'Stressful learning German': How a Ukrainian family is adapting to life in Austria

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'Stressful learning German': How a Ukrainian family is adapting to life in Austria
Ukrainian parents Irina Titkova (2nd L) and her husband Valerii Titkov (2nd R) walk with their sons Danylo (L) and Denys (R) on the first day of school in Vienna, Austria on September 5, 2022. (Photo by JOE KLAMAR / AFP)

After months of anguish and hesitation, the Titkov family -- who fled to Vienna from Ukraine just after Russia invaded -- have finally decided to stay.


Their three boys -- Danylo, nine, Denys, 11, and Dmitry, 15 -- began the new school year there this week, another landmark in their new life in the Austrian capital.

Despite being "a bit stressed" about their German, they wrote little messages to go with the presents for their teachers. Back home in Ukraine, they would have brought them flowers.

Mother Irina, 39, wore her traditional Ukrainian "gerdan" necklace for the occasion, knowing that school is the first step to integration.

AFP is following the refugee family from Irpin, one of the Kyiv suburbs that saw the worst of the fighting in the war's early weeks, during the first year of their new life in a land where a quarter of the population are


'Miracle' birthday

After six months of uncertainty, little Danylo has taken to school like a fish to water. He lists out all the pens and stationery he needs in class in German.

Ukrainian parents Irina Titkova (2nd L) and her husband Valerii Titkov (L) and their sons Danylo (R) and Denys have a dinner in their newly rented apartment in Vienna, Austria, on September 2, 2022. (Photo by JOE KLAMAR / AFP)

But his oldest brother prefers to hang around with his Ukrainian friends than knuckle down to his school work.

Worried -- and doing her best so her boys finally feel at home -- Irina is meeting the headmistress to talk about how they can help Dmitry.

The family have just moved into a pretty two-bedroomed apartment that looks onto a leafy courtyard in a residential area half an hour from the centre of Vienna.

Irina Titkova welcomed AFP into their new home with delicious Ukrainian dumplings and vareniki raviolis, served with a steaming bortsch soup.

It's a huge relief to finally have their own place, and not to have to depend on the goodwill of others. Up to then, the five of them shared the same room in a flat they found through friends of friends.

"After three months of searching every day, I got a call from the (Protestant charity) Diakonie" saying they had found an apartment, said Irina. "It was a miracle on my birthday!" 

Their teenager now has a room where he can play his guitar. The younger boys -- both bundles of energy -- have bunk beds. There's a hammock on the balcony, an invitation to dream of better days ahead. And all for a rent of €400 euros a month.

"It gives us a feeling of comfort," Irina said with a smile.

Ukrainian brothers Danylo Titkov (L) and Denys Titkov (R) rest in their room, in Vienna, Austria on September 2, 2022. (Photo by JOE KLAMAR / AFP)

Starting all over again is not easy, particularly when you have had to leave your home, your family, your job and your status behind.

The former English teacher now works at the checkout of an American fast food restaurant. Her husband, Valerii, a physiotherapist back home, also works there in the storeroom.


'We need to be useful'

"It's tough... but it's money, and I can earn it, and it's not a donation. Maybe I am too proud, but I feel we need to be useful to society."

The Titkovs want to "feel equal... and not just like refugees". The family ended up in Vienna by accident because Irina had taken a school trip there when she was teaching.

"I remember how beautiful it was and multicultural. Vienna impressed me." Yet in June the Titkovs almost returned to Ukraine. Hearing about friends who had been killed, about war crimes, and from those who had stayed behind to fight, Irina was wracked by guilt for not being able to help.

Ukrainian boy Denys Titkov (R), enters his school on the first day of school in Vienna, Austria on September 5, 2022.(Photo by JOE KLAMAR / AFP)

Then the fighting intensified again and the family -- one of seven million people displaced by the invasion, according to the United Nations -- had second thoughts about going back.


"Maybe it's (our) destiny to be here, and the chance to explore another culture," Irina said.
"When I see soldiers having to fight, obviously it causes me pain," said Valerii, who has an athlete's build. "But honestly I am incapable of going to war. I couldn't kill a fly."

As a father of three children, he is one of the very few men of fighting age allowed to leave and escape conscription into the Ukrainian military.

It is the second time that this Russian speaker has been uprooted by war, having had to leave Azerbaijan at the age of 13 for Kyiv when a post-Soviet conflict flared up there with neighbouring Armenia.

But for now the family are focused on the future and managing those back-to-school butterflies.

For at the end of the month, the two parents will return to school themselves, to start a German course...


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