'Reporteritund': NGOs working quickly to organize aid to Ukraine, refugees

A protest supporting Ukraine and calling for an end to the war started by Russia was held in Narva on February 26, 2022.
A protest supporting Ukraine and calling for an end to the war started by Russia was held in Narva on February 26, 2022. Source: Sergei Stepanov/ERR

Since Russia attacked Ukraine last Thursday, there has been a deluge of information regarding what and where people in Estonia can donate to help Ukraine and Ukrainian refugees. On Wednesday's "Reporteritund" program, Vikerraadio's Kaja Kärner spoke with representatives of major groups organizing aid regarding the current state of affairs.

"It changed radically," Ukrainian Cultural Center director Bogdan Ljutjuk said when asked how the center's daily operations were affected by Russia's attacks on February 24. "We have volunteers now and are working from morning 'til night. I have missed calls already as soon as I wake up, and I start with those, and then on it goes through late at night. It's great when I'm able to sleep. Last night I managed to sleep; the night before, I didn't."

Among the calls are people as well as companies and organizations calling to offer moral support, but also to offer a variety of aid, from transport and accommodations to money. Estonian mobility company Bolt, for example, called to pledge €250,000 in donations, and Eesti Kontsert contacted the center to offer donations as well.

According to Ljutjuk, people across Estonia and Europe more broadly have actively been working to locate and procure supplies needed in Ukraine. "I've seen that if we don't buy something from Bulgaria, then someone else does, and then it's on its way to Ukraine," he said. "All of Central Europe has actually been bought out of certain supplies already, and everything has been taken to Ukraine already."

Monetary donations made to the Ukrainian Cultural Center are being used primarily to purchase protective equipment and first aid supplies, the need for which is most acute at the moment. The Estonian Food Industry Association (ETL) is also cooperating with the center to collect food, but border checkpoints are currently overwhelmed with deliveries of weapons and other emergency supplies, but they hope to be able to deliver the food aid as well once the bulk of more critical supplies have gotten through.

According to Ljutjuk, with the exception of truly large scales of donations such as medical supplies, the best way for individuals to help right now is still cash donations, as this enables the center to work on procuring very specific supplies that are currently needed in Ukraine, and cuts down on the need to work on sorting smaller bags and boxes of donations at the center. He said that the Tallinn International Rotary Club bought an ambulance in Finland, which the Ukrainian Cultural Center then packed with €33,000 worth of medicine in Tallinn on Tuesday before driving it down to Ukraine. A second ambulance was to follow on Wednesday.

The ambulances in question would be crossing the border into Ukraine for delivery, not just to the border — as are other smaller vans packed with supplies being driven there, which are intended to be left in Ukraine for use. This is the fastest way to get aid where it needs to go in Ukraine, Ljutjuk explained. It's the bigger trucks that will only drive as far as the border, which, while they are able to transport more aid at once, ultimately gums up the aid delivery process as the trucks then need to be emptied at the border and arrangements made for the goods to be transported into Ukraine.

The cultural center director also noted that ethnic Estonians, Russians and Ukrainians alike in Estonia have called the center to offer accommodations for incoming Ukrainian refugees.

Refugee center rep: Ukrainians of unclear legal status

Anu Viltrop, head of support services at the Estonian Refugee Council, said that beyond just the sheer difference in numbers, one key difference between the council's experience with handling so-called quota refugees that arrived in Estonia under the EU migrant relocation and resettlement plan in 2015 and the now incoming influx of Ukrainian refugees is the fact that when the quota refugees arrived, they were already under international protection status.

On the practical level alone, this meant that the refugees in 2015 had immediate access to services available in Estonia to people under international protection, including support person services and Estonian language courses. They could also immediately access all services available to Estonian residents, including the ability to register as unemployed with the Estonian Unemployment Insurance Fund, to get their kids into school and kindergarten and see a family doctor. Of course, she acknowledged, the refugees arriving then were also faced with unique barriers posed by locals' prejudices as well as linguistic and cultural barriers.

"Currently, the situation is such that there is a lot that we don't know," Viltrop said. The Estonian state has essentially said that Ukrainians are welcome here, regardless of passport or whether or not they have any sort of visa, and nobody is going to kick them out of the country, but as the incoming refugees are of unclear administrative and legal status, this means that they can't access all the services that previous refugees could. The Estonian Refugee Council is awaiting decisions from lawmakers.

