Toys help people integrate
Secondary school students from Tallinn investigate life stories of minority forebears
Foreign Estonian youngsters seek bonds with Estonia at youth camps

Toys help people integrate

The Ukrainian Cultural Centre will be hosting a series of toy-making workshops around Estonia in August and September. The workshops, which will showcase traditional toys from Estonia, Ukraine and Russia, will enable attendees from different cultural backgrounds to work together, thus contributing to integration. 

Taking place alongside the workshops will be a number of integration-themed performances and an exhibition of toys typical of Estonia, Ukraine and Russia. The spotlight has previously been shone on paper-making as part of the same project at the Ukrainian Cultural Centre.

Project manager Anatoli Ljutjuk says that such an approach to integration represents an excellent opportunity for people to learn more about other cultures and ways of working together, with awareness of the importance of integration in society being raised in the process. “We chose toys as the running theme of the project because traditional art very visibly and very expressively characterises what makes cultures similar and what sets them apart,” he said. “We can use the workshops to boost intercultural tolerance and cooperation, enriching mutual communication.”

The exhibition, performances and workshops will not only be held at the Ukrainian Cultural Centre, but also at Narva Castle (from 9-18 August), Tartu Toy Museum (from 19-28 August), Põlva Culture & Hobby Centre (from 29 August-7 September) and Jõhvi Culture & Hobby Centre (from 8-17 September).

The ‘Integration’ project is being financed from the Fund for the Integration of Third-Country Nationals from within Europe by the Integration and Migration Foundation and from the state budget via the Ministry of Culture.

For further information please contact: Marje Sarapuu, Coordinator, Multicultural Education Unit, Integration and Migration Foundation / E-mail: [email protected]

Secondary school students from Tallinn investigate life stories of minority forebears

Under the aegis of the ‘Vaba Vaade’ non-profit organisation, students from both Estonian- and Russian-language secondary schools in Tallinn have been looking into the lives of public figures from national minority backgrounds during the time of the first Estonian republic. Their research has led to the publication of a compendium and the organisation of an exhibition.

The compilation of the compendium was preceded by a seminar and assembling of materials at the National Library and National Archives, giving those involved invaluable experience in writing, using historical sources and drafting biographies. Igor Kopõtin, a member of the management board of the ’Vaba Vaade’ non-profit organisation, says that in participating in the project the 15 students who did so added to their knowledge of Estonian history and society and of the contribution made to both by people of other nationalities.

The students were inspired to conduct the research by a number of well- and lesser-known athletes, artists, academics and entrepreneurs from the era, including track and field star Sara Teitelbaum, Baltic-German medical specialist General Werner von Manteuffel and an outstanding member of the Russian-speaking community, University of Tartu lecturer Igor Tjutrjumov. Other figures from the period who were studied included the founder of the Chair of Judaism at the University of Tartu, Lazar Gulkowitsch, and Johan Laidoner’s wife Maria.

Of the pieces written for the compendium, those selected by the editorial committee produced a 63-page publication of which 2000 copies have been distributed to schools in Tallinn. A brochure about the project was also distributed among 50 schools in Tallinn in cooperation with the Tallinn Education Department, while presentations and discussions were held in a number of secondary schools and an exhibition was opened on the topic.

“As it is today, Estonia from 1918 to 1940 was a multicultural country,” Kopõtin explained. “Living here alongside Estonians were Russians, Baltic Germans, Jews, Estonian Swedes, Finns and other minorities, who all contributed to the building of the Estonian state and to the development of its society in their own way as the size of their communities allowed. The research the students undertook undoubtedly boosted their tolerance in terms of multicultural society and encouraged them to seek inspiration from and look for examples to follow among their forebears.” 

The ‘Outstanding public figures from national minorities in Estonia from 1918-1940’ project was supported by the Ministry of Education and Research.

For further information please contact: Toivo Sikk, Coordinator, Multicultural Education Unit, Integration and Migration Foundation / Telephone: +372 659 9850 / E-mail: [email protected]

Foreign Estonian youngsters seek bonds with Estonia at youth camps

This summer, youth camps in Viljandi and Valga counties are playing host to 66 youngsters with Estonian roots from 20 different countries. They are attending the camps to study Estonian language and culture and to find out for themselves what it means to be Estonian. One of the youngsters who has traced their roots with the help of the camps is a descendant of an Estonian who fought in the Mahtra War.

The language and culture camps, which are designed for youngsters aged 13-18 who have an Estonian background but who live abroad, are being held for the 13th consecutive year. Over that time a number have returned to the country to live and study.

