Syrian refugee women in Austria: Navigating between “here” and “there”

Sabine Bauer-Amin - Syria-Austria

Sabine Bauer-Amin is an anthropologist specialized on dynamics of belonging, forced migration and coping practices with enduring uncertainty from and within the Middle East. Currently, she holds a postdoc position at the Austrian Academy of Science's Institute for Social Anthropology.


It is mid-June 2020 in Vienna. Currently, the world has been hit by the COVID-19 pandemic and its various ramifications on social, economic, and political levels. Austria was one of the countries that had reacted with the fastest and strictest lockdown measures. For the first time after the lockdown, on this Monday evening, the 22nd June 2020, I meet with a self-organized group of Arabic-speaking women to discuss mental health and depression during the pandemic. This topic had come increasingly pressing in the midst of reduced social contacts, the slowdown of an already protracted process of building up a new life in exile and growing feelings of uncertainty, isolation, and anxiety. Of course, we all follow prescriptions set by the state: chairs are placed far from each other, only a limited number of participants are allowed, and we disinfect our hands repeatedly. Yet, after months of separation, long hugs, kisses, and the need of proximity are unavoidable in this little community that became family to many in their Austrian exile.

The speaker is a young Syrian writer, Nuha. She points to her difficulties in expressing her feelings to her family dispersed to many different places and far away from her actual "life-world”[1]. “I am so lonely here. I have no one to talk to. I am tired. But can I tell my family in Syria? Can I tell my family in Turkey? My sister in Saudi Arabia? I feel ashamed”, she confesses. The current corona crisis made her feel even more separated from her beloved ones. Yet, it soon becomes clear that she carries a deep feeling of injustice. “We were al in this situation: we could not see our families and were stuck in our flats. This is the feeling I have had for years, not just since Corona. I hoped others would finally understand how it is for us as refugees without seeing our families, with all the uncertainty of doing something wrong when going out in public, with the precarity we experience. Now, things change again in the country. But for us, they remain the same.” [2]

Like Nuha, refugees residing in Austria are particularly hit by the state’s measures to keep the curve flat, as politicians would have it. They had already faced growing xenophobia, language barriers, and financial precarity. Since the lockdown, women were dealing especially with newly emerging issues, like the sudden need to support their children in home-schooling without having neither the technical equipment nor the language necessities. In addition, the so-called "social distancing" which includes seeing family members only online and not being able to meet them face-to-face, is a condition, responsible for huge parts of the emotional labour in their families, that many had already suffered from for many years.

Critical refugee studies often refer to periods of exception and waiting as “liminal spaces”[3] under reference to Rites de Passage[4] and Liminality[5]. The liminal phase in (forced) migration contexts is often seen as the period between the disruption of one’s previous everyday life in an emerging warzone and the re-establishment of livelihood though resettlement, the approval of a positive asylum decision, and the establishment of social ties at new places. As such, it follows earlier scholarship on liminality as the phase in which people are separated from their old structures and not yet integrated into a new one. The Covid-19 crisis and the lockdown, though, increased and reinforced the feeling of being neither “here” nor “there” for many of my interlocutors, even after years of settling in Austria. Liminality is inherently connected to the separation from daily life, crisis of normality, and ambivalence in time and space. Not being able to participate in economic, social, or even neighbourhood life, and depending on online communication only, created again such a feeling of loss and separation. While liminality in this context is not necessarily shaped by structure, it is an emotional and affective state of perceiving one’s subjectivity as unconnected. Hence, liminality follows separation and can be a painfully recurring experience that does not end with the creation of new ties but can be experienced repeatedly. Addressing the elements of separation and (dis) connection in particular are urgent issues.

Scholarship on the Middle East has developesubstantial insights into violence and war, as well as their social consequences.[6] In parallel, other studies have focused on the emergence of transnational families through labour migration, which has been shaping the region at least since the 1970s. Seldom thematised, however, is that complex mix of forced migration, as well as established patterns of labour migration with families spread over many different countries or continents, shaping current transnational families. In the absence of men, women often take over their husbands’, fathers’, and brothers’ responsibilities and frequently become the head of their families, while struggling with economic and psychological hardship, social exclusion, and insecurity.[7] Other gender based studies on the pandemic point out how the crisis mainly became a crisis for women, since they are more likely to carry the burden of childcare, household, precarious system-relevant labour and other factors[8]. Women in (forced) migrant transnational families are specifically exposed to these side-effects of the lockdown due to their previous precarious positionality.