"I understand that some kind of status, some kind of temporary status? Is being discussed at the EU level, but I'm not currently up to speed on what exactly that will entail," she explained. "Right now we're getting a lot of people who have a lot of questions that we don't immediately have solutions for."

The support services coordinator also explained that the Refugee Council has been organizing its own evacuation buses, which, while still posing a logistical challenge, is still ultimately a manageable amount of incoming people at once. "But a lot of people are getting here on their own as well, going to different parts of Estonia, to their friends' and relatives', and there's currently some confusion about who they should turn to once they arrive, what they need to do to make more permanent arrangements, and to determine who exactly they [legally] are in Estonia, and how long they can remain here," she said.

According to Refugee Council data, confirmed in turn by Ljutjuk, the Ukrainian community in Estonia was some 30,000 strong even prior to last week's escalation in Ukraine. This means that a lot of people in Estonia have friends, family and colleagues in Ukraine and vice versa, and while there are those arriving who intend to continue moving north or west within the Schengen area, the majority of refugees that have been arriving in Estonia thus far are those with friends, family or other contacts here.

"Our evacuation buses are operating based on the preliminary information being provided by loved ones and contacts living in Estonia regarding whom we should be looking for at the border," Vilrop added.

Initial services already in place

County and regional crisis committees announced on Wednesday that refugee reception centers have been opened in each of Estonia's four crisis regions. The Refugee Council welcomed this development, adding that with each new day, more coherent systems are being worked out that will make everyone's work a little easier.

Viltrop said that everyone coming in from Ukraine is being ensured emergency care, as well as initial psychological counseling actively being arranged by the Social Insurance Board (SKA) using preexisting channels and resources.

A lot of people and companies in Estonia very much want to help, she continued, and so once the logistics are figured out for offering arrivals initial food aid and toiletries, she knows that this help is waiting in the wings as well. Until the necessary systemic solutions are in place that will also ensure access to primary healthcare and education, what the Refugee Council is doing is bringing together locals who want to offer accommodations and refugees who need them.

"Our office doors have been open since Monday morning," she said. "We've had several people come in; we are actually doing this."

Asked whether it would be better for incoming Ukrainian children to be placed in Estonian- or Russian-language local schools once settled here, the arrangements for which are currently underway at the Ministry of Education and Research, Ljutjuk said that Estonia already has experience with this, and that the answer is to place them in Estonian-language schools.

"Children have come here during peaceful times and started Estonian[-language] school even in the middle of the school year and they have gotten along just fine," he said.

"I think this would be the best solution, because if we're living in Estonia, then learning the language is important, and even if they go back half a year, a year from now, then they'll know one more language," he continued. "They feel good in our country when they know Estonian. Then maybe the child will be the one in the family who speaks Estonian, so when the parents go to work and maybe have a harder time picking up the language, then the kids can translate. I did this in my own family back in the day."

Red Cross: Get donations to Tallinn by Monday

In a phone interview with Kärner, Estonian Red Cross communications and marketing director Liis Ehrminger said that the Red Cross is still accepting donations through Friday evening.

"We are asking everyone who has organized bigger collections [of donations] across Estonia to please ensure that these donations get to Tallinn by Monday, March 7," Ehrminger said. "We will be conducting an interim review, because the people of Estonia have been very, very generous and have donated quite a lot. Now we need to sort everything, get an overview of what and how much of something we have, what we may need less, what we may need more of. And then we will be sending it off to Ukraine."

The communications director said that while the need for toiletries and hygiene items will surely continue, the Estonian Red Cross is awaiting an updated list of other needed items from their Ukrainian counterpart, which they will share online and on social media as soon as they can. She added that the two organizations have been in touch almost daily recently.

The Estonian Red Cross, which has representations in almost every county across the country, has created a database of people who have volunteered their help. Like other organizations working to help Ukraine and its refugees, the Red Cross also simply doesn't know yet exactly how many people Estonia can expect, but is aware that arrivals will need all kinds of help and support.

"We encourage you to contact us and let us know that you want to help, and how exactly you can help," Ehrminger said. "We're working on a database and compiling all of these helpers, and once the need arises, we will get in touch."

Rescue Association: Estonians donating their own saws

Estonian Rescue Association executive director Piia Kallas told Kärner on Wednesday that they have been in touch with their first responder colleagues in Ukraine, who sent them a precise list of equipment they need. The volunteer rescue association shared the list on Sunday night, and on Friday will be dispatching a delivery to Ukraine.

