February 23, 2017:
Exactly three weeks ago, I was preparing for my return to the United States. Last couple of weeks in Austria had been intense, with no time to process the end of my stay there: first weekend in January I flew to London, and from there took the bus to Cambridge. I was invited to speak at a conference on migration and human trafficking. The conference was amazing, and I realized that my work had just begun. Networking with colleagues in England, I was preparing for the next stage of my research. And the almost five months in Europe prepared me for this moment.
Returned to Innsbruck just for two days, before leaving for Italy – through a snow storm, taking the Brenner, with two amazing young ladies, we braced ourselves for the difficult journey. Once through the Brenner though, the sun was shining, and albeit cold, the weather was gentler, somehow accommodating our plans for the long weekend: we had a few very packed days in front of us, meeting with volunteers involved in border monitoring in Bolzano, Verona and Trento. We also met with a woman running an organization focusing on human trafficking, in Bolzano – talking about the rather alarming aspects of trafficking in Italy. Then, in Trento, we talked more about the contribution of current asylum laws to human trafficking, and the ways in which migration changed human trafficking, making it easier… and more lucrative than ever. The border monitoring was entirely done by volunteers, and its purpose still needed some better framing. Yet in the context of the ongoing migration waves, and the inability of the state, or the Union (EU) to coordinate the process, volunteers filled gaps that otherwise would leave migrants with virtually no place to sleep, no support systems, no immediate help.
Back to Innsbruck, I had to prepare for an open lecture: Great audience, yet way too little time, to talk about my research, the need for and challenge of safe spaces, safe migration and ways to measure it, and the end or the beginning… Fulbright-shaped, my mind was pushing its limits, my heart contained only by the majesty of the Alps. Last weekend at MCI – quick good-bye party, knowing that part of me will stay behind, unable to leave… I spent my last Saturday in the Alps – high, on the Hafelekar peak, with my beautiful Austrian friend, cheering for the women marching in New York against a presidency that had no respect for human rights. Taking it all in: the stability offered by the mountains, the cold winds, reminding me that pain is real, yet so is the ability to go through it. The snow, white and comforting, beautiful, magic. There, on the top of the Alps, I breathed in the realization of this amazing experience I had, I have!
After that, everything moved at a rapid pace: packing everything, meeting with a student I committed to mentor, walking the streets of the town, making a few more trips’ arrangements, getting the ball dress… I drove to Vienna exactly four weeks ago, arrived there in time to refresh myself and get ready for my first Viennese ball. At the TU Ball, housed by the Hofburg Palace, I felt like a Cinderella, waiting for the midnight clock to signal the return to normalcy… Somehow, the entire Fulbright experience seemed to be colored in magic. And while beautiful dancers were walz-ing their stories throughout the halls of the palace, my own story flashed through my mind: orientation, conferences, Greece and the refugee camps, research networks in Germany and Austria, the many players in the migration processes, organizations in Innsbruck, and Vienna, entrepreneurial initiatives of migrants in Germany, best practices in Italy, the classes I taught, the student group that invited me to meet with them, and talk about active roles they could take in affecting change… There were a few more pages left in this chapter: a quick flight to Saarbruecken, at Saarland University, to talk about my research and learn about their initiative regarding the enrolment of refugees at the University; and then another day trip to Budapest, to meet with one of the few active international organizations still providing some services to refugees. These two last trips marked the end of the Fulbright chapter.
My last day in Vienna it was snowing… I had a quick breakfast with the Director of the Austrian Fulbright Commission, Dr. Johnson, discussing next steps. I then spent a few good hours at the Art and History Museum, basking in its beauty, spending a few last hours with myself. In the evening I met with Susanne Hamscha. Dr. Hamscha, my Fulbright program coordinator in Austria, helped me realize that while this chapter is ending, the journey continues. We are more engaged than ever in making research matter! More committed than ever in actively protecting the rights of all! The Fulbright experience shaped my entire academic career: 20 years ago, I was a Romanian Fulbright student to the United States. Twenty years later, I returned to Europe as a Fulbright scholar, finding a home at MCI, in Innsbruck, being at home in Europe, coming full circle! Once a Fulbrighter, always a Fulbrighter, right? Well, in my case, twice a Fulbrighter, forever part of the amazing mission of international education beautifully enshrined in the Fulbright mission. It is only through continuing to open borders to young people and through education that democracy can be fully exercised, and the capacities of the world fully realized.
Back in New York, my work continues, and I am grateful for the opportunities provided for me by this scholarship, and for the challenge to always aim higher, and remain committed to furthering the Fulbright ideals wherever I am: as a researcher, as an educator, as a human rights advocate, as a citizen of the world. Thank you, Austria! Bis Bald!
Marciana Popescu, PhD, is a professor at Fordham University and was the 2016–17 US Fulbright-Management Center Innsbruck (MCI) Visiting Professor with a project on "Women Refugees in the European Countries: Challenges, Human Rights, and Innovative Empowerment Practices."
Top photo by Fulbright Austria media intern Anastasia Popova.