How do you help refugees become Europeans? Give them lessons.

On a recent day, Ursula Sagmeister deploys a World War II-era map as she teaches a class of refugees recently arrived in Austria. But her point is not about history or geography; it's a lesson instead in one of the values this country holds dear: religious tolerance. 

“If you wear a headscarf that is OK,” she tells her class of seven, five veiled women and two men from Syria, "but it is OK too if someone wears a cross.” And anti-Semitism? A definite no. “The time before the war, and the anti-Semitism then, was the worst period in our history,” she explains, with the help of a simultaneous Arabic translator. 

And then, with warmth, she adds: “It is OK if you are not religious at all either. In Austria, our president is agnostic.” This eight-hour pilot program, called “My Life in Austria,” is the country’s attempt to teach newly arrived foreigners – mostly from Syria but also Iraq, Afghanistan, and beyond – the dos and don’ts of Austrian society as the country grapples with its largest integration effort in modern history. 

In a bid to diffuse tensions that have grown since an outcry over sexual assaults in Cologne, Germany, that were blamed mostly on immigrants, European nations are in a rush to design new curricula aimed at fostering a peaceful co-existence. 

That includes lessons on everything from gender equality to sexual norms to recycling. Such efforts run the risk of being co-opted by the anti-immigrant far-right – and have put some refugees on the defensive, including those who find elements of European society repellent. 

But the organizers here say this is the best way to avoid an epic culture clash. “We don’t make judgments,” says Ms. Sagmeister. “We are not saying that we are better, but that these are the laws here and you have to adapt.” 

The record rush of asylum seekers into Europe skews heavily male: 58 percent are men, compared to 17 percent women and 25 percent children. Since Cologne, the fear that with those men can come greater violence. The searches for “pepper spray” in Austria, for example, spiked after Jan. 1, according to Google Trends. 

Even before Cologne, the “welcome” to refugees had already been wearing thin. The country announced this month that it plans to cap the number of refugees it accepts this year to below half of those who arrived last year, 90,000. 

“I think those who were a little bit skeptical have gained more voice and weight,” says Anny Knapp, the chairwoman of the refugee organization Asylkoordination Austria. “After the Cologne event people are [asking], who are these people, will they integrate or not in society, and is Islam compatible with Austrian values?” 

That’s where “My Life in Austria” aims to help. The trainers use pictures and role-playing to teach Austrian norms. They show typical dress in Europe, especially in summer. The lesson: skimpy dresses do not mean anything other than it is hot outside. 

One photo features a man and woman kissing on the street. You don’t have to do it, refugees are taught, but here it’s normal. So is smoking, even for women, but not in people’s homes anymore. Shake hands, always. And everyone – even women – should try to find a job and contribute to the social system so that it holds up. 

“Our viewpoint is that they should be confronted with these realities as early as possible,” says Lisa Fellhofer, in charge of the classes run by Austrian Integration Fund, an independent agency sponsored by the Austrian foreign ministry. The agency launched them in January and aims to make them mandatory for all refugees. 

Austria is not alone in trying to head off cultural misunderstandings. Taking a page from a pioneering program in Norway, which has offered sex education classes at asylum centers for a few years, the Belgian secretary for migration announced the intent to teach “respect for women” classes. Lawmakers in Denmark are pushing for similar lessons. 

In the Netherlands, the education minister recently announced plans to teach LGBT rights in asylum centers. Germany, which teaches cultural norms as part of its language-integration courses for refugees, has published guidebooks, pamphlets, and cartoons to communicate the country's social codes, like not disciplining children by hitting them, or engaging in street fights. 

Not everyone has welcomed these efforts. Belgian Socialist lawmaker Isabelle Simonis issued a statement in reaction to “respect for women” classes, calling the idea “thinly veiled racism.” Values classes also can potentially be confusing in societies that are hardly monolithic, and even less so amid high rates of immigration. 

Reinout Wibier, a professor of civil law at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, says that orientation linked more to practicalities like housing or the job market is much more useful “than trying to impart a set of values that is largely unknown and mostly ambiguous,” he says. Values classes also run the risk of validating anti-immigrant sentiment by stigmatizing the refugee population as criminals, misogynists, or homophobes. 

“Some people say that we shouldn’t do [such classes] before people have been proven to do something wrong,” says Peter Skaarup, spokesman of the anti-immigrant Danish People’s Party who supports sex classes modeled on Norway’s, in a phone interview. But he says Cologne shows they can’t wait until it’s too late. 

“In some societies in the world the man can decide what women should do. If you have this in your baggage when you come to other countries, and you probably will because that is the teaching you’ve learned back home, then we have this challenge,” he says. “Some men coming to Denmark, not all of them, but some of them, maybe the majority, have this attitude.” 

“They should understand that there is a confidence between people in a country,” he adds. “There is a red line.” Mohamad Abram, a Syrian asylum seeker in Vienna, admits that some young men come to a new culture and become confused. They aren’t used to seeing women “totally drunk,” he says. 

He himself says he drank for the first time after arriving here because vodka was offered to him, but he stopped after a month because it didn’t feel right. “Here it is OK to have sex before marriage or get drunk, and some people lose themselves,” he says. In fact, at an asylum center in Vienna, Zaynab Neif, a 17-year-old from Iraq, says her main concern, apart from her education, is not adapting too much. 

There are certain things she admires about her new home, especially that men and women are paid the same and sometimes women earn even more, she says. Other things she finds strange, like the fact that women and men live together as friends. She personally wants to focus on her studies and stay close to her family. “Most change in a bad way,” she says. “I want to stay the same.” 

Mr. Abram also says he believes there are greater priorities right now, like improving asylum center conditions and reuniting families. “It’s a nice conversation about garbage and values but how can we talk about that when … our basic problems are not solved?” 

Florian Klenk, the editor-in-chief of the Austrian weekly Falter, says that cultural adaptation is critical to successful integration, but he says it must be done with a deft touch. “Not colonial style,” as he puts it. 

In his community outside Vienna, residents have discussed inviting asylum seekers to talk casually over coffee about social codes. Some women have complained that boys are putting on goggles at local swimming pools to look at them and that there is more cat-calling. “This is a new thing for us, there have never been so many different cultures from so many different countries,” he says, “and in three months.” 

Many urge that both sides need patience. In the “My Life in Austria” classes, Aljamili Abdullah, from Syria, says he isn’t offended by anything he’s learned so far. He signed up because he wants to make it here. 

Too often the information asylum seekers and refugees get circulates from the newcomer community, and often it’s not right. He was a lawyer at home and aims to practice law one day in Austria. “It is very different here,” he says, “but I accept it, and I would like to be part of society.” 

By Sara Miller Llana
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