Riina Solman, the Minister of Population, on the adaptation with Estonian culture

The Settle in Estonia Programme is a free educational programme initiated by the Ministry of the Interior which helps the foreigners who have arrived in Estonia to adapt Estonian culture and become accustomed to local life more easily. Riina Solman, the Minister of Population and the head of the Civil Society and Adaptation Policy Department of the ministry, shares her views on the programme and the field of activity in question.

I believe that the programme provides great assistance to foreigners adapting to Estonian culture and life. I think its most important aspect is that the foreigners newly relocated to Estonia understand which societal rules apply to life in Estonia and how things are generally done here. Understanding how the state functions and what the basic cultural norms are as well as at least some command of the Estonian language at beginner level makes living here and communication with the locals easier and helps prevent potential conflicts.

The various courses of the programme have been attended over 6,000 times since 2015. At the same time, this number amounts to approximately 15% of those who could take part in the programme. consequently, one of our greatest challenges is disseminating information about the new expats who would benefit from taking part in the programme.

Last November, I went to see the course of the programme’s Family Life module which included courses both in English and Russian while children and teenagers could obtain knowledge bout Estonia within the programme specially adapted for them. The instructors summarised their experience up to that point and told me what the participants could expect during the one-day course. In addition, we had an opportunity to discuss the questions which the instructors are the most frequently asked and the primary concerns of the people who have just arrived here as well as adaptation challenges.

There is still room for improvement in the cooperation of the state, companies and local governments as far as the programme is concerned

The key to successful cooperation is well-functioning information exchange, open communication and willingness to support one another. The provision of services which facilitate adaptation by the state as well as the entire field of expats’ adaptation are overseen by the Ministry of the Interior. However, the first state agency newly relocated foreigners contact will often be the local government. This is why the capability of local governments to provide services related to adaptation could be increased and their role could become more significant.

In the future, the role of the Ministry of the Interior could be redefined as supporting and empowering the various parties that are involved in working with newly arrived foreigners. We expect local governments to become even more active in the development of services meant for arriving expats in the future and to coordinate the cooperation of local partners and various other parties.

A good example of a local government’s outstanding work is the partnership agreement between the Ministry of the Interior and the city of Tartu which resulted in the creation of the position of the migration coordinator who started working at the beginning of 2020.  The role of the coordinator involves a more structured approach to handling the migration sphere, coordinating the cooperation of the organisations that contact newly relocated foreigners and supporting the latter in the process of adaptation.

estonian minister of population sharing her perspective on estonian culture

The primary point of contact and source of information for the people arriving to Estonia from abroad to work is mainly their future employer. This is why we need to pay even more attention to communication which targets employers so that they would possess the skills and knowledge for providing the necessary information to expats who have just arrived here.

Raising employers’ awareness about their role in the adaptation of their employees is essential. Employers hiring human resources from abroad can also provide them with supplementary services themselves. Some large-scale companies already feature conversation clubs which meet during non-office hours and give new expats an opportunity to share their experiences of adapting to Estonian society with new colleagues, make new acquaintances and practice Estonian. If one also has an option to bring the whole family to such a hobby club, it will make the adaptation of those who arrive in Estonia with their families faster and smoother.

Estonian culture is somewhat unique – to better adapt to it the basic knowledge of Estonian language is essential

Understanding Estonian language, even at beginner level, fosters establishing relationships with the locals and creates more opportunities for exposure to the local information space as well as Estonian culture and traditions. It is important to spark newly relocated foreigners’ interest in the local language environment and to convey the idea that the acquisition of language skills sets an example for others while learning the official language of the state is a part of successful adaptation.

Our well-developed civil society also plays an important role in the adaptation of foreigners

One example is cultural associations which often become the first place where newly relocated foreigners turn for information. It is in our interests as a state to ensure that the information available there is up to date. This is also where much more intensive cooperation of the state and civil society should take place. In addition, volunteering plays an important part in supporting adaptation to a new society. Volunteering fosters making new acquaintances, expanding one’s network of communication and practicing Estonian.

The survey ‘Integration Monitoring of the Estonian Society 2017’ demonstrates that although a considerable share of expats newly relocated to Estonia is already taking part in a variety of activities, there is a number of those who have never participated in one but would like to do it. The results of the monitoring survey also indicate that the participation of new expats in local activities varies greatly depending on the region of Estonia, which means that it is Ida-Viru county which shows the smallest number of participants in volunteering projects compared to Tallinn and Tartu and a somewhat larger share of those who would like to take part in them.

In the last five years, as many as 49% of Estonia’s population have been doing volunteer work in one field or another. One could almost say that volunteering runs in Estonians’ blood. This is why volunteering is one of the best ways for a foreign national to establish contact with the local population while making a contribution to society.

I would recommend expats to check out the Estonian volunteering portal vabatahtlik.ee, which features a search of volunteering options in English and Estonian.

To sum up, I have a nice personal story to share. Several years ago, I used to frequent a kebab place owned by an Iranian expat. It was on my way from work, so I would come by to buy take-away kebab for me and the boys several times a week. One day, the owner asked what I did for a living and, even before I could reply, said he had been watching me for a while and believed I could be a minister in the government.