Estonia's city of good thoughts welcomes Ukrainian refugees, Michael Cole writes.
"Do you really need me to answer that?" asks Anu Viltrop, head of support services at the Estonian Refugee Council. It's been a long few weeks for Viltrop, and probably the last thing she needs is to be asked what seems like the most obvious question to everyone in Estonia right now. But I'm genuinely curious to hear her answer. Because, while many of those in my native Britain now demonstrating their heartfelt support for Ukraine could barely point to Kyiv on a map a month ago, here in Estonia it all feels a little closer to home.
Viltrop describes herself as a "child of the Singing Revolution," one of the thousands of Estonians who, a little over thirty years ago, sang themselves to independence from the crumbling Soviet Union. "We share the same history in the twentieth century, so we really feel for Ukrainians," she says, pointing out that even before Russian bombs started raining down on Kyiv last month, almost 50,000 Ukrainians lived and worked in Estonia. Of course, that number has grown considerably since then, as thousands of refugees seek safety - 24,610 people fleeing the Russian invasion of Ukraine have arrived in Estonia since February 27. While most are in Tallinn, plenty have made their way to other locations, including Tartu, Estonia's "city of good thoughts."
But in times of war, good thoughts can only go so far. Fortunately, Tartu has risen to the occasion, proving itself to be equally a city of good deeds, with locals eager to offer whatever support they can. Most of their donations arrive at Ekraan, a former cinema, which now acts as the main collection and distribution point for Ukrainian refugees in the city.
"I think the first movie I ever saw was in here," one volunteer tells me while sorting through clothes and bedding under the gaze of the big projector screen. Others also share their fond memories of the place in its previous incarnation. Now, in an unexpected plot twist, Ekraan's rows of red seats, once occupied by ardent movie fans, find themselves covered in piles of woolen blankets and second-hand dresses. A children's Spider-man costume hangs on the wall next to the fire exit, waiting to meet its new owner. In its heyday, this building saw many a superhero win out against the forces of evil but the best this Spider-man can do is provide some brief comfort for a child fleeing war.
The sheer volume of clothes, toiletries and food supplies brought to Ekraan shows just how willing Tartu residents are to help Ukrainians. However, there are only so many leftover sweaters from the 1970s they can take. That's why Anu Viltrop advises people to get in touch with local community organizations first to find out exactly what they really need. "It's also possible to volunteer," Viltrop adds. "At the Estonian Refugee Council, we are looking for people who can give at least one hour a day and can already speak Russian." It's also easy enough to find "a community or an NGO working in your area," and again, it's best to ask them, "what kind of activities they need help with rather than starting new initiatives, because most probably there is already someone doing something similar."
Yet, as the war in Ukraine enters its second month, I hear the phrase, "It's a marathon not a sprint," repeated often at Ekraan, and the Estonian Refugee Council are doing a lot more than just handing out emergency supplies. Instead, as the situation evolves, there is an acute awareness of the importance of longer-term strategies taking precedence over short-term fixes. For now, most Ukrainian refugees are staying in local hotels and dormitories, but, as Viltrop explains, once summer arrives (and, despite this weekend's snowfall, I'm assured it is on the way), many of those places will be taken up by tourists. The Estonian Refugee Council is doing what it can by matching those Ukrainians who require private accommodation for longer with local property owners. However, the shortage of housing options and need for further financial assistance to navigate day-to-day life in Estonia, provide additional medium to long term challenges, which will, in time, also need to be addressed.
Ideally, this would involve finding employment, though with so many new arrivals competing for the few available positions, that may be easier said than done. And while gaining a foothold in the local language may seem advantageous on the job market, as any Estonian, or foreigner for that matter, will likely tell you, that's no easy task either. Fortunately, an older Ukrainian man I meet at Ekraan has much more modest linguistic aspirations. He's just looking for an Estonian-Russian dictionary to help him communicate better with people while he's in Tartu. "Don't worry, I'll speak to you in Estonian," says a local who accompanied him to the collection point. "A friend is far better than a phrasebook."
However, when it comes to younger arrivals, things might not be so easy. According to Anu Viltrop, Estonia's education system is already starting to feel the strain, particularly in Tallinn, where there are simply not enough places in schools for all the incoming Ukrainian children. And while small initiatives to develop bilingual Ukrainian-Estonian educational materials are a nice gesture, it's hard to disagree with Viltrop's suggestion that what's really required are targeted welcome, integration and language learning programs catering specifically for the needs of Ukrainian students and their families. At the very least, it's crucial to make sure the most up-to-date and accurate information about rights and services is provided to all refugees as soon as they arrive in Estonia to avoid unnecessary confusion and make the settling in process as smooth as possible.
Those who left Ukraine after February 24 and have the right to a year's temporary protection status in the EU, would undoubtedly benefit from such initiatives (Viltrop explains that the situation is more complicated for those who left Ukraine at an earlier date, with registration procedures taking as long as 20 days, rather than an hour at the police station). However, there's a nagging sense that many will remain, in Viltrop's words, "between air and ground." Most would surely prefer to return home to Ukraine as soon as it becomes safe to do so, meaning decisions about committing to work and education in Estonia are still heavily dependent on how long that wait may be. After all, as nice as it might be to start learning Estonian, how necessary will it be if you hope to be back in Kyiv by summer?
No matter what happens next, it's clear Anu Viltrop and her colleagues at the Estonian Refugee Council will be ready to adapt. After all, they've been doing that since 2014, when the war began, by providing financial assistance to families in Eastern Ukraine. But since things escalated in February, additional funding has become more necessary than ever. "We desperately need donations to carry on this work," she says, "because every day when Ukraine is in this war, unfortunately the need for help gets bigger and bigger."
Editor: Marcus Turovski