to come and join them in the youth centre. In the begining it went very well, but then more and more adults with their little children started to come and the local young people felt driven out of their own place. The project had to be called off to avoid that prejudices among Tyrolian youngsters were enlarged insted of decreased. They describe the lesssons learned as opening up to the new target group in a slow and controlled way so that it does not overstrain the local group and be very clear about the offer e.g. in this case that the welcomed age group is 11 to 18. The youth centre now opens its doors during the day for school activities with refugee children and is planning on cooking days and tournaments for the young people for 2016.

Sharing all these experiences is one of the wishes that the youth workers had in the above mentioned survey and bOJA – the national competence centre for open youth work is reacting on national level with a project called „Brücken bauen“ (Building bridges).

„After all“, says Stephanie Deimel who is responsible for the project on national level, „this is a topic that will stay with us for a while. So it is only logical and wise to invest in the skills, knowledge and attitudes of the field“. In the framework of this project training will be offered in all federal states – a need that 80% of youth workers have expressed. The network will also engage in the process of creating guidelines on the topic and connect existing projects for exchange of experience and good practice.

An informed, strategic approach, good networks and inclusion of the regular visitors

Alex Beweis
by Alexandra Beweis (2016)

Alexandra Beweis works as project manager at POYWE . She is also a trainer and facilitator and active in different areas of youth work since 1994.

Photos  © OJAD
Video © poywe/Alexandra Beweis


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