Irina, Marina, and Katia, representing three generations of a family originally from Mikolaiv in southern Ukraine, now find themselves in Austria due to the dangers posed by the war with Russia. This displacement is part of an unprecedented wave of Ukrainian exiles in Europe, estimated at 6 million individuals by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), reminiscent of the upheavals witnessed during the Second World War.
Despite initially planning to stay only a few months, the escalating conflict, lack of progress on the front lines, and absence of a peace agreement make the prospect of their return increasingly uncertain. The port city they hail from was recently targeted in an attack, exacerbating the destruction and further dimming hopes of a swift return.
Marina Troshchenko, 43, expresses the uncertainty of Ukraine’s future, estimating that a resolution might not materialize for another year or two. The family faced challenges in finding accommodation and employment but eventually secured stability, with Marina obtaining a job in a supermarket and gradually ascending to the role of “head cashier.” Her daughter, Katia, 17, continued her studies remotely, attending a Viennese high school with the goal of earning an Austrian high school diploma in 2025.
Irina Simonova, 64, the eldest family member, immersed herself in her favorite sport, volleyball, forming connections and friendships in Austria. Reflecting on their journey, Marina emphasizes their integration with the local community, a significant achievement over the two years they have spent in Austria.
At the organization Diakonie, which assists around 80,000 Ukrainian refugees in Austria, there is a noticeable shift. Many refugees, initially caught in the “dilemma of waiting,” are now actively working to build their futures in Austria, especially for their children. However, for women with husbands on the front lines, the situation is more complex, as they grapple with finding employment and learning the language.
While solidarity was strong at the conflict’s onset, the prolonged nature of the crisis has led to a waning of support. Christoph Riedl, migration and integration expert for Diakonie, notes the increased burden on Austrians who initially offered temporary homes to refugees, now facing challenges with higher inflation and rising energy prices.
In neighboring Germany, hosting over a million refugees, the influx has strained municipal reception capacities, fueling anti-immigration sentiments. Riedl suggests that the EU needs to define a permanent status for Ukrainians, who currently have temporary protection until March 2025, allowing them access to employment, housing, and social and medical assistance.
Philippe Leclerc, director of UNHCR in Europe, acknowledges the unique situation where a country at war endeavors to maintain connections with its population through online courses and travel possibilities. For Katia, while she dreams of rebuilding a new and modern Ukraine as part of the EU, the trauma from the conflict makes her hesitant about returning. Despite her fears, she recognizes the likelihood of staying in Vienna for her university studies.