Reflection on my engagement in Vao Center


Here is the link to the scanned Verification Document

I know this post comes a few weeks late, but I think I have now had time to think my experience over.

Working in Vao was quite a bizarre experience. Starting off with the fact that I have heard so much about the place, because taking in asylum seekers is such a big deal for Estonia. And then I arrive and yes, you can see the people roaming around in the village, but thinking about the noise made by the conservative party, there is so few of them.

Talking with Jana, I got to know, that Estonia has now denied taking in people with refugee status from the camps, but people coming by regular migration and applying for the status at boarder, are the ones currently hosted by the center. The fact had completely been lost on my radar. And to my question as of why such choice had been made, she shook her shoulders and just mentioned the conservative party rule that we currently have.

A fun fact break! Currently, all the refugees that Estonia has taken in since 2014, can fit inside a compartment building in Tartu. A 5 floor compartment building.

The other thing that my conversation with Jana surprised me with, was the fact that all of  the housing of asylum seekers in Estonia lies in the shoulders of 3 everyday workers. 2 at Vao center in Vao village and 1 at Vägeva center, a new center created  a few years back. And even though they have a doctor, a psychologist and a legal councillor coming in each week, they have to essentially do all the jobs starting with driving people to doctors appointments and ending with planning events and activities for the people at the center. That means, that when you get to know the 3 people working there, you start to see, how their personalities rub off on the place.

A fun fact break! Both Vao and Vägeva center rarely have volunteers for a longer periods of time.

Stepping into my volunteer flat, it was quite clear that no-one had been living there for a long time. There were no pots or pans or utensils to cook food with and the bathroom was not even built to actually host someone for a longer period of time (there was no shower). Asking about it from Jana, she explained that most people come to visit, to see the center and see the people, but rearly come to interact in a meaningful way, that would benefit the people. She also told me about a surge of volunteers in 2015, when the topic became popular in Estonia. Of people who came, wanting to “help”, but were actually only interested because the topic was popular. So a bad case of voluntourism.

But still, the most important part of the engagement were the people.

Overall it seemed, that when meeting me, people were curious, but cautious. I was a new face, but because of the fact that they get visitors who do not interact as proactively, they were not really up to start a conversation with me on their own. That said, the kids were mostly all very interested in me and playing and doing things together. So on my first day, since most families with kids were away from Vao or confused about the fact that they had to send their kid to me, I had the possibility to get to know 3 sisters, who lived across from me, and later on the family became very active in bringing me food – amazing white bread on the first night, amazing cheese pancakes for second day lunch, strawberries when I was dragged into their apartment for tea and some conversation… The family has been in the center for the longest time and the father kindly shared with me his thoughts on Estonia – It is a place with good opportunities and when you do not bother others, they won’t bother you, but their own country is still the best. And I totally understand.

But continuing with the kids, on the second day, we had a fun few hours doing some altered theatre workshops and making pancakes in the evening, and for me, the most wonderful part was seeing them all play together, as it became quite clear quite quickly, that they did not really have such organised opportunities to play together, as the people at the center, just do not have time to regularly plan something like this. Which is understandable, thinking about their current workload. But this is the space that even a single volunteer could fill. This is why I started to think about the social activism in Estonia, especially in regards the migrant crisis, and wondered about how the situation is in Johannes Mihkelson’s center.

On my last day, I had the opportunity to visit the Vägeva center and help with some english translation on their monthly house meeting. As the Vägeva unit is separate, it was really interesting to see how the vibe of the place is so different, because the person working there is different and has shaped the place differently. Afterwards me and the girls decided to have a hike to the local Mansion school that all the kids study at. We collected some wild-flowers on the way and I taught them to make flower-crowns.

My reaction to the last 3 days
The girls on our hike to the local mansion, wearing the flower crowns we made

On that hike, it became clear to me, that all of the kids had become close to me. I had a group of sister who had just come in a few weeks ago, and did not speak any English or Estonian and had been a bit of a headache for me on the previous days, but on our hike, they started calling me “sister” as was translated to me by others, and actively interacting with me. It did not make it better, that I was leaving that evening. Also, already on my second day Jana asked me through vines, if I would like to come back soon and work with them some more. And in all honesty, I would love to.

I will also link my reflections for day 1 and 2. They are a bit long, but only because I was trying to collect my thoughts 🙂


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