The global corona pandemic leaves its mark on the lives of refugees in Estonia. UNHCR investigated how they cope with the crisis.
Refugees and other displaced people belong to the most marginalized and vulnerable members of society. Having been forced to flee from violence or persecution, refugees are already in a vulnerable position. Suddenly finding themselves in a new country, where they do not know the language or culture and often are far from their loved ones, can add to the challenges they face. And on top of that, there is the corona pandemic, further exacerbating their isolation. But thanks to Estonia’s vibrant civil society, refugees are getting helped in several ways.
Bahabelom Woldegebriel Berhe is an Eritrean refugee who was granted asylum in Estonia. Berhe used to work at a hotel, but lost his job due to the pandemic.
“The virus affects everybody everywhere,” he says, “but even more in refugee camps, where they only think about how to survive. In camps, there is generally a lack of food, a lack of medicine.”
After having been separated for six long years, Berhe managed to bring his wife and two children to the country. Like other students in Estonia during this emergency, Berhe’s two children suddenly had to stay at home and instead learn from a distance. But Berhe and his family did not have a computer, like many refugee families at the beginning of the pandemic, explains Anu Viltrop from the Estonian Refugee Council, a nonprofit organization focused on promoting the rights and well-being of refugees in Estonia.
“For all of these families, we were concerned that a smartphone could not fill the same functions as a computer in terms of learning,” she says, adding that immediately several people came forward to offer help and find computers for the families.
“Thanks to these good people, no child was left without a computer,” she says.
However, the situation was especially difficult for children that had not been living in Estonia for a long time, underlines Viltrop. Those children had limited language skills, but the teachers still expected independent work from them. In the spring of 2020, refugees in this situation were assisted by volunteer support persons, who helped explain the lessons if necessary, and who tried to put teachers and parents in closer contact with each other.
The pandemic has also made more refugees use Internet services, which in turn has prompted them to join digital skills training organized by the Estonian Refugee Council, reports Viltrop:
“Until now, several clients of the Estonian Refugee Council tried to avoid the pains and charms of the digital dimension as much as possible, but suddenly there was no way to do so. Children’s schooling, Unemployment Insurance Fund meetings, applying for subsistence benefits, etc. – all was organized through e-channels.”
Now, a year into the global pandemic, the focus for States should still be on ensuring that refugees are not left behind, explains Kari Käsper, the Estonian focal point at UNHCR’s Representation for the Nordic and Baltic Countries. However, while this was initially aimed at making sure that refugees were included in the national health care response, that they received information on how to protect themselves against the virus, and that States did not close their borders to those fleeing violence, war, and persecution, the focus is now shifting.
“Instead, the focus is moving to refugee jobs and livelihoods, which are an important part of rebuilding refugee lives. This is very timely, as unfortunately we can see how the pandemic brings severe socio-economic consequences, also impacting refugees,” says Käsper.
Viltrop with the Estonian Refugee Council points out that many refugees work in sectors that have been hit particularly hard this year, such as catering and hotels. Several of them have already lost their jobs – and many more will likely soon follow.
Khatoon Fardoost is another refugee in Estonia. She fled from Iran a year and a half ago. To her, coping with the pandemic means that her family, including her four-year old daughter, avoids crowded places such as cinemas, theatres, swimming pools, and parties, but also children’s playgrounds.
“I’m afraid someone will get sick and that I’ll get infected quickly. I am worried about this because I have severe allergies that started already in Iran,” explains the woman.
In terms of social distancing due to the pandemic, Khatoon points out that in her Estonian language classes people sit separately and wear a mask.
“We don’t drink anything during class. We are very careful, pay attention to the rules and regulations, and we take care of ourselves. It is difficult, but this situation will end at one point. The world is evolving. Diseases and viruses are still changing. We need to make ourselves resilient for the future,” says Khatoon, who adds that her family loves Estonia very much: “It is safe here, and there are very good people in Estonia.”
Khatoon is a refugee from Iran who often impresses the locals with her traditional dishes. ©Elmo Riig
Khatoon and her four-year old daughter have been coping with the pandemic by avoiding crowds. Although her life has been affected she is hopeful for the future. ©Elmo Riig
An additional, and hidden, aspect of the pandemic is how refugees are mentally coping with the crisis.
Once the pandemic had started, family members spent an exceptionally long time together, and this undoubtedly affected the relationships between them.
“Unfortunately, mental health issues are often taboo among our past and present clients, and related concerns are keenly hidden,” says Viltrop.
The Estonian Refugee Council has been in regular communication with refugee families through coordinators and support persons, and the organization has shared information about the corona situation in Estonian, Russian, English, Arabic, and Turkish.
Due to the pandemic, the organization had to cancel some of its planned events, but the Council’s social enterprise Siin & Sääl started to deliver food to residences, and anyone can order face masks made by refugees from their webshop.