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


MAP: Who are the foreigners in Austria?

Austria's recent Migration & Integration report paints a detailed picture of who are the immigrants in the country, where they come from, the languages they speak at home and more.

MAP: Who are the foreigners in Austria?

More than a quarter of Austria’s population has a “migration background”, which, according to the statistics institute Statistik Austria, means that they have parents who both were born abroad, regardless of their own nationality or place of birth.

Though migration is a controversial topic for some, Statistik Austria made it clear that if not for it, the country would simply stop growing.

“Austria’s population is growing solely due to immigration. Without it, according to the population forecast, the number of inhabitants would fall back to the level of the 1950s in the long term”, says Statistik Austria’s director general Tobias Thomas.

READ ALSO: IN NUMBERS: One in four Austrian residents now of foreign origin

Who are the foreigners in Austria?

Not every person with a migration background is considered a foreigner, though. Many of them have parents who were born abroad but naturalised Austrians before having children, or they themselves became Austrian citizens later on.

This is why despite 25.4 percent of the population having a “migration background”, the number of people with foreign nationalities is slightly lower at 17.7 percent.

So, who are these people? 

German is still the most common nationality among foreigners in Austria (218,347 people). But much had changed since 2015 (when there were 170,475 Germans).

The number of Romanians has almost doubled (from 73,374 to 140,454), bringing them to the second-largest foreigner community in Austria, behind German citizens.

In 2015, Turkish was the second-largest foreign nationality in Austria (there were 115,433), but they are now the fourth (with 117,944 people), behind German, Romanian, and Serbians (121,643).

They are helping Austria get younger

In Austria, most people without a migration background (36.2 percent) are between 40 to 64 years old. The share is also quite large among those with 65 or more years, reaching 21.8 percent.

When it comes to people with a migration background, most are between 40 to 64 years old (34.4 percent), followed closely by the 20 to 39-year-olds (33.5 percent), and then the children and adolescents until 19 years of age (22 percent). Only 10.2 percent of the people with a migration background are older than 65.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: How does the Austrian pension system work?

Regarding nationalities, Austrians have an average age of 44.8, followed by Germans, who average 41.1. The youngest populations are the Afghani living in Austria (24.9 years old on average) and the Syrians (26.3).

Immigration helps keep the Austrian population younger. (Photo by Huy Phan on Unsplash)

Language and education

People with a migration background living in Austria have a different educational profile than the population without a migration background, according to the Statistik Austria data.

They are more often represented in the lowest and highest educational segments and less often in the middle-skilled segment than the population without a migration background.

However, the educational level of immigrants is improving over time, on the one hand, due to increasing internal migration, also of higher educated people within the EU. On the other hand, as a result of the selective immigration policy toward third-country nationals by the Red-White-Red Card, the institution said.

READ ALSO: How Austria is making it easier for non-EU workers to get residence permits

In 2021, 19.4 percent of the Austrian population had higher education, such as a university degree, and 10.9 percent had only mandatory primary schooling. Regarding foreigners, 29 percent had university-level education and 25.1 percent had completed only their primary school years.

When it comes to children and the language they speak, German was the first language of about 72 percent of the four and 5-year-old children in elementary educational institutions in Austria.

READ ALSO: Austria ranked world’s ‘second least friendly country’

With just under six percent each, Turkish and Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian (BKS) were the most common non-German first languages. Around two percent each spoke Romanian, Arabic or Albanian, followed by Hungarian (one percent).

Less than one percent each for Persian, Polish, Slovakian, English, Russian and Kurdish, respectively, as the first languages. Languages other than those mentioned were spoken by slightly more than five percent.

And who is naturalising Austrian?

Not all foreigners become Austrian, even if they have been in the country for decades. One of the reasons is that the process is expensive, but also because it requires applicants to give up their previous citizenship – something many are unwilling to do.

READ ALSO: Could Austria change the rules around citizenship?

According to the report, in 2021, most foreign citizens who naturalised Austrian were from Turkey originally (1,100), followed by Bosnia (921), Serbia (782), Afghanistan (545), and Syria (543).

More than one-third of the people naturalising Austrian last year were already born in Austria, and most of the naturalisations were of young people between 20 and 40 years old.