Since Russia launched its full-scale war in Ukraine, millions of Ukrainians have fled to safety in the European Union. Some of those people make their way through Russia and cross into the EU via Estonia. Many of those in transit need assistance and one NGO Friends of Mariupol has sprung up to help. ERR News spoke to the organization's spokesperson Aleksandra Averjanova to find out what it does and why it formed.
Data from the Police and Border Guard Board shows that 40 percent of the Ukrainian refugees who have arrived in Estonia, almost 30,000 people, have been transit refugees, who have no intention to stay in Estonia.
Some people's journeys to Europe can take months and they may undergo heavy questioning by Russian authorities. People often arrive in Narva by bus from St Petersburg feeling utterly disoriented. But because they are in transit they often do not get the help they need.
ERR News: How did your organization start?
Aleksandra Averjanova: We got organized as a volunteer group in early April, after many of our family members, relatives and friends in Russia and Ukraine reached out to us asking for help with their travel plans and accommodation in Estonia and elsewhere in Europe.
We were trying to understand what provisions there were for Ukrainian nationals who arrive from besieged Mariupol and its surroundings — through Russia — in Estonia and realized that although a very good protection system is in place for people who decide to stay here, very little thought is given to others, who travel onward to reach their family or relatives elsewhere. People who do not intend to stay in Estonia.
In the next weeks, we corresponded and had several calls with the Social Insurance Board (SKA), Police and Border Guard Board (PPA) and Narva municipality about this issue, but it just did not become clear to us what was going on: people who travel onwards were somehow meant to provide for themselves.
Our statistics showed that nearly all requests for help were coming from refugees who were considering traveling onward. We decided to help this group of people as they otherwise got very little assistance.
We have set up Facebook and Telegram accounts to help people with such questions and to stay in touch.
What are your main activities?
Groups of volunteers are present 24 hours at the main bus stations in Narva and Tallinn to provide much-needed help.
Very often people who arrive have not traveled outside their region, they do not have call roaming and access to the Internet; it is difficult for them to navigate booking systems and make hotel reservations, their bank cards often do not work; they do not know where to exchange money. Many people just need time to process all the information, contact relatives and friends, buy tickets, wait for their flight — this requires temporary accommodation and food, as well as people who can and are willing to help.
We spend thousands of euros a day [in donations or direct purchases] to pay for tickets for those who can't afford them, and almost everyone needs short-term accommodation, as tickets on the same day cost a fortune, while they can only cost a fraction of the original price two days later.
For this purpose, on April 23, we set up a reception center in Narva that accommodates 30 people daily and provides psychological support to many more.
Many people know you as the Friends of Mariupol (Mariupoli sõbrad) volunteer group active on Facebook and Telegram, while your other name NGO Helihool figures in official sources as a point of reference for people who transit Estonia.
Yes, this is indeed a curious situation, and we are thinking about the possibility of merging the two names. This happened because the number of people arriving in need of urgent assistance has been growing fast and we wanted to help as many of them as possible.
We decided to join forces with an existing NGO, Helihool, the main activity of which is organizing classical music concerts in hospices, nursing homes and hospitals. They took us under their wing.
Helihool has two main activities now under the same name, however, we keep our administration records separate. On our side, we already have an employee working at the Narva reception center that we have set up, while the rest of us are volunteers.
You have set up a reception center in the border city of Narva, and you are active at the main bus stations in Tallinn and Narva; is it difficult to coordinate activities across different locations?
We started with four people, and each one of us had a specific task: one person is responsible for sorting out the requests we receive through our online accounts, the second responds to accommodation requests, the third makes travel plans and looks for tickets online, and one coordinates volunteers. This turned out to be a very efficient overall structure; we are still working this way.
We have nearly 100 registered volunteers that help around 50-70 people daily with accommodation and tickets requests.
Do you keep a record of how many people you have helped? Does this help in your communication with the authorities?
In the last month only, we have accommodated nearly 400 people at the reception facility in Narva and about the same number of people were sponsored for their entire travels.
So now when we try to convey to the authorities that there is still a problem with the Ukrainian refugees who are transiting Estonia, namely, that many of them are still not being helped with emergency accommodation, we usually get in response: "Could you give us a concrete example?" and "How did this happen?"
Since the end of May, our volunteers have been taking notes when contacted about the situation where people have not received help from elsewhere so that neither the State Insurance Board nor other governmental organizations could deny these facts.
As people make donations to our cause, it is very important to us that they know these donations were, in fact, necessary, and that there have been and, unfortunately, still are people who fall through the cracks in the system and who are not provided with timely assistance.
In fact, it happens regularly that the refugees who approach us in Narva, say that the guards gave them our contact details at the border crossing point; this happens irrespective of whether they intend to stay in Estonia or move onwards, or whether they need help with accommodation or just need additional information.
As it turns out, the State Insurance Board employee is often absent at the border and our volunteers instead are contacted on phone round the clock, even though they have day jobs.
Now that the reception facility in Jõhvi has been set up, how does this change things for you?
It is too early to say how this will work out for us. People are still confused about how to get there, and we cannot help them, as we also don't know how the transfer to Jõhvi works.
At this point, the information flow between border guards, State Insurance Board employees at the border and our volunteers is not very efficient, and this is the reason why, for instance, on June 4, a family traveling with two children, exhausted, and after a long questioning about their travel plans was at 10 p.m. sent to spend the night at the bus station in Narva, as neither the SKA employee nor a volunteer was available to assist them.
As I understand it now, there has never been a plan of establishing a reception facility in the city of Narva, due to the lack of agreement on some issues between Narva municipality and the State Insurance Board.
This is regrettable as our volunteers are working really hard to support refugees in the city of Narva.
Do you have contacts that could help you establish long-term commitments to this type of work?
We have established a relationship with the Estonian Refugee Council NGO and receive much-needed help and advice from them, as they understand the problems we are dealing with. Our NGO Helihool is also listed on their website.
Also, the State Insurance Board is this week organizing an event aimed at establishing collaboration with volunteers. We will try to attend it, even though it is very short notice!
We are also in contact with other young organizations in the Baltic region like ours. It helps to realize that we were not alone in our concerns.
What would you say could be still done better today?
Kert Valdaru, the head of crisis response at the State Insurance Board, speaking at the ERR morning show "Terevisioon" last week asked us to come to the emergency crisis center to discuss how they could help volunteers in their work. We are very happy about this invitation, as many questions still remain. Unfortunately, it is still the case that not everyone gets emergency accommodation and some decisions in terms of who gets picked are questionable.
Judging from our experience, it would be best if refugees are assisted throughout their entire journey, from the moment they arrive in Estonia and until they reach their destination country. While it is hardly imaginable, it would be great if someone could assist people in that way. We understand, of course, that this is a utopian thought and, perhaps, only volunteers can invest so much time in doing that.
Back to reality: As time passes, finding cheap or free travel routes becomes more arduous and time-consuming and we want to continue to help people to reunite with their families and friends.
We think it would be optimal if the authorities took care of providing emergency shelter to everyone who needs it, while the volunteers help people with tickets and other urgent needs that volunteers usually handle.
We should not divide refugees and, instead, help them all together!
Want to help?
Contact or donate to the Friends of Mariupol here.
Editor: Marcus Turovski, Helen Wright