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(Usually I use the title of a NYT article in the subject of the email
but in this instance, as seen below, it was not accurate.)
NY Times, Feb. 8, 2020
A Onetime ‘Refugee Child’ Takes On Austria’s Far Right
By Katrin Bennhold
VIENNA — Alma Zadic is nervous about standing too close to the row of
large windows in her office. Since becoming Austria’s justice minister,
the threats have been relentless. “A bullet is reserved for you,” read a
recent one. Hours after being sworn in last month, Ms. Zadic was given
A daughter of Bosnian refugees and member of the progressive Green
Party, Ms. Zadic went into politics three years ago with a clear goal:
to fight an ascendant far right.
Now, she is charged with defending policies that were codesigned by the
far right in previous years to effectively keep people like her parents
out of the country.
That, in a nutshell, is the moral dilemma facing Austria’s liberal
pro-refugee Greens in joining forces with the conservatives of
Chancellor Sebastian Kurz. The Greens have replaced the far-right
Freedom Party as junior partners in government and get to put climate
change on the political agenda. But they are also becoming complicit in
Mr. Kurz’s hard-right immigration policy.
No one personifies this Faustian pact more starkly than Ms. Zadic,
Austria’s first minister with a migrant background. (“A migrant
foreground,” she corrects me. “It is the first thing about me that
Call her Austria’s AOC: Like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the superstar
Democratic representative from New York City, Ms. Zadic is clever,
winning, young and idealistic, and has a proudly hyphenated identity
Her story is in many ways a modern day fairy tale: A refugee girl excels
at school, rises fast in her career, is elected to Parliament and
becomes a senior member of the cabinet at 35. But what has made Ms.
Zadic a hero to many has turned her into a target for others.
“Now foreigners get ministerial posts. Austria’s Downfall,” scoffed one
“Why don’t we just put a terrorist in charge of Homeland Security?”
The price of going into government was high, both personally and
politically, Ms. Zadic admitted in an interview one recent evening. But
the price of not going into government — of ceding the field to the far
right again — would have been much higher, she insists.
“It makes a difference who is in government,” Ms. Zadic said.
Ms. Zadic knows this first hand. She was a teenager in 2000, when the
Freedom Party first joined a conservative government under the
charismatic and anti-Semitic firebrand Jörg Haider. Other European
capitals froze diplomatic ties with Vienna, while her parents, both
engineers, feared they might be deported.
“I was still young but I could feel it,” she recalled. “I know my
parents worried and had concrete fears about what would happen to us.”
In her current capacity, as Ms. Zadic tells it, her mandate and that of
her party is not only to promote a long overdue green agenda in this
small Alpine nation, but to resist the currents of populism and
safeguard fundamental rights.
How she walks that tightrope will in many ways be the story of this
uneasy coalition, which is being watched closely in neighboring
countries, above all in Germany, where the next government will also
almost certainly be a coalition of conservatives and Greens.
Critics warn that the Greens risk becoming a fig leaf for Mr. Kurz’s
hard right agenda. In the governing program a modest carbon tax on
airplane tickets and subsidies for public transport sit side by side
with a head scarf ban for girls up to 14, deportation centers and a
controversial new form of “security detention” for asylum seekers, a
measure Ms. Zadic once called “authoritarian” backsliding.
“You won’t get something like that in Germany,” Annalena Baerbock,
co-leader of Germany’s Greens, commented tersely.
As for Ms. Zadic, even friends feel conflicted: “She has a mission
impossible,” said Stephanie Krisper, a lawmaker from the centrist party
For Ms. Zadic it is more complicated than that.
“In opposition we could have written the most beautiful idealistic
proposals and they would have gone nowhere,” she said.
Mr. Kurz won 37 percent of the votes, the Greens only 14, she noted.
Between the ballots cast for Mr. Kurz’s party and the Freedom Party,
Austria still has a conservative majority.
“We will do our best,” she said.
A former competitive volleyball player and fitness coach, Ms. Zadic has
heaps of stamina. In opposition she was one of the most dogged critics
of Mr. Kurz and his far-right coalition partners. She attacked the
far-right interior ministry for a raid on the country’s intelligence
service. When other countries stopped sharing intelligence with Vienna
for fear of leaks to Russia and far-right extremists, Ms. Zadic raised
her concerns about “Austria’s security” in Parliament.
A lawmaker from Mr. Kurz’s party heckled her at the time: “You are not
“He was trying to devalue what I was saying based on my origins,” Ms.
The heckling was frequent, and she learned to ignore it. But sometimes
it hurt. In those brief moments, she would no longer feel like Dr.
Zadic, the accomplished politician, but Alma, the refugee. The other.
Ms. Zadic was born in Tuzla, an industrial town in the northeastern
corner of Bosnia-Herzegovina that was the site of a notorious 1995
massacre during the Balkan wars. She was seven when the war broke out
and 10 when her family fled to Vienna.
It was 1994 and she found herself the only non-Austrian in her class.
She recalls the many moments of kindness her family experienced in
Vienna. But there were the other moments, too. The humiliation she felt
when a teacher ripped a math problem sheet from her hands, saying: “You
can’t do that anyway.”
That day she said she understood something about how she was seen in her
new home country. The message, she said, was: “You are different.”
These childhood experiences helped fuel a powerful drive that led her
first to study law and, years later, to trade a lucrative legal career
for public service. Being perceived as different makes people
vulnerable, Ms. Zadic said. It makes them dependent on the impartiality
of the rule of law.
She studied law in Vienna and went on to get a Fulbright scholarship for
a postgraduate law degree at Columbia University in New York and, back
in Vienna, a Ph.D. in human rights law. She interned at the
International Court of Justice in The Hague before becoming a successful
lawyer at an international firm in Vienna.
Some of her resilience she owes to New York, where she says she made
peace with her own identity.
“People were Italian and American, or Mexican and American and it was
totally normal,” she said. “It was such a revelation.”
“For years I had struggled with this question: ‘Am I Bosnian or
Austrian?’ In New York I learned that I can be Austrian and Bosnian and
European at the same time.”
Back in Austria, as a successful lawyer in an international firm, her
background faded. But as soon as she decided to go into politics, in the
summer of 2017, it came back with a vengeance.
One national newspaper headline from that year is still seared into her
memory. “They called me a ‘refugee child’,” she said.
“I had been in Austria for 25 years, I was a lawyer, I had a Ph.D., I
was neither a refugee nor a child and I realized: This is what defines
me still,” she said.
And not only on the far right.
After Ms. Zadic joined the government, her fellow Greens irked her by
celebrating her as the country’s “first Muslim minister.”
“No one today asks: ‘Are you Protestant or Catholic?’” Ms. Zadic said.
“In a secular state it should not matter at all what religion you have,
if any, and where you were born as long as you are ready to work for
The constant assumption that she is Muslim exasperates Ms. Zadic, who
says she is an atheist. Yes, there are Muslims in her extended family,
she said, but there are Christians and Orthodox, too. Her parents and
grandparents, who all grew up under Communism in the former Yugoslavia,
were never religious either, she said.
Ms. Zadic nevertheless knows she is a powerful role model for the
country’s girls and boys of migrant background, many of them Muslim.
“When I was in school it was unthinkable that someone like me could
become a minister,” she said.
Last month, when she visited her old school in an ethnically mixed
district of Vienna, a group of children at the bus stop shouted “Alma!
“I don’t want to let them down,” Ms. Zadic said. “I don’t want to let
Christopher F. Schuetze contributed reporting from Berlin.
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