Author: Salesian Missions

Publication Date: February 07, 2023

Ukrainian Refugees in Vienna, Willkommen!

Have you ever tried to learn a foreign language as an adult—one that isn’t rooted in your native tongue or alphabet? For most people, it’s challenging even to imagine, let alone successfully accomplish. Now, imagine trying to do it while burdened with the traumas of war, displacement and loss.

This is what thousands of Ukrainian refugees throughout Western Europe are facing right now. One year into the devastating war that has torn their families and homes apart, these innocent civilians—many of whom are mothers and children—are bravely attempting to create new lives in a completely unfamiliar place.

“Learning the local language is critical,” says Father Timothy Ploch, interim director of Salesian Missions. “Being able to communicate effectively is key to navigating the community, building social capital, finding employment, helping children learn, and more. However, for mothers with young children whose husbands are still on the front lines in Ukraine, the task can seem overwhelming.”

Salesian missionaries in Vienna have stepped up to the plate—creating what could become a replicable model for other host communities across the continent.

At Don Bosco Sozialwerk, a Salesian-run refugee reception center, an inaugural class of 15 women are participating in an intensive German language program led by qualified educators who are native speakers. Lessons focus on practical communication—teaching students how to converse about family life, child-rearing, visiting the pediatrician, daycare, playground activities, and more. Classes are provided weekday mornings, free of charge.

“Our offer is intentionally and exclusively aimed at Ukrainian mothers who have fled,” explains Michael Zikeli, general director of the center. “We want to create a protected context for the exchange of experiences.”

Because these mothers have no one to watch their children while they are in class, that protection includes an innovative child care component, also free of charge. Early education professionals supervise the children in the same room where the language classes happen—which eases the intense separation anxiety that many mothers now experience as a result of the war. And the positive impact of this model is readily apparent.

“When I see that my son is doing well and can play with the other children, I can focus more on learning German,” says one of the participating mothers.

Each day, following a post-class community lunch, volunteer assistants from a nearby Salesian parish bring mothers and their children on excursions to cultural, social, recreational and educational services around Vienna—all of which reinforce their education and build their confidence.

“The knowledge they’re gaining in German, and the information they’re receiving about opportunities in Vienna, will position them for future success in their new home,” says Fr. Tim. “I’m excited to see where this model can lead to in other communities who have welcomed refugees from Ukraine and elsewhere.”

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