Based on narrative interviews and fieldwork among women from Syria currently residing in Austria, this contribution focuses on both attempts in managing crisis in the “here” of Austria, as well as affective reactions to the (often many) “there”(s) in the particular context of the Covid-19 pandemic. By doing so, it avoids understanding these answers to the crisis only within national scopes but within the many transnational relations of fragmented families.

Forced migration and the lockdown

The war in Syria which started in May 2011, led to the most extensive refugee crisis since World War II. Over five million people had to flee Syria. While over six million are internally displaced, most international refugees went to the neighbouring countries. Others asked for asylum in Europe. 45,000 Syrians have come to Austria since the outbreak of the war. These numbers do not include the many Syrians who were already living outside the country for many years due to forced migration, education, labour, or family reasons. As Suad Joseph reminds us, such enormous mobilisations, transnationalisations, and fragmentations of families are not without effect on social organization.[9] Families are often separated and dispersed, leaving (forced) migrants with a breakdown of their social networks and the need to invent new forms of “closeness” and sociality across large distances.

Being cut off from large sections of their kin or without their families, many (forced) migrants in Austria face homesickness and loneliness in their exiles. In addition, they often suffer from the precarious situations concerning their legal status with only temporary asylum decisions. These often follow the evaluation whether a person is “integrated” or not. Integration, according to its legal definition, however, includes having a gainful job. Yet, while finding a job is already difficult during ordinary times, the lockdown made the situation even worse. Nationwide unemployment rose with a growth of 76.3 percent compared to the previous month in only a few days.[10]

Nuha also refers to the self-awareness that many (forced) migrants have developed due to media misrepresentation. With the rise of right-wing tendencies in Austria, for a while, refugees had become the focus of attention for low-budget press. Public discourse focused on shortcomings and wrongdoings, dangerously mixing them with already present stereotypes. Already before the crisis, this media representation caused major problems for many (forced) migrants, in particular those from Muslim majority countries. During the crisis, it soon became clear that institutions, such as housing complexes for refugees, as well as many overcrowded small flats, in which poorer families could afford to live, did not leave enough space to follow Austria’s strict social distancing rules. Consequently, several Corona-clusters evolved around refugees. In particular the right-wing Freedom Party repeatedly used these incidents to underline their anti-migration standpoint, by calling the virus the “virus of the asylum seekers/receivers” and asking for even stricter lockdown measures for refugees.[11] For Nuha and many others, the consequence was that others soon started to avoid refugees, seeing them as potential risk carriers.

Additionally, new issues emerged during the lockdown that put refugees under enormous pressure, such as the shift of former face-to-face communication with authorities to only written exchange, the limitation of social contacts despite dire need of assistance through relief organisations, or the shift to home-schooling without technical equipment or necessary language skills.

Lina, a 40-year-old divorced mother with two teenage daughters, explains, “the girls have to do home-schooling now. However, we have only one very old computer. And I really cannot help them language-wise. I tried to call their friends but no one wants to come and help them. They are avoiding us now”.

While social-distancing rules slowly became less strict in Austria, Lina and her daughters continue to experience social stigma from their neighbours and school friends while not being able to meet with their beloved ones who are spread over many different countries. Lina’s elderly parents remained in Syria. “On the Austrian radio, they tell people to go and buy food for their elderly so that they can stay home. But I am here, far away from my parents. Who can take care of them when I am here?” she asks. Permanently worried about their well-being during the enduring armed conflicts, she was now also cut off from the remaining family in Turkey and Germany through the closing of airports and borders, which increased her sense of isolation and separation.

Lina confesses the consequences of these developments on her own well-being and her own impossibility of sharing her plight with her dispersed family, a feeling of guilt, and the impossibility of supporting them from afar.

Navigating between here and there

Right after Lina, Hala, a woman in her 50s, takes the microphone. She starts explaining the feeling of loneliness: “ these days, the moon helps me a lot. I look up to the moon in Vienna and I imagine that my mother in Syria sees the same moon. This connects me to her”. Hala, who had arrived many years ago to continue her education in Austria, could not return to Syria due to her controversial political activities in Vienna. Despite her many years of residence, feelings of not being accepted still pervades her everyday life. This feeling of fragility intensified during the Corona crisis. “I could die any day”, she continues, “who would tell my family? Who would let them know?” Next to thoughts about her own weak connections in exile, she adds: “then I would die without having visited my country ever again, without having seen my mother again. And I would be buried in foreign soil”. For a while, no one takes the microphone. The heaviness of this thought weighs over all of us. The feeling of being torn between the past that is hard to process, the present that seems fluid, and the future that is unpredictable, creates a sort of limbo that is hard to escape.

