Celal Yildirim: Freedom is lovelier than the sun and sweeter than bread

Celal Yildirim.
Celal Yildirim. Source: UNHCR

It makes no difference whether one is local or a refugee, those who need help could be greeted with a warm heart irrespective of where they were born. Refugees from Ukraine and other countries need quality information, psychological help and a safe environment, Estonian Turk Celal Yildirim writes.

The value of freedom is best known to those who have lost it. Two years ago, my pregnant wife and I were forced to leave our homeland Turkey and embark on a life-threatening journey in the name of our freedom.

We, and the people who got in the boat next to us, witnessed terrible sights – many of our companions drowned under our very eyes and fathers had to make impossible decisions of whether to save their son or daughter.

Estonia granted protection to 603 people like me in 1997-2021. Between February 24 and April 23 of this year, Estonia has received over 33,000 refugees from Ukraine. People forced to leave their homes because it is no longer safe there.

After a long and arduous journey, we finally arrived in Estonia. We are happy that we managed to start a new life here, but simply getting to Estonia is not enough. Adjusting in a new country is a difficult process and there are those who cannot manage it alone.

New beginning

Looking for a safe place where I could find work to support my family, our road brought us to Estonia. We started learning Estonian at the Vao Refugee Center upon our arrival and I soon found a job with the Estonian Refugee Council.

It was difficult at first as I felt on many occasions that I was not up to the task, while my colleagues' encouraging words motivated me to double down on language training. When I told my Estonian tutor I wanted to become a mathematics teacher, they invited me to work at the Laagna High School. My childhood dream came true in Estonia as I can finally do what I love.

Shorok from Syria also has a good experience to share:

"I started my refugee journey when I was 13 and our family escaped to Turkey. My life until then had been in the middle of war, bombings and death. Three years later, we came to Estonia where I could start building up my life. I managed to graduate from high school, study at a healthcare college and find suitable work as a translator and teacher of Arabic. I have always wanted to do something that helps others, and this dream has come true for me here. Even though getting to know the Estonian language and culture has been difficult, relevant efforts have helped me adjust. I am thankful that I can leave my past behind me and concentrate on a better future."

Baby steps matter

Like Shorok, I am also glad to have met understanding and empathic people in Estonia. Not everyone is so lucky. Cases where refugees are treated with prejudice and without realizing that a foreigner does not know local background, customs and services are not rare.

To understand a refugee's problems, one could try and place them in a foreigner's shoes. Imagine having to suddenly move to France without speaking the language or knowing anyone there. Where would you start to find your feet? How easy would it be to find a place to stay, work and take care of necessary paperwork?

Having gone through mental and physical trauma, what seems like a trifling errand for locals might prove a major obstacle for refugees.

What we have been through is best understood by other refugees who have been forced to leave their homes. That is why support from and presence of those who share the same fate is important. Simply being able to talk to someone without the language barrier can be very helpful.

Refugees who have managed to settle in can share their experience and offer advice for integration and finding a job as being part of a collective makes it relatively easy to fit in. Quality and relevant information is an important resource for making informed decisions for a brighter future and provide a clearer overview of rights and obligations.

I want to emphasize that it makes no difference whether one is local or a refugee, those who need help could be greeted with a warm heart irrespective of where they were born. Refugees from Ukraine and other countries need quality information, psychological help and a safe environment

In summary

I wrote this piece for three reasons. I want to show other refugees that if you really want to and go to the trouble, all your dreams can come true. I want to serve as a good example for those who lack that positive experience.

Secondly, I am trying to show Estonians that if we give refugees the chance to apply themselves and help only a little, they can cope perfectly well here.

Thirdly, I want to stress the importance of mutual support between local refugees to allow newcomers to integrate as quickly as possible.

My recommendation is to try and talk to local refugees and foreigners. Offer them support and ways to safely start their lives here. By understanding one another and working together, we can make Estonia an even better place to live for all of us.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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