Vienna is a meeting place between Western and Eastern Europe. The Jesuits of the Austrian Province consider that their task is to promote encounters, dialogue, interaction between people, between social groups, and between those who might want to avoid meeting each other. Thus, “Building Bridges” was decided as the theme of Father General’s visit to their Province.
In this spirit, a recent project of the Austrian Province called Locugee has been launched in connection with the work of JRS (Jesuit Refugee Service). Like many European countries in recent years, Austria - and perhaps Vienna in particular, since the city is located close to the eastern border of the country - has seen many refugees arrive from Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere. The reception of Austrians has not been hostile, but the risk of ghettoization, dividing newcomers and citizens, is still present.
The Provincial therefore asked his companion, Martin Rauch, who had been active in university chaplaincy for years, to launch a project that would bring refugees and the younger generation of Austrians closer to each other. We met with Fr. Martin to talk about his experience.
“We have opened three houses of the LOCUGEE project and have so far received 28 people. The name is a creation, an amalgam between the words ‘local’ and ‘refugee,’ and it wants to awaken possibilities. I firmly believe that when the ‘locals,’ the people here, and the refugees rub shoulders, a meeting space opens up.
And that’s what’s happening. I will give you an example of a type of change in mentality that can be achieved by meeting people, by sharing daily life, as is the case in our three houses where Austrians and refugees live side by side. The latter are surprised that it is possible, in the same house, to accept the expression of different points of view on social and political issues. They are also surprised that we dare to question each other, to question what we do.
Our approach is gentle and is based on the experience of a Jesuit colleague, who advised me on how to reach people from other cultures, especially those who are Muslims. The first year, you only tell them “You have the right to think.” The second year, you add: “You have the right to say what you think.” And in the third year, you can start discussing issues related to faith.
With that in mind, I like to go to the mosque and I have accepted a good number of invitations to families at the end of Ramadan. Little by little, with a delicate touch, I invite those I have known to come and see our church. I really believe that it is through being together that we can get to know each other better. This is the meaning of the Locugee project."
Martin Rauch lives in one of Locugee’s three residences where Afghans of different origins live. In their country, they would not have any contact with each other. He is also told that Iranians look down on Arabs, that Arabs do not like Jews. He notes that the Austrians he knows do not like their politicians. He therefore displayed together in the living room the Sacred Heart, a sura from the Koran, a seven-branched menorah and a photo of Austrian Chancellor, Sebastian Kurz, recently overthrown in parliament. He wants to encourage reflection and dialogue; he also wants to make people feel the importance of reaching out to those who are different or rejected.