Two of this year’s camps have now been held. The venue for one was Marja Farm in Valga County, while the other was held at Venevere Holiday Centre in Viljandi County. The third and final camp for this summer will also be held in Venevere, starting on 3 August.

Focusing on mistakes stifles enthusiasm to learn

Epp Adler, the organiser of the camps and the director of the ‘HeadEst’ non-profit organisation, plans activities on the principle that they should be encouraging and motivating.

“A lot of us have had negative experiences or come up against unhelpful attitudes when learning other languages,” she says. “The general understanding that people have about learning hasn’t helped, what with the idea that studying should be about focussing on the mistakes you make. But students are afraid to make mistakes, and you never learn a language properly under those circumstances! For us, recognising mistakes is a good thing – it shows us how and where we have potential to develop.”

Adler considers support for playful self-expression very important in language learning. “By ‘playful’ we don’t necessarily mean games per se, but playing games as a methodology in which there is a clear framework and objectives,” she explains. “If people have fun while they’re learning a language, and that process involves a wide range of experiences, they forget their fear of making mistakes. That leads to success, which in turns encourages them and increases their desire to carry on studying the language – in this case Estonian.”

The foreign Estonian youngsters are supported at the camps by students their own ages who are permanent residents of the country. Every camp has eight such youngsters, with each one supporting two foreign Estonians. Support students themselves learn a lot about Estonian language and culture

“Just because someone lives in Estonia doesn’t automatically mean they know everything there is to know about the country,” Adler says. “Tourists who’ve been on an excursion can sometimes know more than a local will! That’s where the language, culture and history that the support students have learnt at school come into play, both practically and playfully.” Adler also considers boosting tolerance to be of great importance, since in her view this remains a problem in Estonia.

“Camps like this really are needed,” she says. “Gaining a better understanding of people who speak another language is always useful. Instead of constantly judging people in this country for how well or otherwise they speak Estonian, we’d be much better off talking to them more and getting to know them at the personal level. And you shouldn’t correct their mistakes when they’re telling you their story – otherwise they lose interest in telling it. That’s true of anyone, Russian-speaking Estonians included.”

Drawn away by love, labour and war

Foreign students’ families live where they do outside of Estonia for many reasons. In Adler’s experience the younger generation have mostly left the country because of relationships or work, whereas the older generation were often forced to leave due to war.
A youth media group keeps a diary of life at the camps, collecting such stories along the way. One of the youngsters, whose family lives deep in the heart of Siberia, revealed that one of their forebears fought in the Mahtra War.

“Kids that age don’t know where to start when it comes to historical events like that – more often than not they can’t connect to them,” Adler explains. “But that’s why we’re here. Those of us who are older than them can help them find those bonds they have with Estonia.” She adds that many of the stories of the youngsters’ families are love stories. “Time and again we hear how someone’s grandfather studied in Estonia and met an Estonian girl and how they fell in love and got married,” she says.

Meanwhile, those whose families emigrated because of the war have stories to tell that could come straight out of an American action film. “Some of them talk about their grandfathers ditching their bikes, jumping on fishing boats and rowing all the way to Sweden, dodging bombs along the way,” she reveals. “It’s no surprise such stories seem so unbelievable to kids these days. Those who have stories like that to tell are frequently the only ones in their circle of friends who do. Here though they realise that there are other kids with the same stories, so they find it easier to understand what their parents and their grandparents went through. In a sense I suppose we’re helping validate their families’ stories. Otherwise it’ll probably all sound like some massive exaggeration or that they were simply making it all up.”

Adler says the fact they are dealing with young people who are still searching for their identity is never forgotten. “We don’t force Estonia or anything Estonian on them,” she explains. “We simply give them the chance, in an environment where they’re free to be themselves, to learn about Estonian language and culture. They have to find out for themselves, in their own way, what it means to be Estonian.”

“It’s really fascinating here – and fun, too!”

The youngsters attending the camps hail from as far afield as Canada, the United States, Australia and China, as well as Egypt, Greece, Cyprus and closer countries like Germany, Russia, Ireland and various parts of Scandinavia. For many, the camps represent a true adventure among an international group of peers, many of whom become lasting friends.

The chance to make friends at the camps is appreciated by many, including 16-year-old Marco from Bergamo in Italy, whose mother moved to the country 12 years ago. “I come to Estonia every year, and this is my second year at the camp,” he explains, in near-flawless Estonian. At home he speaks Estonian with his mother, which occasionally leaves his Italian father flummoxed. Marco’s first trip to Estonia was his mother’s idea, but this year he came specifically for the camp.