"The most important things that were on the list, which are also most important to our rescuers as well, was personal protective equipment (PPE)," Kallas said. "Fire resistant clothing, special boots, head socks, lamps that attach to helmets — all the kinds of things that help rescuers respond."

The list also included much more specific items, such as chemical protection suits, thermal cameras and other gear that the average person wouldn't have at home to donate, but also, notably, chainsaws.

"We got offers [for chainsaws] from all over Estonia, and in addition to Husqvarna Estonia and other bigger saw importers, there were also some men in Southern Estonia who said they were prepared to donate their own personal chainsaws, saying, 'We need them too, but so what, they need them even more in Ukraine,'" Kallas described.

The Rescue Association is using donated money to purchase the requested equipment from producers and importers directly and get it on the road to Ukraine as quickly as possible. This despite the fact that some rescue squads here in Estonia have struggled to get the equipment they need to do their work.

"One more thing — I mentioned that our volunteer rescuers donated from among their own equipment," Kallas said. "As the public may remember, we lost volunteer rescuer Madis Milling responding to a fire a few weeks ago. And Madis' brother Tõnis donated Madis' usable equipment to Ukraine."

The association director said that their Ukrainian colleagues have specified that they don't want money, as they can't do anything with it; in this case, they have nowhere to get the needed equipment from, and no time to get it. Which is why all money being donated to the Estonian Rescue Association is being used to buy the exact equipment requested by Ukrainian rescuers. By Wednesday, they had raised more than €200,000 already.

Viltrop: Crisis is a crisis because it's a crisis

In the final segment of the program, Kärner noted that a common theme among those she had interviewed was the opinion that the division of responsibilities between the state, local governments and NGOs in connection with taking in Ukrainian refugees should be more clearly defined, and asked whether Viltrop and Ljutjuk shared the concern that resources may be going to waste due to the current lack of division and possible resulting overlap.

"I mean, a crisis is a crisis precisely because it's a crisis," Viltrop replied. "It's an unexpected situation and it breaks quickly and no one is actually prepared for it. In that sense, this confusion is understandable and to be expected, in a way. And I still see a clear desire on the state's part to map all of these processes out. In some situations, NGOs can just respond faster. But really that is what everyone needs — those clearer information channels, a clearer understanding of what is whose role."

The Refugee Council representative said that she herself has seen and been part of this process firsthand and can thus help map out what the council's role is in the current situation, and added that she was confident that the situation would be increasingly clear with each passing day.

"My biggest problem and concern here on the Estonian side is that we gain clarity regarding what state or status these Ukrainians can be here in Estonia," Viltrop said, adding that she did not agree with the suggestion that the state may be expecting NGOs to take on too much responsibility.

"I don't know how it looks from the outside, but I sense that the state is asking us what we are prepared to take on and we are then able to actually calmly discuss what our limits are, which we have then clearly discussed with the state," she said.

"Our focus right now is on delivering aid to Ukraine," Ljutjuk said, adding that the Ukrainian Cultural Center is both cooperating and working in parallel with the state.

"When we get a van together full of first aid supplies, then it hits the road right away," he explained. "I know an ambulance is als going out tonight; we'll be filling that too, and by tomorrow night it will be in Ukraine. We can get stuff out faster, but in smaller amounts. But I suppose that helps — that we're doing small amounts quickly, and the state is doing big amounts, but as quickly as they can."

Asked what people can still donate to Ukraine right now via the cultural center, the director said that the number one thing right now is still money.

"Number two would be first aid supplies, but in large amounts — I'm talking about pallets," he continued. "If anyone has this sort of opportunity, then we'd happily deliver this quickly. Or if some company imports or produces them here, then we can finance that and then quickly deliver it. Then we also need vans. If anyone wants to donate vans, then that is another thing that would be great to do right away."

Want to help?

Contact or donate to the Estonian Refugee Council here.

Contact or donate to the Ukrainian Cultural Center in Tallinn here.

Contact or donate to the Estonian Red Cross here (site in Estonian).

Contact or donate to the Estonian Rescue Association here.


Follow ERR News on Facebook and Twitter and never miss an update!

Editor: Aili Vahtla

Hea lugeja, näeme et kasutate vanemat brauseri versiooni või vähelevinud brauserit.

Parema ja terviklikuma kasutajakogemuse tagamiseks soovitame alla laadida uusim versioon mõnest meie toetatud brauserist: