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EU > Austria > Graz

Austrian Elisabeth

Graz, AT (View on map)

Throughout the `Us Europeans` project, I have found it increasingly easy to just step up to people in the street and start asking them questions. Interviewing people is a perfect way to collect surprising opinions and to learn about how many stories hide behind a single face. Today, I am interviewing Elisabeth (22), a social sciences student from Graz who recently spent half a year in Tanzania and will soon start working as a social caretaker in Austria. Or possibly in India..

Elisabeth (22):

..got annoyed about her compatriots when she returned home from Tanzania
`I am currently working on my graduation thesis and hope to finish my studies in September of this year. During my research, I try to find out which factors influence the choices young immigrant girls in Austria make when it comes to their education and career. I care a great deal about the fate of women. First of all because I am one myself, secondly because I think that they should have the same choices as men. I don`t mean to say that they should do the very same, or behave in the exact same way. So many things in Austria are still gender-role defined and they shouldn`t be. There have been temporary improvements during the 1960s and 1970s but the influence of feminism somehow died out afterwards.`

Younger years
`Ever since I was 13 years, I have known that I wanted to work in social care. In religion class, we were shown a movie about Mother Theresa and I immediately thought that she had the best job in the world: feeling happy and sharing happiness. I soon had to narrow down my ambitions to make them more realistic. I remember thinking: `I can`t go to India because it`s too far and I`m too small`. The funny thing is: my mum also used to be a social worker but I never actually knew. She stopped working when I was born and didn`t resume her job afterwards because she had hearing problems. We somehow never really talked about what she did before then. So I can`t say it was her who inspired me to do have these dreams.`

`My parents are both Roman Catholic, which meant that I was sent to a catholic school and was expected to attend mass on Sundays. I don`t really believe in the concept of church. I don`t find it necessary to go there to show anybody that I am religious or simply to lead a spiritual life. That started to lead to some heated discussions during my teenage years. I obviously liked to go out on Saturday nights, which would make me too tired to get anything done on Sunday mornings. Nowadays, I join my parents when they go to church on special occasions, or I sometimes come along with my mum because I know it makes her happy.`

Work and studies
`I lived with my parents until I was 18 years old. They When I started my studies, I moved to Graz and I now return home about once or twice a month. I am working in a homeless shelter in my parents` city, but I am free to decide when I want to work. Since we aim to provide people a place to sleep for the night, my working hours are between 18h and 9h. Most of our `customers` are aged between 15 and 25. They usually have a lot of problems and fall right inbetween all the programs for government support. Some lost contact with their family, others possibly got kicked out of the apartment, they may be unemployed or have drug problems.`

It`s quite sad to see that some people keep falling back into the same cycle, no matter how hard you try to help them. You find them a job, but they will return unemployed three weeks later. Despite such disappointments, I think I manage quite alright in not taking work home. I am well aware that I need to see my work as a profession that I get paid for, not as a hobby. It`s hard sometimes: nobody is allowed into the shelter for longer than 10 consecutive nights in a row and we clearly tell them. One guy had stayed for 10 nights and the 11th night was Christmas and I was the only one on duty. I was clearly made understood that I had to kick him out and not let him in if he rang again at night. It was cold outside and snowing and I was thinking what I should do in case he did ring. I decided that I would let him in, but I was relieved that he didn`t ring at all.`

`I also sometimes feel ashamed to have a closed full of clothes and shoes to choose from, while the people I work with often only have one pair of worn-out trousers and no good shoes. I think people`s chances should be more equal, especially in a rich country like Austria. As a social worker, I am trained to see the solution in changing the system rather than blamig individuals for failing to find their place in it. I support many ideas that would correspond to communism, but I think the current government is quite social-minded. It could have been so much worse with the FP? within the government.`

`My internship in Tanzania served as another way to see things in perspective. Life is so different there. Things can get so complicated. We were there with the objective of providing people information about female genital mutilation, which is a quite common practice in some African countries. It`s a tradition that officially marks the beginning of adulthood for women and it still exists despite the fact that it`s prohibited. Instead, the mutilation will take place at younger age and in even worse medical conditions. It`s now often local medicine men, or old women with high status who perform the operation. And they may use broken bottles or tins to get the job done. Local men think that the mutilation will help their wives be faithful, and they see the mutilations as a perfect way to reduce prostitution. Others claim that the clitoris is ugly or that it will be really bad if it hits a baby during birth. It`s very hard to eradicate such cruel traditions. Locals see the traditions more as something to celebrate than as personal and physical suffering for the woman.`

`Arriving in Tanzania was a strange experience, but so was returning home afterwards. I am happy I was there with a friend. We had different host families, but I at least had somebody to share my experiences with. No matter how friendly the colleagues are and no matter how much my host family was taking care of me, it was very helpful to have somebody near with whom I could speak in German, who was also from Graz and who knew what I was going through because we were both going through this experience. And somebody to share stories with upon returning home.`

`The difficult thing about returning home from an completely different environment is that you who lived it will feel changed by it, but all other structures back home are still in place. It`s annoying to see how everybody is still in a hurry and still dissatisfied, and how all small things are turned into big problems. But it only takes a while to get used to it again, even though you don`t want to. I can`t start arguing with everybody that they should do it the African way, so I adjust. Although I can still be positively surprised by how clean things are in Austria. The toilet in the city parks are cleaner than pretty much any random toilet in Tanzania. I don`t hear myself often think that something is dirty or ugly, because I will always remember that I have seen things in a much worse condition.`

Road ahead
`At the same time, being at home allows me to do the things that make me happy: spending time out in nature, ski-hiking, painting jewelry, sewing things, reading books and writing short stories. I am happy about my life now, gaining back control after a period before Tanzania where I did not feel so good. I fell in love with a guy and thought he was perfect and all. He turned out not to be. I had already planned to go to Africa, so I was actually very happy to be 6000 km away from him. I now have a new boyfriend, two nice house mates and my parents who support me at least until I finish my studies. And although I started off narrowing down my Mother Theresa ambitions when I was 13, now seems to be the right time to start thinking bigger again. My biggest dream is still to work in India, so if I can find any way to arrange for that, I will go for it.`

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