Estonians diaspora are our cultural richness

The daily work of the Compatriots Service of the Integration Foundation is to make sure that people returning to Estonia could smoothly adapt to the society and that compatriots living abroad would not lose their connection with Estonia. Marika Sulg, Compatriots Service Consultant at the Integration Foundation, speaks about the main achievements in the eyes of the leaders of the field and about the bold steps planned for the coming year.


Your main task is to keep in touch with Estonians living abroad as well as with those who are planning to return. How and with what kinds of tools do you achieve all that?

Returnees are people who have decided to leave the country and have then returned or those who are Estonian by ethnic origin, have never lived here, but now wish to return to their roots. We normally offer counselling services to such people. For example, we help them find appropriate language courses, but also provide with important information such as how to give digital signatures or how to enrol a child in a kindergarten. It may all seem logical at first glance but may prove to be difficult even after a decade abroad.

Our second and a very important task is to stay in touch with people who are from Estonia but live far away from the country. A total of nearly 200 000 Estonians, i.e. almost every fifth Estonian, lives abroad. In cooperation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we have opened the information gateway Global Estonian for these people, where we organise joint global web-based activities and welcome young people with Estonian roots to our Estonian language and culture summer camps, which are a great opportunity for the youngsters who do not have any contacts in Estonia.


Speaking of young people, it is important to ask: how well are you doing with engaging them?

Our focus last year was establishing contacts with young people, which was facilitated by the Youth Song and Dance Celebration held this summer. We organised a joint meeting as part of it, where we introduced different opportunities to build a stronger connection with Estonia. We additionally prepared a guide which would provide information to young people through the experiences of other young people and would offer information about different youth programmes. The camp I mentioned before is another way we try to do it. Young people with Estonian roots from all over the world meet there every year. Last year, for example, we had participants from the US, Canada, Australia, even Hawaii, and, of course, from Europe. It is a place that offers young people living in Estonia an opportunity to meet each other, but also a chance to get to know their roots for young people who lack other means to do so. For example, not everyone has grandparents here to visit, so we can offer such visiting opportunities.


What other kinds of projects do you have for young people?

We focus more on adults, but in cooperation with our partners, we are also engaged in several activities for young people living abroad. I definitely want to mention the Global School, which offers year-round opportunities for web-based learning of Estonian language and culture as well as other subjects in Estonian. We additionally assist the National Foundation of Civil Society in spreading information about their scholarship programme, which offers young people abroad opportunities to undergo their work placement here in Estonia.


You have cooperated with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for three years already, leading the information portal Global Estonian, which aims to serve as an information channel for Estonians abroad. How is it going?

In cooperation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, we have made several updates over the past two years, improved the subpages, and written several stories about the activities of Estonian communities abroad and outstanding Estonians across the world. Last year, we also carried out an analysis of the portal users to better understand how to proceed with the webpage over the coming years. The analysis showed that the portal has certainly achieved somewhat of a place within the community of Estonians living abroad, but there is a long way ahead; a total of 80% of the respondents indicated a need for such a page. Our goal is to become the conscious first choice for Estonians living abroad who want to know about things happening in Estonia.


When you look back on your achievements, what were the main activities and services you offered in 2023 that truly had an impact?

This year, we carried on with the main activities of our service area. I would like to highlight separately that we have somewhat renewed the format of the experience-sharing meetings of the returnee club, actively engaging the families and children of the returnees as well. We decided to include a cultural and entertainment aspect in the renewed format so that people could open up more easily. We have visited different museums, the zoo, the botanical gardens, and spent this year’s final meeting watching a film together. We can see that these meetings are important for the returnees: the interest in them is high and the number of participants has increased each time. The participants include young people, families with children, as well as older people.

One important activity was certainly the analysis we ordered of the use of the Global Estonian portal. We received so much important information about how to proceed with the development of the site. Second of all, it must be mentioned that a large part of our work is made up of the processing of the return support applications.


What are your objectives for 2024?

To continue our work so that our compatriots feel like they matter to Estonia. Our communities are important for us, which is why it we must continue supporting their activities and sharing their stories also in the future. The Cultural Diversity Year, which is about to begin, will certainly play a huge part in our work. Why? Because we do not often realise that our international diaspora is one of our major sources of cultural diversity, as it is these people who share and spread our culture all over the world. We must ensure a functioning connection with our homeland for this to continue. So, we will do everything we can for the current projects to continue.

Johanna Kaasik (New York, USA)

‘Even though I have lived my whole life in America, I am Estonian. My mother was born in Tartu and my father is a foreign Estonian. My family also lives in Estonia. I really want to communicate with them, which is why this is my fourth year of studying Estonian language and culture at the Global School. I travelled almost 7,000 km to take part in a language and culture camp for foreign Estonian youths. I met other young people from different countries there, we practised Estonian together, visited different places in Estonia, and it was a really cool summer!’

Ronald Pelin (Moscow, Russia)

‘I returned to Estonia after twelve years abroad. I worked in the field of film and theatre and would have certainly studied something film-related at the Baltic Film, Media and Arts School, had I returned sooner. I am glad that I found the services of the Integration Foundation. I am getting useful advice and taking part in events where we spend a good time together with other returnees and exchange our experiences. I would have returned to Estonia sooner, had I known how easy it would be.’

Liina Viies, Advisor for Diaspora Affairs at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs

 Estonia is a special small country with a large and scattered diaspora. According to different sources, it is estimated that there are up to 200,000 people with Estonian roots living abroad, which is a rather significant number in terms of our population. That is why everyone matters. This becomes evident when travelling abroad – sometimes, you will need to explain in a foreign country where Estonia is located and what makes us special. To some, the most important part of Estonia is its untouched nature, to others, it is being the nation of song celebrations, and for others still, it is our image as the land of startups and entrepreneurship, the digital state, the Old Town – which is included in the UNESCO World Heritage List – or our sauna culture. It is a country like all of us – small but bold. And each of us can be an Estonian ambassador – some more and some less, each according to their wishes and abilities. And for that, I am sincerely grateful to our people. Together, we are making Estonia bigger!


Kuidas kaasata eestlaseid üle maailma