Refugees speak at the Opinion Festival: “Estonians, let’s be friends!”

This year at the annual Paide Opinion Festival, refugees living in Estonia talked to UNHCR about where they feel they belong.

© Kristofer Robin Kirsiste, Arvamusfestival

On August 15, more than 70 people gathered at the Paide Opinion Festival in the Equal Treatment Area, a stage coordinated by the Estonian Human Rights Centre, to listen to three refugees who were granted asylum in Estonia. They spoke with moderator Kari Käsper from UNHCR on the topic, “Where do I belong?”

Although the participants–Celal from Turkey and sisters Shorok and Kamer from Syria–have only lived in Estonia for one year and two and a half years respectively, the discussion was held in Estonian. In fact, they all agreed that speaking Estonian is the most important factor for living in the country.

Sharing stories about coming to Estonia

Celal, who worked as a computer teacher in Turkey but now works in a café in Estonia, began by telling the story of arriving in his new home last winter: “I told the landlord at Christmas that I wanted to buy gifts for all our neighbors and get to know them. He said: ‘Don’t do that! You live in Estonia!’”

“But I did! I bought Christmas presents for all the neighbors and knocked on their doors, and said, ‘Hello! I’m your new neighbor. Please come visit us!’ “At first they looked at me like, ‘What do you want?’ But I didn’t want anything! I just wanted to talk, to communicate. And then they came to visit us and we went to visit them.”Shorok, who is 18 and attending 12th grade in Tallinn, spoke about her large family arriving in Estonia: “There was a war in Syria, that’s why we left. We lived in Turkey for three years, and then we came to Estonia. I studied Estonian for about eight months, and I got to a level B1 . I have a good, peaceful life here. Estonians are mostly friendly, but not everyone. They are a bit closed off, some don’t want to get acquainted right away. But those I have met have been very, very friendly!” .

Shorok’s 19-year-old sister, Kamer, is also in 12th grade, although both of them have graduated already from high school in Turkey, where they also learned Turkish. “When I graduate from Tallinn Adult Gymnasium, I will go to the University of Tartu”, Kamer said. I don’t know what I want to study yet, but I want to go to university.”

Kamer continued, “When I came to live in Tallinn, I didn’t know the city very well. I remember once I wanted to see a doctor, but I didn’t know where to go. I couldn’t speak Estonian as well as I do now, but I asked someone if he knew where the hospital was. He said, “Yeah, of course I know.” He took me by the hand, and brought me to the hospital. I’m so glad there are such nice people here; it is so good to live in Estonia. Estonia is great!”

Speaking Estonian is a top priority

What does it take to start feeling like part of a community? First, the newcomers had to find their own ways to get by in Estonian. Celal said: “I work in a café and when customers come in, I ask, ‘Do you have a minute? Yes? What should I know about living in Estonia? What are the rules? And how can I learn Estonian?’ And then I say: ‘If you talk to me, I’ll give you a coffee and a small piece of baklava for free!’ They help me and give me some advice about living here.”

Shorok also thinks that speaking Estonian is key. “If you don’t speak the language”, she says, “you can’t go to school or go out with friends. I think that language is the most important thing, and then comes school, friends, family.”

Her sister Kamer agreed: “The Estonian language is a necessity, because if someone can’t speak, she doesn’t understand what people want, and she doesn’t know what she wants. She just lives. But can she talk? Can she communicate? Can she work? I think my teachers helped me the most here, they’re the most important. I’m very grateful to them, they’re very nice people. They explain slowly when I don’t understand something, and they try to explain things differently.”

Celal also recalled meeting the Minister of Social Affairs: “Once we met with the young Minister, Tanel Kiik. And I told him ’we need an apartment, but why don’t Estonians rent to us?’ He used to work as a broker, and told me I needed more time, Estonians usually don’t want to rent to foreigners. I said, ‘ut I speak Estonian!” And he said, ‘If you speak to them, it’s easier.’ And he was right. If I speak Estonian, all the doors will open.”

“I belong where I find freedom”

The conversation opened up to the audience, who had a number of questions for the Celal, Shorok and Kamer. Someone asked what constitutes having refugee status, and why people are forced to flee places where there is no war.

Kari Käsper from UNHCR explained that “refugees can indeed be fugitives due to war or other national conflicts, but they can also flee because of persecution. Each case is individual.”

Shorok added that Estonia is a big country, and refugees don’t want to take people’s space. “We just want to live in peace”, she says. “No one wants to be a refugee, but it’s our life. Our country is at war, that’s why we left. If our country gets better, we’ll go back. Who wouldn’t want to be in their own country, to live in their own home? But who wants a war? Nobody. I don’t think everyone knows what we went through. But I want to say that we survived very bad things. That’s why we left.”

Celal agreed: “That’s right. Being a refugee is not easy, really. For example, I studied for about 16 years to become a teacher. But I only worked as a teacher in Turkey for two years. It was my dream. So why did I come here? I had a good life; I had a house, I had a car, but I had no freedom. Right now we’re talking about where we belong. I belong where I find freedom. That is why I now belong in Estonia, because there is no freedom in Turkey at the moment. About 17,000 women are in prison. And they are usually teachers. Why? They’re just asking questions. They want a better life. Of course, we miss home. I have a mother in Turkey, I miss her and she misses me and my baby. That’s not easy.”

Another member of the audience asked how Estonians could better help refugees, to which Kamer answered: “Estonians, let’s be friends!”


©Kristofer Robin Kirsiste, Arvamusfestival


©Kristofer Robin Kirsiste, Arvamusfestival


©Kristofer Robin Kirsiste, Arvamusfestival


80 million refugees, 80 million stories

There are currently almost 80 million refugees in the world, each with a personal story. For example, three months after Shorok and Kamer’s family were interviewed in Turkey, they were told that Estonia had chosen them for resettlement. They were shocked: it was the first time they’d heard of the country. “We looked on the internet to see where it was”, they said. “Who lives there? What is the capital? What language do they speak?”

Estonia displaced a total of 66 people from Turkey, but participation in the program has now ended. “UNHCR believes that resettlement is an important opportunity, especially for the most vulnerable refugees, and we call on Estonia to participate in the program again,” said Kari Käsper.

Finally, the refugees talked about their plans for the future. Celal wants to start speaking Estonian like a native and work as a teacher again. Shorok wants to study dentistry at the University of Tartu.

The last question came in via Facebook: “How much do you feel like a refugee? Will you be a refugee forever?” Celal answered, “It is difficult to be a refugee. Of course, I only want to be a resident of Estonia. We are all humans”.