Katri Uibu, ABC, November 2, 2017
The Rohingya refugee crisis is currently in the headlines, but not long ago another migration disaster shook the West.
By now, many refugees who arrived in Europe from Syria and other countries in the Middle East during 2015 and 2016 have settled in.
But what if, instead of being sent to one of the desired European asylum havens like Germany, you ended up in a place you’d never heard of?
When Hussam was driving over corpses in Aleppo, his wife fainting on the backseat as bombs fell nearby, he could only hope their own bodies wouldn’t add to the pile of dead.
Or when he crossed the Mediterranean Sea in a dangerously overcrowded dinghy, en route from Turkey to Greece, he would pray his pregnant wife would never have to test her inadequate swimming skills — just like dozens had when their asylum seeker boats were swallowed by the sea.
More than a year later, the 30-year-old Syrian is physically safe, but left battling different anxieties.
Unemployment, social seclusion and absence of language skills is what he confronts in Europe. And he suspects he’s not alone.
According to the UNHCR statistics, Hussam is one of the more than 1 million asylum seekers who migrated to Europe by sea in 2015 and 2016.
Born to a Kurdish dad, Hussam knew he and his pregnant wife had to flee further than Turkey, where ethnic hatred against the Kurds has been ongoing for decades.
When he finally learnt where in Europe he was going to be relocated, it was a country he’d never heard of.
Cold, lonely, and on the edge of Europe
Estonia is no Germany.
It’s an eastern European country with 1.3 million residents and virtually no Muslim community. Its social benefits are modest compared to those of Scandinavian and Western asylum havens, and the locals, still grappling with the legacy of Soviet occupation, are hesitant to accept those from a different background.
But under a relocation quota system, the Government has agreed to welcome 550 refugees to a land which is half covered by forests, where most counties have fewer than 3,000 residents, and the average annual temperature is 5.2 degrees Celsius.
The newly arrived refugees have an airport-to-apartment transfer, a support person for the first six months, 100 language classes and access to translation services arranged for them.
“At the beginning, everything is great, it’s perfect actually,” Hussam says.
“Everything was fast and easy. But after a while there are three problems — language courses, work and communication with other people — that they didn’t think about at all.”
Although armed with a medical degree and having worked as a paediatrician in a war zone, he has been struggling to find any work for nearly a year.
“Until now, most refugees have been here for almost one year and most of them don’t work, and even if they work it’s just part-time,” he says.
“I feel that they’re not used to hiring foreign people. For them, someone, especially from the Middle East, comes to work here — they are afraid actually.”
It’s not just the employers who are afraid. During his Estonian year, Hussam has become acquainted with four locals.
“Some of them [neighbours], they speak to us very kindly but I know they are afraid and they don’t just want to come face-to-face with us on the stairs,” he says.
“I know why. They are afraid of something in their mind or they have some opinion.”
Even if he wanted to try to change their preconceptions, it would be impossible because of the language barrier.
Hussam is driven to learn Estonian but his prospects are bleak due to the designated three hours per week that go towards 100 hours in total, which can later be extended by another 100 hours.
“I can speak English, so I can learn faster. But other people can’t even speak English, and they have never, ever been to school. The problem is — they put all the students together,” he says.
He can’t lose hope, Hussam reassures himself. Meanwhile, he’s left wondering if he’ll ever find work as a doctor in Estonia. And what will happen if he doesn’t?
“I will leave, actually. I don’t know where, but I’m thinking Asia,” he says.
Come to Estonia, then leave
Statistics show Hussam is not alone in his thoughts of departure.
As of October 2017, 87 out of 161 refugees relocated to Estonia did not currently reside in the country.
The refugees are allowed 90 days to explore Europe, but if they fail to return, all their benefits are cut.
Seventy-nine people have exceeded the 90-day limit.
“Many people have come here knowing they want to move on,” the director of the Estonian Refugee Council, Eero Janson, says.
It’s a mixture of having family members elsewhere, myths about opportunities in other countries and isolation that drives them to pick up and leave.
Mr Janson is critical of the Government’s integration policy that sees some refugees sent to small villages. He says it creates seclusion.
“It was a wrong political decision. Even the results show that people don’t actually want to stay in places with only a couple of thousand residents.
“I don’t know why Estonia is afraid of communities. Communities are a strength that should be used for integration purposes instead of artificially separating people.”
But a Department of Social Affairs spokesperson, Triin Raag, says refugees have a better chance of becoming a part of local culture in small communities. Besides, only a few are sent to small communities, she says.
But with nearly half the refugees flocking to other countries, has the European migration program failed?
“It has and it hasn’t,” she says.
“Every country still has the responsibility. People do move around, which is understandable. Estonians also relocate.”
But for some the isolation is an advantage
While some chase the company of their countrymen, others — like Egyptian asylum seeker Mitchell — seek anything but.
“I don’t search for a community, I’m hiding from this community,” the 28-year-old says, referring to Muslims.
He says his woes in his native Cairo, Egypt began when he did a “very wrong thing” and converted to Islam, but later refused to change his name.
Seeking asylum in Estonia is his second stint in Europe. Mitchell says he was deported from Austria three years ago when he failed to provide evidence of a student visa, which he claims had been stolen from him while sleeping.
When trying to enter Austria the second time around, he says the authorities referred him to the Estonian border force instead.
Waiting for his asylum application outcome in an accommodation centre for asylum seekers, Mitchell is passing the time learning Estonian.
Located in the 300-resident town of Vao — surrounded by vast forests — asylum centre residents are allowed to wander freely and visit nearby towns.
Twenty kilometres away, in a Vägeva asylum centre, just months ago three families took advantage of the privilege and walked off. Their whereabouts is unknown.