“There were many people, very crowded, so it was difficult to get on the train,” she says, her voice growing soft as she recalls the day, March 4, 2022, when she left. Her mother and older daughter who live in Kyiv stayed behind too. “Being away is obviously difficult. We talk every day.”
Violet tells the story of her journey from Ukraine to Austria at the Family Café in Vienna, a two-room café run by SOS Children’s Villages in Austria. On this day, Violet and nine other mothers from Ukraine chat around a coffee table, while their children practice German phrases and do arts and crafts in the next room.
“You feel in your environment, almost like home,” says Violet, 48, of the café.
The mothers and children here are among the more than 90,000 Ukrainians that have received temporary protection in Austria since the war began.
At the Family Café, which opens its doors two days a week, the mothers get support adjusting to life in Vienna: getting their children enrolled in school, navigating the health and social service system, and finding housing.
“Pretty much everything is very challenging for them,” says Annika Maier, an emergency aid project coordinator in Vienna for SOS Children’s Villages in Austria. “They don’t speak the language. They don’t know this country. They don’t know the customs. Often, they don’t know where to get help.”
Annika says, at the café, “the kids get support with their homework, and we playfully teach them German, while the mothers have a nice atmosphere where they can be together, exchange, and come to us with whatever they need.”
Since the café opened in June, there have been nearly 400 visits from children, and 350 from mothers or caregivers. A new mobile version of the café will bring the fun and support to many more Ukrainian families and other immigrants by visiting refugee housing and community centres in Vienna. Projections are for an additional 1,600 visit from children and parents for the year.
Coping with emotional distress
Something many of the parents and children need is psychological support to deal with trauma or anxiety. Some are coping with feelings of guilt knowing that they are safe while their loved ones are not.
Parents attend workshops with psychosocial support experts on topics such as being a single parent after fleeing war, how to support their children to deal with stress and, mostly recently, on the flood of emotions many feel as the war drags into its second year.
“Obviously, a lot of them are traumatized, having experienced really difficult situations,” says Annika.
Sofia Eisenberg, an SOS Children’s Villages social worker, originally from Ukraine, is among those working most closely with the mothers.
She hears from many how hard it was to be uprooted so quickly, arriving in a country where they don’t speak the language, and struggling to navigate the basics of daily life. The Austrian government opened its health and social services to Ukrainians, making it easier for them. Many mothers tell Sofia that they’re grateful for the café, and that she and the other staff members are there to support them.
“They feel that they are not alone in dealing with their problems,” she says.
A fun atmosphere for kids
For the children, the café has become a must-visit. Here, they get to see their friends twice a week. The children’s space is like a fun kids’ library where it’s okay to be loud. After doing homework, kids play at a foosball table underneath a peace sign poster with the word ‘Imagine’ on top.
Natalya Scsogoljeva, a social worker and educator with SOS Children’s Villages, also from Ukraine, helps the kids with German and with their homework. After that, she leads them in making customized handbags, some decorated with hearts, stars and ‘I Love You’ written in felt letters.
Violet’s daughter Maria, 8, stops playing for a moment to sit on her mother’s lap. “I like how we make things here and I like my friends,” she says. “I miss my father, Fenya, my dog, and my friends.”
Another girl, Kate, 13, says she enjoys the sweets and tasty snacks at the café. In Austria, she goes to a school with a special class for Ukrainian children. When she grows up, she wants to be fashion or interior designer. What does she miss from home?
“I had a summer house in Irpin, but it’s not there anymore,” she says. “My parents promised me when the war ends, I will design our new house.”
Text by Richard Miller