While for many people, the Corona crisis shifted social relations purely online, Nuha, Hala, and Lina had experienced this shift a long time ago. Since technologies became more readily available, through social media they could not only connect to each other but also to their various family members spread over the globe, which helps them to deal with feelings of disconnection and loneliness by creating a mode of co-presence

“Facebook has become critical to transnational families”, Joseph argues. Hence, for long, the virtual connection became their lifeline. “Should the internet be closed down or censored, those families that are now so vividly connected to each other across thousands of miles would be cut off…” In contrast to previous (forced migrant) generations, despite the distance, families are now able to stay updated and create a sense of intimacy, or as much as they were willing to share, through the technology-generated windows into each other’s lives. [12]

Also Baldassar et al. address this feeling of co-presence and transformations of sociality in describing the influence of Information and Communication based Technologies (ICTs) on the strengthening of ties and circulation of resources.[13] According to them, this connectivity can provide the transnational quotidian reality that is based on simultaneity, immediacy, and the possibility of interactions independent of geographical location. While in other settings, face-to-face contact is theoretically possible, refugee contexts depend on the upholding of co-presence through other means, since legal opportunities to reunite with family members are difficult to achieve.[14] In particular, for forced migrants like Lina and Nuha, the meaning of ICTs is much more than a temporary solution during the pandemic but is their remaining connection to their families and to what they have lost in their actual lives. Through this connection, they are constantly informed about the developments in Syria, the suffering of their beloved ones in the country, and those who left for elsewhere. Online, they learn about their states, their struggles, and their deaths, without being able to cross the boundaries of what is technologically possible.


This contribution about refugee women navigating between the “here” and their many “theres” gives insights into their protracted liminal subjectivities in exile. The COVID-19 crisis reinforced the experience of “in-betweenness” of many (forced) migrants. Liminality hereby is not a state that ends once a legal status is achieved but is a recurring affective state built on the multiple complex experiences of uprootedness, the fragility of social closeness, and separation.

[1] Defined as “constellation of ideas and passions, moral norms and ethical dilemmas”, in Jackson, Michael (2012:07): Lifeworlds: Essays in existential anthropology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[2] The field vignette is based on a research project on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on refugees displaced through the Syrian conflict living in Vienna. It is based at the Institute for Social Anthropology, Austrian Academy of Sciences. Fieldwork and interviews are conducted in Arabic. All names of respondents are pseudonyms

[3] Malkki, Liisa (1995): Purity and Exile. Chicago: University of Chicago Press; Turton, (2004): The Meaning of Place in a World of Movement: Lessons from Long-term Research in Southern Ethiopia. Working paper no. 18, Oxford: Refugee Studies Centre; Mzayek, May (2019): Understanding Waiting and Wellbeing through Liminal Experiences of Syrian Refugees, in: Migration Letters 3:369-377.

[4] Van Gennep, Arnold (1909): Les Rites de Passages. Paris, E. Nourry

[5] Turner, Victor (1969): The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure, Chicago: Aldine Publishing.

[6] Johnson, Penny; Joseph, Suad (2009): Introduction: War and Transnational Families. In Journal of Middle East Women's Studies 5 (3), pp. 1–10, p.1

[7] Mlodoch, Karin (2015). The Limits of Trauma Discourse: Women Anfal Survivors in Kurdistan-Iraq. Edition Klaus Schwarz.

[8] genanet -LeitstelleGender | Umwelt | Nachhaltigkeit, GenderCC –Women for Climate Justice, LIFE –Bildung | Umwelt | Chancengleichheit(2020): Für eine geschlechtergerechte Bewältigung der Corona-und Klima-Krise. Diskussionspapier. Berlin

[9] Joseph, Suad (2018b): Introduction. Family in the Arab Region: State of Scholarship. In Suad Joseph (Ed.): Arab Family Studies. Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, pp. 1–14; p.18

[10] AMS (2020): Corona-Virus wütet weiter am Arbeitsmarkt; Online:

[11] APA (OTS) 18.05.2020:

[12] Joseph, Suad (2018a): Conclusions. Research on Arab Families Matters. In Suad Joseph (Ed.): Arab Family Studies. Critical Reviews, Edited by Suad Joseph; Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, pp. 482–494: 489

[13] Baldassar, Loretta et al. (2016): ICT- based Co-presence in Transnational Families and Communities: Challenging the Premise of Face-to-face Proximity in Sustaining Relationships. Global Networks, 2016: 12, 133 – 144, p. 134

[14] Ibid: p.136 f