Mariana Kukharuk told her husband that they had to take their three-year-old son to daycare. Shortly before, at seven in the morning on February 24, she had heard an explosion, but she did not imagine that the invasion of Russian troops in Ukraine had begun. The city of Brody, where this 38-year-old doctor lived until a few days ago, is an enclave in western Ukraine with a strong military presence, so it could be some kind of military practice or training. The next thing she remembers are more gunshots, an SMS from the nursery notifying her of its closure and calls from friends with the message: “They are bombing the airport.” “I stayed in shock”, affirms Mariana, who arrived in Vienna, the Austrian capital, this Thursday, after first passing through Poland with her two children and leaving behind her husband, a brother and her father. Her words, marked by the anguish experienced, are translated from Ukrainian into English by a volunteer at a sports center converted into a reception center for refugees from Ukraine next to the Ernst Happel stadium in Vienna. The center, a first stop to serve refugees, is managed by the Vienna City Council and the NGO Train of Hope, which was born with the Syrian refugee crisis in 2015.
“We took documents, passport and money and drove to a gas station,” continues Mariana. Fuel was already beginning to be rationed, but the family managed to reach the border with Poland, where the woman, her 18-year-old daughter and her 3-year-old son boarded a bus to cross into the neighboring country. “It took us 12 hours to get through,” says Mariana before breaking down. “We hope to return soon. I want to go home. It’s all scary,” she says, her eyes brimming with tears.
Of the huge Ukrainian exodus, of up to 2.2 million people, only about 60,000 have arrived in Austria at the moment, according to the Ministry of the Interior – in recent days between 5,000 and 8,000. But the Executive anticipates that the figure will increase. About 70% continue to travel to other countries where they have relatives or friends – the Ukrainian community in the Alpine republic is small, about 16,500 people. Mariana Kukharuk has family in the US, but she only repeats: “I want to go home.”
Irina, who speaks under a false name for fear of reprisals in the future, will stay in Vienna, where one of her sons is studying. During a conversation last Tuesday, she glances at her mobile in case a message from home comes in. Then he activates the screen and begins to show photos: people huddled in a basement, others making Molotov cocktails, a very long queue in front of a train station, and a map of the progress of the Russian offensive that is already out of date and where his city is marked. , Dnipro, in the center-east of the country.
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She fled Ukraine with her 12-year-old son and sister for Poland on a crowded “standing only” train, fearing they would be trapped. “We thought that (Russian troops) could surround us, we had to leave,” says the 41-year-old woman. She still has a hard time accepting what has happened, that she had to escape from a war: “We didn’t think (Vladímir Putin) was going to attack, we are neighbors. No one was prepared for this.”
Many of those who have fled “have the hope that this will end soon, that they will be able to return in the short term”, explains Nina Andresen, a spokeswoman for Train of Hope, while showing the facilities, from which the refugees who now want to stay in Austria or They need to rest a few days before continuing their trip and are referred to social housing in the city, government centers or private housing.
Next to the entrance, a covid analysis center has been set up, through which the new arrivals pass before sitting down with the translators who take note of the most immediate needs for accommodation, clothing, medicines… Next to it, an area to rest and eat; in another corner there are showers and a medical and psychological care post. A play area for children has also been organized, with a basket and a goal. On the second floor, about twenty beds are prepared, “in case they arrive at night, or after a long car trip they are exhausted and need to sleep,” explains Andresen.
In one corner of the sports pavilion there is a beach volleyball court, attached to a clothing bazaar that Mariana has approached, hygienic products and food for pets, because “they are part of her family and they have brought them.” “Everything is donations”, highlights the NGO spokesperson.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has unleashed, as in other countries, a wave of solidarity to support those who arrive -4,500 people have offered private accommodation for families-, and collect donations with the aim of sending medicines and other essential products to the country.
The Austrian population (8.6 million inhabitants) was also mobilized in the summer of 2015 with the Syrian, Afghan or Iraqi refugees who entered mainly from Hungary when Germany announced that it was opening the border. In this emergency situation, a small group of volunteers created Train of Hope to attend to the thousands of people passing through Vienna’s central station, where the NGO set up a reception camp in the corridors between platforms at the back of the facilities. that worked for months.
The organization has remained active in helping refugees in subsequent years, while the political discourse, at the hands of the extreme right and then the Christian Democrats, hardened. Restrictions were approved with former conservative chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who won the elections in 2017 on the back of an anti-immigration program. Now, the Executive, which continues to be headed by the Christian Democrats of the ÖVP with Karl Nehammer, is lavish in messages of support for Ukraine and those who are fleeing. “It is significant that the government talks about helping a neighbor, not about refugees,” says Andresen.
The NGO emphasizes that for its volunteers – they are all volunteers in Train of Hope, which is financed with donations – the work in the 2015 crisis and the current war in Ukraine is the same because they are focused “on people” and on acting in the emergency. But there are differences. The refugees of seven years ago, Andresen comments, “had in common that they did not see a return home possible, they came from countries that had been at war for years and their perspective was to stay in Europe once they had managed to escape. Some had already lost relatives along the way, drowned in the Mediterranean. The Ukrainians arriving at this time a week ago were at their jobs, at home, and have had to flee from one day to the next. And they hope to return.
Faced with the 2015 crisis, there is another weight difference: the EU, then entangled in refugee distribution quotas, has activated a directive for the unlimited reception of Ukrainians for at least one year with labor and social rights. This “will also determine how this crisis unfolds,” Andresen says, as it allows those affected “to work instead of spending years in reception centers helplessly waiting for their asylum process to be completed.” “That also changes the population’s perception of newcomers. Now there are companies that call and offer jobs. That in 2015 was not possible. Now the starting conditions are different”, he adds.
Martin Gantner, spokesman for Caritas, which co-manages another first reception center in Vienna and seeks accommodation for those affected, also considers that the European directive “is a great advance” in the face of the blockage of ordinary asylum procedures. The organization, which they have called in a few days “10,000 people offering to help”, has set up an information point at the central station of the Austrian capital to guide those who arrive. Volunteers hand out water, fruit, and snacks to the children. A woman waits next to the information booth with three minors. She has exhaustion written on her face: “It’s all so hard that I don’t want to tell.”