Nearly 400 immigrant students enrolled in Estonian schools

Refugee children in an Estonian language lesson. (Tairo Lutter/Postimees/Scanpix)
9/26/2016 10:32 AM
Category: News

Nearly 400 students whose families have arrived in the country from different parts of the world began studying in Estonian schools this fall. The families' reasons for starting new lives in Estonia vary, but as more and more of them arrive in the country each year, ETV news broadcast "Aktuaalne kaamera" looked into how Estonia's grade schools are handling teaching their foreign-born pupils.

Nagham, originally from Palestine, is on a field trip with her class to Rakvere bakery Päts ("Loaf" in Estonian). One can make their own rolls here, as well as learn about where the black bread Estonians love gets its distinctive dark color from. Much of the latter story may yet be lost on the young girl, who has only attended school in Estonia for a couple of weeks so far; the smell of baking bread and classmates' hugs are easier for her to understand initially.

Nagham and her brother and sister attend Kiltsi Basic School. The small school, located just south of Väike-Maarja, is one of a number of schools in Estonia with multiple years of experience teaching immigrant children.

The recently-arrived Palestinian family, which consists of three children, their father and their grandmother, are asylum-seekers. Nagham's older sister Batoul and their brother Ahmad find that after a couple of weeks at the Kiltsi school they can already understand some things.

"The language is a bit difficult," admits Batoul.

"They are very polite children, and know how to respond, 'How are you doing?' 'Well,'" explained Kiltsi Basic School director Merje Leemets. "Greeting, thanking, saying please are obvious. We teach using body language and pictures, and through words come expressions, understanding and comprehension. It is only the third week of school; we can't yet expect anything of them. They themselves are interested in learning, and their companions help a great deal. I think that this year will go well for us."

This year marks the fourth at the Kiltsi school in which the classroom includes children with unfamiliar cultural backgrounds. Leemets finds that in order to cope with the new situation, they have had to learn as they go, including learning from their mistakes. One mistake made at the beginning, for example, was attempting to help Ukrainian children in Russian.

"I still jokingly say that the teacher's Russian improved markedly, but the boy's Estonian skills not so much," recalled Leemets, adding that the language must be learned via the language itself.

Two Ukrainian brothers still attending Kiltsi Basic School, Konstantin and Valentin, have achieved a pretty good grasp of Estonian after 11 months.

"They were excited to go to school," explained their mother, Irina. "They enjoy learning; they enjoy acquiring new knowledge and learning a new language. My older son already speaks and converses in Estonian."

The Ukrainian and Palestinian families whose children attend the Kiltsi school live in the Vao Refugee Center. Both families note that their children have made friends at school and have not encountered any hostility due to their backgrounds. At the same time, however, the refugee center's children have their own particular concerns. Konstantin and Valentin's mother's application for asylum was rejected, which she has contested in court, and Nagham, Batoul and Ahmad's biggest concern is that their mother hasn't made it past Lebanon due to visa-related issues.

More and more children originally from elsewhere in the world are beginning to attend school in Estonia, whether they are part of refugee families or simply the children of families coming to work in Estonia. Teachers and the Ministry of Education and Research alike find that the Estonian schools are coping quite well with the challenge. Necessary training is accessible for teachers, teaching materials are available and the pupils' classmates friendly.

In some schools, the new situation may initially shock some people, and spark questions and concerns among other parents.

"Maybe the unfamiliar culture is one that will come and threaten our tiny Estonian culture; maybe the other language is such that it will hamper the linguistic development of our own children," said Irene Käosaar, director of the Ministry of Education's General Education Department, recalling worries some parents have expressed. "How is this going to work; isn't aggression being introduced? Does the teacher have enough strength and energy to teach the other children if there are one or tw people in the class who need special attention?"

Käosaar finds that Estonian schools and teachers have done very good work so far, been able and known how to support both Estonian and foreign-born pupils, the latter of whom are often from difficult backgrounds and are eager to learn and make friends. The total immersion approach, in which many Russian-speaking children have taken part, was also developed by their school.

"Teaching a foreign language-speaking student is in no way diffferent from teaching a Russian-languge student — the same methods are used," explained Käosaar. "Our self-confidence was based on that. Even before this bigger incoming wave we were sure that our schools could handle it because we know how to handle it. Things need to be adjusted in practice, but really we know how to do it."

Leemets is optimistic. "The first thing is still Estonia via the Estsonian language," she noted. "The quality of education cannot be compromised with 'Oh, they don't understand, they don't understand.' They will begin to understand, but as teachers we cannot think that they will not understand anyway, that we don't even need to try. This is totally unacceptable, and I believe that there are more joys than problems.

Ahmad notes that his only real concern right now is the absence of his mother. The school, his classmates and fall in Estonia are all great, he found.

Editor: Aili Vahtla

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