HIAS Vienna: Caring for Iranian Religious Minorities

“We in the Community Orientation class deal with some very, very important questions, some important topics. We ask big questions. But what I’m about to ask you may be the most important question of the course: ‘Who would you say are smarter—men or women?’” the teacher asks the class on a recent day in July.

“Women!” some predictably shouted.

“We-men!” comes the riposte from the other side.

And so began the friendly rivalry that absorbed a group of Iranian refugees at the U.S. government funded and HIAS-run Resettlement Support Center in Vienna. For the next hour and a half, the men and women competed to answer questions like: “What does ESOL stand for?”; “How many years of schooling are compulsory in the United States?”; “What does GED stand for?”. (Answers that many native Americans would be hard pressed to find!) This was fun with a purpose: All the questions were designed to teach the refugees—all U.S. boundabout the educational system in their future country. In the end, the men won, an atypical outcome, according to Mark Fisher, their CO teacher and win tracker.

Community Orientation (CO) is the jewel in the crown of programs and services HIAS Vienna provides its caseload of Jewish, Christian, Baha'i, Mandaean, and Zoroastrian Iranians. Created by U.S. and Iranian experts working at HIAS Vienna, it is a course carefully calculated to bring the Iranians’ knowledge of their environment from their repressive homeland to the openness and dynamism of U.S. civil society. 
According to Emily Russ, Director of HIAS Vienna, “Our CO program fulfills a great need among our clients. These are people who have tremendous personal curiosity about their future and a real practical need to learn how to navigate their way down new and frequently foreign paths so that they can educate themselves, find gainful employment and support themselves once they arrive in the U.S. We aim to give them those tools while they are here.”

Clients are generally in Vienna 4-6 months, but their contact with HIAS begins while still in Iran, when the application process begins. Once the applicants arrive in Vienna, they are in the hands of HIAS, which works closely with the U.S. and Austrian governments to secure permission for their stay in Austria while refugee processing occurs. Likewise, HIAS serves as liaison between clients and the U.S. government’s Refugee Admissions Program and prepares all the documentation necessary for determining the applicants’ refugee status.

Religious minorities face pervasive harassment and persecution in Iran and, as a result, most applicants are granted refugee status. Since 2004, some Iranian religious minority groups have been eligible to be considered for refugee status under the Lautenberg Amendment. First passed in 1989, the Amendment, named for the late New Jersey senator who wrote the bill, initially allowed only religious minorities including Jews and Evangelical Christians from the USSR to be approved for refugee status based on their historical mistreatment, without the need to prove that the severe discrimination they experienced was “persecution.” In 2004, it was expanded to include Jews, Christians, Baha’i, and other religious minorities in Iran. Since the RSC opened in Vienna in 2001, HIAS has helped process more than 25,000 Iranian religious minorities, most of them under the protection of this law.

Nevertheless, the process is a stressful one and the stay in Vienna for HIAS clients is pierced by the longing for family left behind in Iran, anxiety about their futures, and a general sense of limbo. With its CO class, facilities that include a hi-tech language lab, and the caring attention of the HIAS Vienna staff, clients are comforted and even enthusiastic about their time in Vienna. According to Z, a single Jewish woman recently arrived from Iran: “I’m very happy to be here at HIAS Vienna. I can already taste the freedom. It’s a completely different feeling than being in Iran!”