As a group of children take a break from their homework to question why a bed is being assembled in their house, an announcement is made. “I have some good news, this week we will get a new member of our family, a thirteen-year-old girl from Syria,” says Andrea Schritter from SOS Children’s Villages Austria.
Ms Schritter is the manager of a house for unaccompanied refugee minors in Ebreichsdorf, Austria, which opened in October 2015 and is now home to 14 children aged between nine and 18 from Syria and Afghanistan.
“These children are here because they fled their own countries for various reasons,” she says. “They came here, so they can live in peace and safety, enjoy an education and develop in a way that wasn’t possible in their home countries.”
The Ebreichsdorf house, south of Vienna, is one of 14 homes in Austria for young refugees who arrived in the country without their parents or caregivers.
“Our aim is that the children can grow up in a family-like environment, where they feel at ease, at home and can relax. This home should also be a place where they are able to be sad, angry or homesick and miss their parents,” says Ms Schritter.
She adds that a further aim is that daily life is “as normal as possible” for the children, who after finishing their homework do sports, ride their bikes or meet with friends and neighbours in the local community.
Ms Schritter is part of a multicultural team of six colleagues who take care of the children and often bring their own children and partners to the house.
“There is always someone here, 24 hours a day,” she says. “Even if we are not working, but need to help out, we do this - like we would for our own children.”
“So if a child needs an adult to accompany them to hospital or one of them has missed the last train home and needs to be collected, we are available.”
Like in every family there are highs and lows. Andrea explains for her a high point is that the children are proud to live in the house and are all very well accepted by the school, the neighbours and the local community.
She is also pleased with the strong bond that has developed between the children who have “really grown up together, like brothers and sisters”, even though they are from different countries and families.
“They really respect each other and help each other out,” says Andrea.
“If one of them is ill and needs medical assistance, one of the children will go with them and the others all stay awake to hear how they are.”
But she adds that like in all families the children also argue and fight, take sides, move out of bedrooms, and sleep on mattresses in other rooms.
“Everything is good here, we have everything we need,” says one 16-year-old boy from Syria whose parents are currently in Turkey.
“It’s like a normal family. I treat my caregivers as if they are my parents and the other kids are like my brothers and sisters.”
His “brother”, 15, also from Syria adds: “It’s super here, it’s like a family - a good one, but sometimes I argue with the caregivers. I like living in Austria. There are no problems here, and we go on holiday twice a year.”
A nine-year-old girl from Afghanistan says she likes living in the house, but it would be better “without the caregivers”, so she could “eat crisps all the time and watch TV”.
One of her brothers lives with her, but she explains that her parents and four other siblings are still in Afghanistan. “I like my room because I feel safe there. I don’t like playing with dolls, but I like to play football and school is fun,” she adds.
Most of the children are in contact with their parents and bad news from home has an effect on the whole household.
“The father of two brothers who live here died, it was terrible. All the children were affected and concerned about how their mother would cope alone,” says Ms Schritter. However, Ms Schritter and her team make sure that happy times compensate for the sad ones in this busy home: “We have a lot of celebrations here, for birthdays, when someone leaves or arrives or when the children get school reports. With so many children, there is always something to do,” she says.