Ukrainians in Europe's charitable embrace would rather go home

Humanitarian workers fire up well-oiled machine to take in new arrivals in Austria

Aydar Kudirmekov, left, helps translate for Ukrainians who arrive in Vienna. Karina, right, and her 6-year-old son left Ukraine for Austria by car. Tim Stickings/The National

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Europe is powering up its humanitarian machine to look after Ukrainian refugees like Karina, who arrived in Austria with her 6-year-old son — but the sales manager from Zaporizhzhia would rather go home.

“We want to get back home because we had good lives,” says Karina, 33, at the entrance of a refugee reception centre in Vienna. “Everything was OK before.”

Like many Ukrainian women, Karina left the country without her husband because men of fighting age are expected to stay behind.

Travelling with a friend, who also had a child in tow, she drove for five days across Slovakia to reach Vienna.

For Karina, who is staying in another friend’s apartment in Vienna, keeping in touch with her husband is hard because of frequent interruptions to internet services in Ukraine. She knows he is alive but she worries for his safety and mental state as the war with Russia stretches into its third attritional week.

“When you can hear the sounds of bombs and aeroplanes around in the sky, you can’t be OK,” she said.

More than 2.5 million people have fled the war in the space of two weeks, a number the EU has said could double as the conflict continues.

A charity called People's Aid is offering advice and donations to Ukrainians. Tim Stickings/The National

At Vienna’s central station, between 1,000 and 10,000 people arrive from Ukraine every day, stepping off dozens of trains and into the care of local humanitarians.

Helpers from the charity Caritas hand out masks and hold up blue and yellow flags to advertise their offer of help, while Ukrainians exchange tips among themselves as they figure out how to navigate a new city. Aydar Kudirmekov, who speaks Russian, German and English, helps to translate for the new arrivals.

“I think Mr Putin made a great mistake in the history of Russia,” said Mr Kudirmekov of the Russian president’s aggression against Ukraine.

“It’s a war, it’s a real war. It’s not only a problem for Russia and Ukraine but for all of Europe.”

Some of the arrivals are looking to shelter in Vienna, already home to about 7,000 Ukrainians, while others want to continue their journey to Germany or Italy.

Even the Ukrainians who do initially set up camp in Vienna do not know how long they will stay and hope they will not be seeking charity for too long.

“It’s a war. What do you do?” asked one woman who left Ukraine by herself, her hands clasped in prayer that the conflict would soon be over.

Although grateful for the humanitarian help, Ukraine’s government would like its allies to make that charity unnecessary by doing more to fight Russia — but western powers say escalation would only prolong human suffering.

Charities spring into action

When it comes to organising humanitarian aid, Europe has had years of practice. The flow of Middle East refugees that peaked in 2015 was followed by a flood of evacuees from Afghanistan last year, before the war in Ukraine triggered yet another mass movement of people.

Vienna had mobilised its first reception centre within a week of the invasion and Ukrainians were offered an unusually generous status in the EU that grants them access to employment and education and spares them a bureaucratic asylum process.

In typically migrant-averse Austria, the public willingness to help “is enormous”, says Lilli Gneisz, who works at a Vienna humanitarian charity called People’s Aid.

Austria’s President Alexander van der Bellen has supported this grassroots humanitarian effort and said in a television appearance that Austrians should not see the newcomers as a burden.

Ukrainians in Vienna often arrive with almost nothing, aside from a few changes of clothes.

The People’s Aid store room, near the main railway station, is overflowing with donated items including clothes, mattresses, children’s nappies and toys.

Dolls and teddy bears may not be much use on the front line but they are kept in the store room to cheer someone up back in Austria.

“We get a crazy number of offers,” said Ms Gneisz.

A store room full of items that people have donated for Ukrainians in Vienna. Tim Stickings/The National

Three lorries have been dispatched to Ukraine at the request of partner charities in the war zone that tell their suppliers in Austria what they need, with medicines and sleeping bags in particularly high demand.

There is a steady stream of arrivals to the reception centre, up to 150 a day. Since few of them speak German, some have prepared a written request on their phone while others rely on English.

The charity provides food vouchers that are valid at supermarkets and restaurants such as Burger King and KFC, and helps disoriented Ukrainians find somewhere to live if they do not have family or friends to put them up.

Meanwhile, finding longer-term accommodation in Vienna can be complicated because an “initial euphoria” from the public about helping Ukrainians could give way to a reluctance to put people up indefinitely, said Ms Gneisz.

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Europe’s current political warmth towards the arriving Ukrainians may not last and even refugee-friendly humanitarian workers can become burnt out over the constant human distress they witness. The Ukrainian refugees join the asylum seekers and dispossessed of Vienna that the charity initially set out to help. The pandemic, too, has not yet disappeared.

Even if the fighting stops, Ukraine has suffered enough severe damage from Russian shelling that some refugees may not see their battered country as a safe place to return.

Ms Gneisz believes that most of the Ukrainians are longing to go home, but she hopes that a friendly embrace from charities can, at least, help them adjust to life as refugees.

“It’s good that they arrive and feel there is someone there,” she said. “They don’t think nobody is looking after them.”

Updated: March 12, 2022, 8:47 PM
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