Bridgebuilder of the Year 2023: Maria Sakarias


At this year’s Integration Awards ceremony, the Bridgebuilder of the Year 2023 award was given to Maria Sakarias, leader of the Mondo Ukrainian Academy, which supports educators who have fled to Estonia from the war in Ukraine. The Mondo Ukrainian Academy is the only community in Estonia which supports the educators who have fled to Estonia from the war in Ukraine. Lead by Maria, the academy offers teaching staff an opportunity to get adjusted to the daily life in Estonia, a chance for professional self-actualisation in Estonia, to support Ukrainian children and families, and to create cooperation ties with educators in Estonia.

Read more about Maria and her activities in the interview below.

Aasta sillalooja 2023: Maria Sakarias


Why have you decided to contribute in this field and why do you find work like this important?

 For Mondo, it was a logical step to start supporting educators who have migrated from Ukraine to Estonia. We have worked in Ukraine since 2014, mainly contributing in the educational and psychosocial field and in the development of democracy. Despite the current situation, we have continued our cooperation with the educational network in Ukraine – since February 2022, we have organised trainings on digital skills, mental health, and psychosocial support for over 4,000 teachers and school psychologists in 7 Ukrainian oblasts. Therefore, our team is experienced in training Ukrainian teachers and we have an understanding of the differences in the educational field between Ukraine and Estonia. In addition, many study materials on global education have been translated into either Ukrainian or Russian.

In spring 2022, we witnessed a lack of sufficient support of Ukrainian educators in Estonia, although they had a significant role in supporting Ukrainian students in our schools and a long-term potential to work as teachers in Estonian educational institutions. Today, the Mondo Ukrainian Academy (MUA) is the only community in Estonia which supports the educators who have fled to Estonia from the war in Ukraine by offering them trainings and assistance. More than 50 teachers have actively participated in the training programme, but the activities in our information field bring together over 200 Ukrainian educators.

How have you personally contributed in this area and where have you felt that you have truly succeeded?

The MUA was created in summer 2022 and its activities will continue in the new academic year. The Ukrainian educational environment is very different from that of Estonia – therefore, the trainings of the MUA tackle themes that are, in many ways, new to the teachers. The training sessions held about once per month cover methods of active learning, global education, and project-based learning as well as introduce the Estonian educational system and interactive and digital teaching methods. The focus is on cooperation between learners and teachers and with the Estonian educational staff. Several members of the MUA are motivated teachers whose Estonian language skills are improving rapidly.

I have participated to ensure funding, create a team, and develop the programme. Today, the network is still provided by Mondo, but the content is managed by Ukrainian teachers.

We feel that our activity has made a difference when we hear about the impact the programme has had on Ukrainian teachers. They have opened up to share that thanks to the programme, they feel accepted in Estonia, have found a (professional) community, and appreciate the actions that make their work in the Estonian educational field meaningful – all of this supports their long-term adaptation in the Estonian society.

What do you see as the major challenges in the field of integration?

First and foremost, language learning – the transition to Estonian-language education is necessary and welcomed, but it will surely become a major challenge for educators from Ukraine. Many of them are ready to stay in Estonia and would like to work at schools, but the success of language learning is individual and achieving level C1 will take time and active practice. It is especially complicated for those living in regions where daily language practice opportunities are limited. As it may be difficult to fulfil the language requirements to seek professional employment, they are forced to work in areas below their qualification – this has a negative impact on their self-confidence and mental health and may also cause economic instability.

What is the significance of this year’s award for you? What kind of strength will it give you for the future?

I am very touched and thankful. For me and the Mondo Global School, this award means that our efforts to support educators from Ukraine have been recognised – this gives us strength and ensures us that their contribution in this field is important, supporting integration and mutual understanding.

There are nearly 8,500 Ukrainian refugee students learning in Estonian schools and kindergartens. The educational pathway of these children must not be interrupted, but the addition of refugees in such a capacity is a major challenge for the local teachers. Ukrainian educators play an important role here in assisting the learners in adapting to the new environment and learning meaningfully. Through teacher trainings, the students will gain better access to the methods applied in Estonian schools, such as active learning, as well as to finding common values with their class- and schoolmates. The MUA has also organised art therapy and other lessons, UN hikes, and opportunities to participate in Mondo’s youth contests for students. We wish to continue offering as meaningful and supportive a programme as possible.

Who are the people who have helped and inspired you in your work this year and in general?

We are thankful to the educational foundation Heateo Haridusfond, which helped us launch the first season of the programme, to be then continued with the help of the UN Refugee Agency UNHCR and the US Embassy. We have been helped the most and I have been personally most inspired by teacher Hanna from Ukraine, who works at the Old Town Educational College as a teacher for Ukrainian children. She contributes towards the MUA as a community coordinator and helps to develop activities that would be most valuable to educators from Ukraine.

How do you evaluate your work today and how do you intend to proceed in the future?

The journey has not been easy, but we definitely want to continue and offer opportunities for experts who have fled to Estonia from the war in Ukraine to work in their area of expertise and make use of their strengths here. We hope that this will be beneficial for the young Ukrainians, the educators themselves, as well as the entire educational system and Estonia as a whole.

 Things do not always go according to plan. What kind of recommendations would you give to other people for such moments? How to stay inspired in the face of difficulties?

During difficult moments, I advise to stay flexible, learn from your failures, be there for your team, and consciously create positive moments. The experience with the Mondo Ukrainian Academy has shown us the importance of adapting and finding alternative solutions – we try to develop our programme on the go according to the needs of the teachers, which demands continuous listening and conscious observation. We view challenges as opportunities for growth and learning and stay motivated by setting realistic goals.

The most important things are a positive attitude and courageous initiative. As much as we can, we try to practice appreciative discovery – meaning that we resolve challenges, but also feel gratitude and celebrate things that are already working.

Next year will be dedicated to cultural diversity. What does cultural diversity mean to you personally and where is it expressed in Estonia?

For me, cultural diversity means richness stemming from different cultural elements, traditions, languages, and ways of expression which all enrich our society. In Estonia, cultural diversity is expressed in multiple ways – for example, it encompasses our rich cultural heritage, language diversity, art, music, food culture, and many other things.

Most importantly, cultural diversity is expressed in the joint activity of different communities and ethnic groups, where different people contribute with their perspectives and traditions for the enrichment of society. I think that a culturally rich Estonia could be defined as a diverse and open society that values differences and sees cultural diversity as an asset, not an obstacle.