At 10 o’clock on Friday morning, it’s recess and the shouting and shouting in the long sunny corridor of Lilleküla High School is deafening.
Blue and yellow streamers, the colors of the Ukrainian flag, hang atop a nearby bulletin board suspended above paintings of flowers and ladybugs. A yellow and blue heart on the wall at the top of a staircase is the only sign that this school is not exactly like the others in Estonia.
Natalja Mjalitsina, Ukrainian school project manager at Lilleküla High School, sits in her office, half of which is overflowing with donations, including half a dozen beanbags still in their plastic wrappers.
“They are like children, I think they are happy here. They feel very comfortable. When I ask how they are in Estonian – Kuidas käsi käib? – they say they feel normal or very well , of course,” she told ERR News, when asked how they’re settling in.
Lilleküla High School is a leader in terms of language immersion learning, which is why the school and Mjalitsina have been tasked with running the Ukrainian school. Estonian politicians are divided on language learning for refugees. Many believe that immersion on arrival is the best solution, while others advocate a slower and more gradual approach. The Tallinn city government opened the school, initially until the end of the school year.
Currently, 85 children between the ages of 6 and 14 have been registered. The majority are over 10 years old and they have been divided into five groups, each with a class leader who is a Ukrainian teacher.
Children attend Estonian language lessons every day and math, English, art, sports, robotics and other lessons throughout the week. There is also time to participate in distance learning for students who can still take lessons with their Ukrainian teachers.
“They like sports very much because the teacher is a young, handsome man. They like Estonian. Of course, this group [pointing to the teenagers] they’re like normal people, they don’t like anything. “Leave me alone, I’m 14,” she laughs. “But they do everything. They paint, but they can’t show us that they like it. It’s not cool to say that. I think these young kids like everything about school.”
There are also times to see a psychologist if the children wish, but outwardly at least they seem unaffected.
“But I have to say that we don’t see that the kids are very depressed or anything like that. As you can hear and see, they run around like normal kids in all Estonian schools,” says Mjalitsina.
Speaking of immersion as a technique, which she has been working with since 2000, Mjalitsina said it is very effective as long as “you know the rules”.
“You have to speak only in Estonian, you can’t translate. I think it’s very successful in Estonia and it’s one of the good things in our education [system],” she says.
“I’m a teacher in a Russian school too, and I see the difference between the children who come from the immersion class and those who don’t. These children who come from the immersion class, we can talk about everything, literature, all subjects, but these children who come from normal classes have more difficulties.
The method is popular in schools across Estonia, she says, but is hampered by the lack of teachers who know Estonian well enough to teach it.
So far, two weeks later, the children have learned about themselves, basic phrases and colors.
It is not yet clear how long the school will be open and Mjalitsina believes things will become clearer in June. The government has said it hopes children will be able to join Estonian schools in September. It is not known how many refugees will arrive and how many will stay and Mjalitsina knows that some families have already returned to Ukraine.
But not everyone will be able to return home soon.
“All our children come from cities that make the news every day: Kharkiv, Mariupol, Zaporizhzhia, Kryvyi Rih, some people come from kyiv, Mykolaiv, Odessa,” she says. “They don’t have a place to go /…/ But they are very optimistic and more than half of them want to go back there very soon, at the first moment they can.”
While the children seem to have settled into life in Estonia easily, their parents are having a harder time.
“It’s more difficult for the adults, but it’s good for the parents that they have a place here for the children, the children are there from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.,” she says. “They can go to the police, to get this document, they have time to do things or work.”
One such parent is Daria, an English teacher from Donbass who now works at the school. Her seven-year-old son is also a student. The family arrived in Estonia more than a month ago as they have a relative here, but the journey through Hungary, Austria and Poland to the Baltics has been “extremely difficult”.
“I really like Estonia, I like this school but on the other hand I would like to go home,” she told ERR News. She said her son gets along well and likes his class.
Darya agrees that the school relieves the parents. “They can be calm about their kids, they don’t have to worry,” she says.
While the future of the school is unknown, Mjalitsina believes some of the stereotypes should be dispelled.
“We’re like a normal school now, the kids are like normal kids, often when someone comes to visit, they say, ‘How are your kids?’ They think they’re sitting somewhere in the corner and they cry – but no. the kids are like normal kids, they laugh, they run around, so it’s like a normal school.”
Since the start of Russia’s full-scale war in Ukraine on February 24, a total of 3,729 refugee children have started attending kindergarten or school. This represents about a third of children under the age of 19.
So far, 70% are enrolled in the Estonian language, 20% in the Russian language, 10% in language immersion and only 1% in English-speaking educational institutions.
Many schools also hired Ukrainian employees. The results of a survey by the Ministry of Education and Research show that 101 Ukrainian refugees are currently working in 76 schools in Estonia.
The majority work as teachers or teaching assistants, but others have also been hired as school psychologists, speech therapists, support people, study coordinators as well as cooks and janitors.
A total of 33,576 refugees arrived in Estonia, including 11,887 minors.