“It’s really interesting here in Estonia, but the mentality… mentality? Is that the right word?” His moment of doubt passes when his word choice is confirmed. “The mentality here’s really different,” he continues. “People don’t cross the road when there’s a red light, even if they see there are no cars coming. In Italy we’d cross straight away! There are lots of little things like that. Estonians are closer to nature as well – they like walking in the forest. And there’s a lot of forest here, and it’s clean and well looked after.”

Asked if there is anything he doesn’t like about Estonia, Marco struggles to come up with an answer. I ask him what he’d say to those locals who have nothing but complaints about life in the country. “In Estonia I guess everything depends on the kind of person you are,” he says. “If you travel around, look at what there is to see, and think about it. There are so many beautiful things here. If I could bring my friends with me, I’d definitely move here.”

18-year-old Malak is on her first visit to Estonia. Her grandparents met in the country when her grandfather came here to study. Love took them both to Egypt. The young woman speaks no Estonian at home and has gotten used to using either English or Arabic.

“I like it here,” she says. “It’s all so pretty! I’m happy that I’ve gotten to know so many lovely new people and gotten more of a handle on Estonian as well. At least now I have a general grasp of what people are talking about! After the camp I’ll be heading back to Egypt, because I’m starting my architecture studies at university, but I’d really like to continue learning Estonian so that I can come here to university at some point, too.”

Malak is enamoured of three things in particular in Estonia: the country itself (how green it is); the camp she’s attending (how interesting it is and how much freedom they have to be themselves); and the Old Town in Tallinn (generally). She was also surprised at the summer being warmer than she expected. She says that as soon as she gets the opportunity she’ll come back as a tourist or a student, and going home promises to talk Estonia up among her friends.

The atmosphere at the camp is also praised by 17-year-old support student Martin. “We don’t have a teacher-student relationship,” he explains. “We work in groups, all of us on an equal footing. The entire programme is playful and well-balanced. There’s a lot of learning, but it never gets boring. For example, we made posters on which we had to present Estonia’s natural environment as diversely as possible. In the evenings we have a theatre group that puts on funny plays. That gives people the chance to demonstrate their Estonian skills as well as their acting skills. Everyone here’s really interested in learning – and it’s not just the language they’re interested in learning, but about people and culture as well. I really do get the impression they want closer ties with Estonia.”

Martin himself has gained a lot from life at the camps. “Last year’s language camp was the best camp I’ve ever been involved in,” he says. “I made friends from all over Europe and gained all sorts of experience.  We learned how to organise things properly, for starters, and how to work in teams.” In addition to Estonian, many of the attendees also improve their English, which is used in conversation a great deal at the camps.

Estonia needs more respect, trust and tolerance

Adler says the point of the camps is twofold: “Of course it’s very important to be with people your own age and make new friends, but the kids still come here to learn,” she explains. “Often they come here with the wrong idea, being used to a strict teacher-student set-up where it’s all about being punished if you do something wrong. But it’s not like that at our camps. We have rules, of course, but we agree on them together so that everything runs smoothly and everyone has a good time.”

Many camps, in Adler’s view, remain little different from those run in Soviet times, when the children attending them had instructors telling them what to do at all times and where activities were monitored externally. “We monitor ourselves,” she says. “We don’t use the word ‘children’, because the kids who come to us aren’t far off being adults, and we talk to each other on the principles of mutual respect and trust-based authority.”

Adler feels that Estonian society needs more respect, trust and tolerance. “We shouldn’t look at things from the same angle all the time, or judge those who left, or whose kids can’t speak Estonian,” she says. “That’s where people should be more tolerant. Estonia’s job should be putting itself on the map. It makes no difference whether people come here, or come back here, to tell their stories, or as tourists, or to study, or to live. You can’t force people to come – we can only help them foster that bond and find friends.”

This article by Meelika Hirmo was published in the Maaleht newspaper on 31 July 2014.

Language and culture camps for young people with Estonian roots are financed by the Ministry of Education and Research and by the Ministry of Culture through the ‘Countrymen programme 2014-2020’. The camps are organised by the ‘HeadEst’ non-profit organisation under the coordination of the Integration and Migration Foundation.

For further information please contact: Marina Fanfora, Coordinator, Multicultural Education Unit / Telephone: +372 659 9068 / E-mail: [email protected]