Austria: ‘Language Café’ bridges divides
VIENNA — What began four years ago as German language classes offered by a group of youth for their parents and neighbors who had newly arrived in Austria has evolved into something much greater.
Weekly gatherings at a community centre operated by the Bahá’ís of Vienna bring small groups of people together to not only develop their language skills but to also build strong bonds of friendship.
“It’s a place where people, many of whom who had been on opposite sides of religious divides in their country of origin, are transcending differences,” says Puria Mahally, a member of the Bahá’í community.
Dubbed the “Language Café,” the weekly sessions grew out of the efforts of several young people in a neighborhood of Vienna who were engaged in Bahá’í moral education programs that build capacity for service to society.
Mr. Mahally says, “The Language Café provides an opportunity for the participants to have conversations with each other on themes such as friendship, the equality of women and men, and our common humanity. Diverse families come to see how they share many of the same challenges and aspirations.”
Liselotte Falk, another member of the Bahá’í community, explains that because their discussions highlight service to one’s fellow citizens, participants are motivated to contribute to the development of the Language Café itself.
“For example, the initiative has especially motivated women to assist each other to improve their literacy skills,” she says. “For some women, this is particularly difficult because they have been prevented from receiving formal education in their own mother tongue.”
Ms. Falk says that after consulting about this issue, some of the participants, with the assistance of the Language Café’s organizing team, began to offer literacy classes in their native languages.
Rahima, who previously worked as a school director in Afghanistan and is now a key member of the Language Café’s organizing team, says: “People have always made decisions about women and often denied them education. But now, by developing our literacy and language skills, we are becoming self-reliant and independent. We’re able to better tend to the education of our children.
“When I talk to different women who participate in the café, they all say that it’s the first time they’ve experienced a true spirit of service.”
Fahima, another participant, explains that the whole initiative has given rise to the insight that religion can act as a force for social progress. “In the past, we were always told what to do, what not to do, with which people to have contact, and with which not to. But what I see here are true values of all religions.”
She adds: “You can see the sincerity in the deeds. You see people from different religions here supporting each other and eating together. It is so beautiful to experience such an environment where there is no debate about differences. Instead, we focus on what unites us all, our wishes for our families, and the desire to foster a more peaceful world.”