Refugees from Ukraine trying to get by in rural parts of Estonia

Sõmera Home complex in Saaremaa in late March.
Sõmera Home complex in Saaremaa in late March. Source: ERR

Estonia has received more than 36,000 war refugees from Ukraine to date, and to ease pressure on the country's major cities, refugees have for some time already been sent to housing in smaller towns and rural areas. "AK. Nädal," the Sunday edition of ETV's nightly news broadcast, looked into how these refugees are coping with finding work and more permanent housing.

Yevgeniy and Anya lost their home for a second time already in Ukraine. The first time was in 2014, when the war began, and they lost their home in the village of Serokin.

"There was fighting there," they recalled. "We went to Mariupol and lived there."

To simply lose their home to war twice in a span of eight years defies comprehension.

Everyone who has reached Sõmera, on the Western Estonian island of Saaremaa, from Ukraine has their own story, and they aren't enjoyable ones. But some refugees are still cracking a smile sometimes too.

"It's already very warm in Kramatorsk, in Ukraine," Kramatorsk native Yulia said. "But here it is warm one day, and chilly again the next. Just like our moods — one day everything is fine, and then the next, we just want nothing else again but to go home, nothing more."

Yulia already found work too; she cleans the building at the care home complex in Sõmera providing refugees with housing.

"It was a little startling at first — on an island, and away from town as well," she admitted. "Actually, everything has been startling in this time. To leave your home behind is very hard, especially with small children. We adults had to take this into consideration somehow, to understand it, and we maybe had to keep ourselves in check, because we have children."

Yulia's friend Lena got a job working in the cafeteria, and Lena's looking forward to her upcoming first payday.

A month ago, the halls and rooms at the Sõmera care home complex still stood empty. By now, however, they're home to about a hundred war refugees from Ukraine. Yulia lives in one of these rooms together with her two sons. It's cramped, but they're getting by.

"We may be struggling, but we're happy!" she said. "We have a proverb about that. We were given a room and we're happy; we furnished it as best we could."

The bench in front of their current home may be painted blue and yellow, but most of the refugees living here are still dreaming of returning — and hope to return — home to Ukraine.

Yevgeniy and Anya, however, have decided to remain in Saaremaa, as they simply have nowhere in Ukraine to return.

"To find decent work and rent an apartment," they said, describing what they want. "To find work here, since we have nowhere to go back to. There's nowhere to go! Our relatives' places are all destroyed too — destroyed, burned down, can't be restored."

Refugees in Jäneda

The care home complex in Sõmera, which was initially meant to provide only temporary housing for incoming refugees, may end up becoming permanent housing for at least some of them. In the village of Jäneda, however, located 70 kilometers southeast of Tallinn, refugees provided with temporary accommodations will have to continue looking for other housing options during their stay.

Exactly 50 days — that is how long an old couple living in the Luhansk Oblast city of Popasna endured living under fire. Once their own home was hit, however, it was time for them to seek refuge elsewhere.

"They start firing at seven, eight in the morning and so without break until eight or nine o'clock at night," Galina described. "Sometimes they fire at night too. It's terrible!"

Despite Oleksandr being injured, the couple managed to flee the war. Their daughter-in-law Olga, who had managed to escape sooner from the neighboring city Ilovaisk, admitted that they didn't even think Galina and Oleksandr had survived.

"Some man in their residential neighborhood took them to a bomb shelter, and a bus drove there and picked them up," Olga said. "They were able to call us; I was already here."

Galina and Oleksandr arrived in Estonia on April 28, and their first week was spent getting situated. Now they are starting to think about what comes next.

Their new home doesn't need to be in a major city; what's important is that a pharmacy and grocery store are nearby, so that the old couple can manage independently if and when Olga finds a job. Olga said, however, that finding a new place to live has proven difficult.

"I don't really know various towns yet — what some town is like," she said. "Once I gain a clearer understanding, we'll adjust quickly. Someone talks about one town, another about another, and we're looking."

For now, they've been giving a closer look to Paldiski and Tapa, where the old couple would have direct access to both a pharmacy and medical care.

Natasha and her two sons left their home in Kharkiv behind in mid-April, when their family was warned that the front would reach them within a few days. While they had to pay for their own travel expenses, the family decided to come to Estonia, as people they knew had already found refuge here. It was thanks to one of these acquaintances that Natasha also managed to find a job in Tallinn.

"They said, 'Do you want a job? Come interview,'" Natasha recalled. "I went and I was hired. The problem now is that I need to find a place to live so that I can go to work."

She said it's otherwise nice living in Jäneda, but the transport situation is difficult. The train station is six kilometers away, and on weekends, you have to walk there yourself.

"The social worker recommended that I get proof of employment from the factory and then I'll be taken to live on a ship," Natasha said, referring to the MS Isabelle in Tallinn. "I can live there for free for some time, as renting an apartment is very complicated and expensive."

Refugees from Ukraine arriving in Estonia have been sent to accommodations in Jäneda since March 14; since then, nearly 250 refugees have been housed there. As of last week, a guesthouse in Jäneda was providing temporary housing to around 100 people.

"Most of them find work right here in Northern Estonia, primarily in Tallinn, but they're also moving in the direction of Rakvere and Tapa," said Enno Must, managing director of Jäneda Mõis OÜ. "I know that some have gone to Tartu as well."

Since the end of April, limited numbers of war refugees have returned to Ukraine. Jäneda is a short-term stopover, and a couple of dozen refugees who couldn't find housing for themselves were relocated to the old Undla care home located near Kadrina. According to Must, most of these have been mothers with small children.

"Looking back at the situation as of a month ago, we had more than 5,000 people in short-term accommodations," said Kert Valdaru, head of the social protection group at the joint Emergency Headquarters. "Currently that figure stands at more than 3,000, with a drop of approximately 25 percent. The drop in short-term accommodations in Tallinn has been nearly 40 percent."

Valdaru added that it is clear that refugees are increasingly moving from short-term accommodations organized by the state to longer-term housing.

The state is obligated to provide housing for refugees for a period of four months. The headquarters official confirmed, however, that nobody will be left behind if they don't manage to find housing of their own within that time.


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Editor: Aili Vahtla

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