Tahsin Kayurga’s incredible story: how a Turkish civil engineer became a maths teacher in Pelgulinn

Tahsin arrived in Estonia with his wife a few years ago as a political refugee. Today, he teaches maths to children in Estonian, is studying for a master’s degree in Estonian, and volunteers with his wife to support the elderly with their daily tasks. 


Please tell us more about yourself: who are you and how did you happen to come to Estonia? 

I am from Türkiye, and my wife and I have been living in Laagri for 2.5 years. We came here for political reasons. I am a civil engineer, but I currently work as a maths teacher. If an engineer builds houses, then in education, we build people. My wife was a theology teacher in Türkiye, but she is not able to do this work here. In August, she will start training as a support worker. She is currently unemployed. I speak Estonian at level B2, and in June I am going to take the level C1 exam. My wife is at level B1. 

We have no children, but my best friend has two children who go to kindergarten in Laagri. My friend is also learning Estonian. At home, they speak Turkish. 

What was your life like as a refugee in Estonia? 

At first, my wife and I lived in a refugee centre in Vao village. We lived like ordinary people in an apartment, not in a tent encampment where they send war refugees in other parts of the world. Sometimes we miss the village of Vao – life was good there. 

All beginnings are difficult. Starting from scratch is hard. It was difficult financially. I am currently working part-time, full-time from next year. 

How did you come to study Estonian? 

We started learning Estonian at the refugee centre. We took courses for six months at a folk high school until reaching level B1, which has helped us a lot. We then took the level B1 exam. If you speak English, you may think: ‘Should I learn Estonian? Is it necessary?’ I would definitely recommend anyone who has come to live in Estonia or is a war refugee to first learn the language. If you learn Estonian, you will do better at work and in life. My Estonian was not perfect, but I went for a job interview. The employer said ‘You can do it, we believe in you’. I also started master’s studies in Estonian at Tallinn University, majoring in teaching mathematics. I work hard. But I can manage. It gets better with time. 

I will never forget when my wife told me that she wanted to learn Estonian not only to work, but also to communicate with people and learn about the culture. Maybe you are an IT guy and have no need for Estonian, but you still need it to communicate with people. 

What do you like about Estonia? 

We ended up in Laagri. It is a very nice place and we have nice neighbours to socialise with. Estonia is a very good place to live. It is peaceful here. There are very few causes of problems compared to other countries. People are environmentally aware. I was surprised to see that even small children walk the streets alone. Estonia has a very clean environment. I really like it here. 

What is your day like? 

I teach maths in Estonian to Estonian children at Avatud Kool. Avatud Kool is a language immersion school. I am not sure, but I think about half of the pupils in our school are Estonian and the other half are Russian. I only teach in Estonian – I do not speak Russian. Russian-speaking children speak much better Estonian than I do. 

It was challenging at first – a new environment, a new job. We have a very good team at school, they always support me. There is nothing to fear. If you make a little effort to speak Estonian, Estonian people immediately cheer up. 

I was so bored when I was not working. The early days were difficult. My wife and I only went to courses and there are very few people on the streets in Estonia. There are not many opportunities to meet people and communicate. In Türkiye, when you go out, take the bus, or go shopping, everyone tells you who they are and where they are from. Everyday communication is more active, you get to practise the language. I motivated myself, which is very important. When I started working, my Estonian improved and everything got better. Working is very important to practise the language. 

How do Estonians feel about you? Do you get on well with the locals? 

I have not encountered people who are afraid or unwilling to communicate. The wife wears a headscarf, and she gets the occasional look from Estonians who have never seen it before. My wife does not get offended if people look. Maybe we need to make an effort to communicate more with Estonians? At first, I would say hello to my neighbour and he would reply: ‘Tere!’ I would then ask how he was doing and he would say: ‘I’m good’. Nothing more. Now we communicate more. For two years now, we have been exchanging gifts with our neighbours at Christmas. It is a good way to connect. 

Big countries – France, Germany, Türkiye, and Russia – are very conservative about their language. Estonian people are not that conservative. They will respond immediately in English or Russian, not Estonian. This is not a good thing. There are not enough Estonian people, so the people should do more to keep the language alive. 

What do you do in your free time to practise Estonian? 

My wife and I volunteer with MTÜ SaTu Dialoog (https://satu.ee/), we organise a lot of events. For example, on Midsummer Day, we visit Estonian friends and celebrate together. On Independence Day, too. We have been doing this for three years. We communicate in Estonian and that helps. 

My wife and I volunteer and we also socialise with the elderly and go for walks with them. An elderly lady comes to visit us and we cook together. 

Have you encountered any prejudice in Estonia? 

As a Muslim, I have not experienced Estonians being prejudiced. If you speak Estonian, it does not matter what your religion is or where you come from. 

Many people say that Estonian is a difficult language. Estonian is a bit like Turkish – the dictionary is similar. It was not that hard for me, maybe a little bit sometimes. For example, when you come home from attending a course and you have to do homework and listen to something, but you have no energy. You have to be optimistic. Learning a language takes time, at least two or three years. But everything will be fine in the end. When I speak a bit of Estonian and Estonians say that I speak it so well, it motivates me. If I lived in France or Germany, I would definitely think that I would have to learn the local language. This is also true in Estonia. If I want to live in Estonia for the rest of my life, I have to learn Estonian. Learning the language means respecting Estonian culture. If you say that you do not want to learn Estonian because Estonia is a small country with a small population, then that is neither fair nor right. 

What do you recommend to other newly arrived immigrants coming to Estonia? 

I would definitely advise new immigrants to find reasons to go out, to immerse themselves in a language environment, not just to be at home. For example, if you have hobbies ... or a dog or a cat, go out and socialise with other pet owners and you can practise your Estonian. You can visit museums, language cafés. I do not enjoy staying at home and learning a language from a computer or a book. I always have Estonian radio on in my car – it is a good way to learn the language. There is no need to be afraid of making mistakes. Speaking without making mistakes is certainly difficult, but it is important to communicate and make connections. At school, students also correct me; it is a good way to learn. 


The Settle in Estonia Programme is a free educational programme provided by the Estonian state which is intended to help the foreigners who have arrived in Estonia to adapt and become accustomed to local life more easily. We offer courses for people who have come to live or study in Estonia and have lived here for less than 5 years. For example, war refugees to whom Estonia offers international or temporary protection, as well as people who have come to Estonia to work or do business here or relocate with their family member. We offer language training and other courses to help you cope with everyday life in Estonia. Read more and register: https://integratsioon.ee/en/kohanemine. The adaptation programme is co-funded by the European Union and the state budget.