Afghan mother and child land on their feet in Austria

Photographer Aubrey Wade has been profiling refugees and their hosts across Europe for a series of stories called ‘No Stranger Place’. Here is the first of three stories of refugee families he has met in Austria as part of the project in collaboration with the UNHCR.

Afghan mother and child land on their feet in Austria
Photo: UNHCR/Aubrey Wade

Afghan refugee Nooria Youldash has a patient and kindly manner and speaks softly and gently. Until the topic of her bicycle comes up, that is, when her eyes light up with child-like joy.

“It makes me feel special,” she said. “I am so happy with the bicycle and the freedom.”

Nooria, 36, is from Mazar-e Sharif, the third largest city in Afghanistan. She arrived in Austria in November 2015 with her two-year-old daughter, Aysu.

Nooria used to work with the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) in Afghanistan, going to remote areas of the country mostly under Taliban control, to help women and children as a midwife. She took pre-med studies for seven years and hopes to continue university in Austria so she can become an obstetrician and gynaecologist.

When Nooria became pregnant, her husband left her.

If she had stayed in Afghanistan, she would have been forced to hand over her daughter to her husband’s sisters, she said. “A woman cannot live alone in Afghanistan and raise her own child without a man.”

She left in October 2015 and arrived in Austria in November. She stayed in a reception centre for asylum-seekers in the scenic Carinthia region until someone from Diakonie, one of the largest Christian organizations in Austria, introduced her to Sabine David.

Sabine, 34, is a mechanical engineer who lives with her husband, Dominique, 36, and their one-year-old daughter, Nora, on a picturesque hilltop in Lavanttal, near the Slovenian border.

“We used to watch all the bad news on TV and felt so helpless,” Sabine said.

They approached Diakonie and told them they had a spare room that they would like to offer to a refugee, preferably a woman with a child.

Sabine and Dominique said there had been some minor misunderstandings because of language or culture, but nothing serious.

They both describe Nooria as open and supportive, always helping with the cooking or cleaning around the house.

Since Nooria had no driving license, they came up with the idea of the bicycle so she would have some freedom, but she could not ride one. So she agreed to learn.

“One afternoon the three of us tried and we failed completely,” Sabine said. “There was a lot of frustration. It’s very hard to teach an adult how to ride a bike, especially if they had never been on a bike before.”

With persistence and some help from Sabine’s aunt, a sports teacher, Nooria eventually mastered the art of cycling, but it took her three months and countless falls. Now she rides to the grocery store or to language class twice a week. She also likes riding a little bit every morning on her own.

Sixty-two people live on their hill. All the neighbours have been supportive, bringing Nooria and Aysu clothes and toys and offering Aysu rides to and from kindergarten. According to Sabine, it was not like that at first.

“It’s funny because in the beginning some people had reservations and concerns, telling us we cannot take in a stranger, that they will steal from us,” Sabine said. “But then when they met Nooria they changed their minds. Now they say, ‘It’s not the same with women and children’. Their tone and language completely changed after meeting her.”

By Aubrey Wade/UNHCR


‘Discrimination’: Austria’s benefit cuts for immigrants ‘go against free movement’

Benefit cuts imposed by Austria on immigrants whose children live in their country of origin contradict EU law becasue they constitute "discrimination on the ground of nationality", a legal adviser at the bloc's top court said on Thursday.

A picture of the sign and logo of the Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg
A picture of the sign and logo of the Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg on January 13, 2020. (Photo by JOHN THYS / AFP)

The opinion is the latest legal hitch to befall a series of measures — imposed by a previous government that included the far-right — which sought to restrict benefit payments to foreigners.

Richard de la Tour, advocate general of the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), said the cuts to child benefits constituted “an infringement of the right of free movement conferred on EU citizens”.

The specific case relates to reforms that came into effect in 2019 which indexed child benefits according to where the recipient’s children live.

This meant reduced payments for tens of thousands of eastern Europeans who work in Austria — notably in the care sector — but whose children remain in their countries of origin.

The advocate general’s advice is not binding on the court but it is seen as influential.

De la Tour found that the cuts were “indirect discrimination on the ground of nationality which is permissible only if it is objectively justified”, and that Austria had failed to do so.

They contravened the principle that “if a migrant worker pays social contributions and taxes in a member state, he or she must be able to benefit from the same allowances as nationals of that state”, he added.

In 2020 the European Commission, supported by six eastern member states, brought an action before the CJEU claiming Austria was “failing to fulfil its obligations”.

Former Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz had said he hoped the cuts would save 114 million euros ($130 million) a year but in 2019 they recouped 62 million euros.

The former coalition also introduced benefit cuts for immigrants who failed to reach a certain level of German, but those measures were subsequently overturned by the Austrian courts.

The government that introduced in the cuts was brought down in a corruption scandal in May 2019.

It included the centre-right Austrian People’s Party (OeVP), which is still the senior partner in the current government.

However their current coalition partners, the Greens, opposed the benefit cuts at the time.