Kathrin Zupan and Marika Gruber

The integration of migrant women has an important place in the ongoing action research activities which takes place in the Villach region, Austria. Kathrin Zupan and Marika Gruber, MATILDE researches from CUAS shared their experiences with their interactions with migrant women, highlighting Arabesc Summer Festival which bring together women from migrants, host community and the reseachers.

Villach and its rural surroundings is one of 13 local case study regions of the MATILDE project. Villach is the second biggest city of Carinthia, with nearly 63.236 habitants, which is located in the south of Austria. The city has a long tradition of internal and international migration; today around 21% of the population is non-Austrian nationals and around 10% is from Third Country Nationals (TCNs).

Villach has become a location of arrival for refugees and asylum seekers since the 1990s, when the Balkan Wars broke out.  In 2021, the biggest groups of TCNs in Villach are people from Bosnia & Herzegovina (1,769); which is followed by Syrians (757), Serbians (485) and Afghans (481). 

In the case study of Villach, Carinthia University Of Applied Sciences (CUAS) investigated the integration processes of two groups of long term forced migrants: the one from former Yugoslavia in the 1990s and the one from Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq from 2015 onwards. The action research was conducted with a mix of nine methods: the participatory observation, adapted social mappings, intercultural map, focus groups, live votings, sociometry, participatory photo talk, brainstorming with live clustering and short interviews aiming to investigate the integration processes and integration infrastructure in Villach.

Special attention was paid on women’s integration processes.  These activities gave the women a voice and recognized them as experts of integration processes, of challenges and problems and of discriminatory situations. They researchers listened them. An empowerment process was initialized.

In the action research activities, performed by CUAS in cooperation with the integration office of the City of Villach, mainly migrant women participated. It was an advantage that the CUAS action research team is female, because one activity would not have been possible, if the researchers were not women: the participation in the Arabesc Summer Festival, which took place on 31st July 2021 in Villach.

The festival was organised by the Arabesc Women Association, especially by the two leaders, Zohra as head of organisation, and Lamyaa as head of kitchen. They distributed the To Do’s to all the other participating women (including the CUAS researchers) and kept an eye on the orderly procedure of the event. All women who participated the event also worked actively together. As the CUAS researchers heard about later, the summer festival displayed very well about how events are organized in Arabic communities. The atmosphere was excited and the organisation of the final tasks  (cooking, decorating the location, arranging the tables, organising transport for some women, etc.) was done in an organized chaos.

When the cooking was done and the buffet arranged, the two leaders seemed relieved, relaxed and the festival started. Some women changed their clothes after cooking and before the buffet was opened. A traditional shout (normally used at weddings) dedicated the Arabesc Summer Festival. At the buffet, the tables were heavily loaded. Everything tasted wonderful. Already during the joint dining, music was played. Afterwards, the participating women started to dance to the music. They seemed to be happy and to enjoy the festival. In a male-free environment, some of them put off their headscarves, wore tight-fitting dresses. In general, the women were all very solemnly dressed up, wore lots of jewelleries and beautiful clothes. When they dance, their consciousness about their body, became visible. So, there was a diverse mix of women with long and short dresses, with and without headscarves, traditional and modern dressed on the dance floor. They encouraged each other in what they were doing and laughed together, to empower each other. They seemed to accept each other and support each other. They enjoyed the liberty of a male-free environment and felt safe and secure. They seem to felt lighter, more positive and full of life. So, we can say that festivals like the Arabesc Summer Festival are important events, which not only to empower the migrant women but all women who are a part of it.

The arabic women who the CUAS researchers encountered was completely different from the stereotypes that represented in some media outlets. The action research activities were a chance to gain an in-depth understanding of the lives of migrant women in Villach and Carinthia. CUAS met strong, proud, resilient women, who face massive challenges, support each other and regardless have a joy of living. Their presence is an absolute win for the society in Carinthia.