On the Ukrainian Refugee Inclusion Programme

29. Feb 2024

The year 2023 was already drawing to an end when the Ministry of the Interior launched a support programme for NGOs to improve opportunities for the engagement of Ukrainian refugees in voluntary activities in Estonia. Together with the NENO, a partner was sought who would have direct contact with local communities and Ukrainians living here, and who would also be active in rural areas.

The solution was found together with the Estonian Leader Association (Eesti Leader Liit), whose network of action groups covers the whole of Estonia. The local action groups, which go by various names, often including the words “cooperation council” or “partnership council”, have been working for more than 15 years in all rural areas of Estonia to bring together local authorities, NGOs and entrepreneurs to improve the living environment in their localities. Thanks to their long experience in organising competitions for European funding, the LEADER network is a good partner for the state in reaching out to local people and leaders.

Despite a very short preparation period, 18 action groups from all over Estonia got involved in the project of inclusion of Ukrainian refugees. In November and December, more than 60 events took place, with a total of around 1540 participants, 65% of whom were Ukrainian refugees.

As the year came to an end, Christmas events were organised in several places, where Estonian and Ukrainian Christmas customs and food were exchanged. Often, people got to know each other in the run-up to the event. The Valga County Partnership Council highlighted how talking to Ukrainians revealed the fact that they have no tradition of organising things together as citizens. The Estonians were therefore able to help them see and experience how joint activities are organised in rural communities here. In order to prepare the Ukrainian tent of the Otepää Winter Market Village Street, three meetings were held to discuss the general concept and objectives of the event, what to offer, how to present oneself, etc.. The Ukrainian tent offered traditional Ukrainian food, pastries and handicrafts. Quiz questions on Ukrainian culture were prepared and the tent was decorated with Ukrainian patterns, symbols and flags.

The most popular form of collaborative work was workshops with different content. Christmas workshops took place in Sillaotsa Farm Museum and Käru Museum (Raplamaa Partnership Council), in Saarde Katariina Church (Pärnu Lahe Partnership Council), in Paldiski Russian Elementary School (Lääne-Harju Cooperation Council), Tiskres-Harkujärvi (Four Valla Assembly), Vao Reception Centre (PAIK), Ubja Village Centre (Partners), Sonda Kõrtsi (Virumaa Cooperation Council), Kärla Folk House (Saaremaa Cooperation Council) and Karilatsi Open Air Museum (Põlvamaa Partnership Council). The action group of the Borderland Alliance noted that Christmas is often a time that is emotionally difficult for many people, whether because of the economic situation, being far away from loved ones or other reasons. As the language barrier and lack of a social network further exacerbate the stress of the festive season, the focus was on children and how to alleviate their emotional situation at Christmas. With the support of the project, a Christmas village was opened in Lybnitsa, which could also be visited by local people. The Ukrainians felt warmly welcomed into the community and were willing to contribute to the various activities.

The workshops also provided an opportunity to acquire exciting skills: in Läänemaa, workshops on flowing acrylic painting and making perfume and soap from essential oils were organised; in Harjumaa, beauty training for women; in Järva County, workshops on paper-cutting and board games; and in Viljandi County, workshops on making decorative castings. The Võrtsjärve Association stressed that the practical activities were of course interesting, but more important was the interaction during the activities. For many local pensioners, it was practically the first time they had met and interacted with refugees.

Suddenly, Ukrainians became more confident in speaking Estonian and the locals understood better the concerns and needs of the refugees. On Mondays and Thursdays in December, the Põltsamaa library (Jõgevamaa Cooperation Centre) held Estonian language cafés with Ukrainian refugees, where they practised the language and improved their vocabulary. Illar Lemetti, Mayor of Viimsi municipality, also participated in the round table organised by the North-Harju Cooperation House. The round table was very useful in planning future activities to better meet the needs of the Ukrainian community and involve them in the activities of the region. As a result, Viimsi municipality promised to initiate free Estonian language training for Ukrainians and the round tables will become a regular feature.

In several regions, joint tours were organised, for example, Võrtsjärve Ühendus and Lõuna-Järvamaa Cooperation Committee took refugees from their region to the Mulgi Elamuskeskus and Taagepera village association to learn about Mulgi culture, while the Ida-Harju Cooperation Committee drove interested people to Tallinn Seaplane Harbour and Kalev Spa. The people of Sõmeru Youth Centre took the Ukrainians on a lantern hike, where they learned hiking skills and made campfire food, while the Jõgevamaa Cooperation Centre organised a joint visit to the Pärnu Endla Theatre. The aim of the Kodukant Läänemaa excursions was to introduce the Ukrainians to the various NGOs and venues offering various activities.

In Saaremaa, yoga classes were held on five occasions in various village halls and community centres in the county under the guidance of Lyudmila Drobotenko. The yoga classes provided an opportunity for a war refugee to learn yoga and get to know the local community. The introductory yoga classes laid the foundations for the start of yoga classes in the new year in several places.

Together, it was recognised that we have a lot in common, and that the interactions contributed significantly to a more understanding attitude and better integration of Ukrainians in the local community.

At the Christmas party in the Saarde church, the Estonian children learnt to say “privot” and “novim rokom” together, according to the pronunciation of Yutta Shabaieva, a Ukrainian teacher at Kilingi-Nõmme Gymnasium, but the mutual lessons were certainly not limited to that.

Triin Kallas
Executive Director of the Estonian Leader Association