Irina, Marina and Katia – grandmother, mother and granddaughter – are originally from Mikolaiv, in southern Ukraine but have not lived in their city of origin since the war with Russia became so dangerous that it forced them to flee. Today they are facing exile together in Austria, where they try to integrate while hopes of a quick return fade in the face of the stalemate of the conflict. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are 6 million Ukrainian exiles in Europe, an unprecedented wave since the Second World War. Most of them had planned to stay only a few months, but the bombings, the lack of progress on the front lines, the absence of a peace agreement, make their return increasingly unlikely. In February, the port city where the three women come from was again the target of an attack that blew the roofs off many buildings. Their story is told by Anne Beade, AFP journalist.
“Ukraine’s future is so uncertain that I don’t see a way out for another year or two,” says Marina Troshchenko, 43, with a firm, determined expression as she shows photos of the damage, and rubble, sent by the remaining family members. After months of difficulty in finding accommodation and rejected CVs, the three women finally found an apartment thanks to a job Marina found in a supermarket. “I started at the bottom”, in the bakery department, before working my way up and becoming “head cashier”, the divorced former purchasing manager, who did not speak German before arriving in Vienna in March 2022, told AFP .
Daughter Katia, 17, completed her studies remotely, attending a Viennese high school, with the aim of obtaining the Austrian high school diploma in 2025. Meanwhile, the eldest of the family, Irina Simonova, 64, dedicates herself to a volleyball team, her favorite sport, forming a circle of friends. In Ukraine she had to leave her mother, affectionately nicknamed “Babusia Olga”, who at 87 still refuses to leave today. “We are happy to have achieved so much in two years”, summarizes Marina, because all three together today can say that they have integrated with the local community.
Building the future
On the premises of the organization Diakonie, which advises around 80,000 Ukrainian refugees in Austria, a change is visible. Long paralyzed by the “dilemma of waiting” – to return or not – many “did not know how to move forward”, explains Sarah Brandstetter, operator of the centre. “Now there are many who have decided to stay and are trying to build their future here, especially for their children.”
The situation, however, is more complicated for women whose husbands are on the front lines. Volunteers distributing clothes and toys say they struggle to find time to find jobs and learn the language. Meanwhile, the wind of solidarity that blew at the beginning of the conflict has lost strength.
Christoph Riedl, migration and integration expert for Diakonie, also highlights the growing burden on Austrians who have agreed to make their homes temporarily available to refugees and see the situation dragging on over time. “Higher inflation and rising energy prices have changed things,” he says.
The demographic challenge
In neighboring Germany, which is hosting more than a million refugees, the massive influx is helping to saturate the reception capacity of municipalities. A situation that fuels anti-immigration discourse, at a time when the number of asylum seekers of other nationalities has skyrocketed. According to Riedl, the EU should define a permanent status for Ukrainians, who until March 2025 enjoy the title of temporary protection which allows them to access the job market, housing and social and medical assistance. “We must accept the reality: when a conflict lasts two or three years, people resign themselves to rebuilding their lives in the new country”, she analyzes. It is a scenario that the Ukrainian authorities fear, as they know that they could find themselves facing a real demographic challenge in the coming years.
“It is a particular situation, in which we have a country at war that wants to maintain contact with its population as much as possible”, says Philippe Leclerc, director of UNHCR in Europe, mentioning the online courses for students and the possibilities offered to refugees to travel back and forth. For Katia, “it will be very important to be able to go back and rebuild Ukraine, a new modern country that will be part of the EU”. Still traumatized by the nights spent in fallout shelters at the beginning of the conflict, she is “afraid of returning, of seeing her country and her childhood ruined by the Russians”. And she has no illusions, because she will probably have to stay in Vienna for her university studies.