[This article is copied with the permission of the owners from Settle in Estonia blog, where it is possible to read it also in Estonian and Russian. Photo credits: Eva Kram]
Tartu Välismaalaste Teenuskeskus / Tartu Welcome Centre is a very young establishment – we opened our doors to customers on 21 August 2019. As the majority of foreigners arriving in Tartu are students and university staff, universities, in particular, needed help in providing adjustment support to new members of their academic family. However, the city also needed a centre where newly arrived people could get help in finding the right information and advice concerning everyday issues.There are currently already three of us: Janika Hango is our project manager and head of the establishment, Merle Soosaar is an advisor, and Merje Laimets is a coordinator.
Janika and Merle have previous long-term experience in working with foreigners at the Tartu Student Village and have discovered that there are many things related to studying and finding accommodation that foreigners may have difficulties with when they do not know where to turn for assistance. This might concern finding a family doctor or issues related to Estonian culture and customs, for example, which can also confuse a person from another cultural environment.
Merje joined our small team in January 2020, and since then it has been possible to apply for a personal identification code and register a place of residence at our centre. Merje has previous experience with foreigners from working at the Department of Public Relations of Tartu City Government and in the Tartu 2024 team.
Our main working language is English, but there are times when we also have to use Russian. Merje is also fluent in German.
At our centre, foreigners can apply for a personal identification code and register their place of residence on a daily basis. We also help with personalising bus cards, as not yet everyone has the digital capability to do it themselves. Time and time again, we hear how amazingly fast you can get a personal identification code or register a place of residence in Estonia compared to other countries.
When foreigners arrive with their families, they often have questions about school, kindergarten, or hobby groups for their children. Sometimes, a person in a new cultural environment simply needs to talk to someone to make sure that they are on the right track. There have also been cases where recent arrivals have set unrealistic goals or expectations and by discussing them together, these goals can be slightly adjusted so that the new environment does not seem so discomforting or discouraging anymore. Naturally, there are people who need more help than just listening, in which case we will direct them to professional help. We also often give advice on topics related to health insurance or when looking for a family doctor.
People’s concerns vary a lot. Some want to find an apartment to escape from the dormitory and live on their own, but there are also those who necessarily want a roommate or someone to share the apartment with, as they are not used to being alone. There are cases when people come to us with their first Estonian rental invoice and ask us to explain it and take a position on whether they are really only charged for the agreed services.
People contact us by letter and telephone and visit us from all over the world. Many foreigners are struggling to find accommodation. We do not offer accommodation ourselves, but we give advice on which channels to use for finding accommodation. Finding accommodation for the isolation period was also a critical problem during the coronavirus season.
It should be mentioned that we are often not able to cover everything important in one meeting. Receiving new information and adjusting to the environment takes place in stages and according to the season and also based on the situation of life of the person. As the weather gets colder and days shorter, we need to talk about reflectors and warm clothing and how important it is to eat properly in our climate and consume vitamin D to maintain both mental and physical health. Unfortunately, finding a family doctor is not easy for a foreigner.
In the autumn, a project practice team started working at our centre in cooperation with the University of Tartu. During the semester, five students from four different nationalities will create a series of online events introducing the local language, culture, and cuisine to share the various knowledge needed for adjustment, drawing from their own experience. The great advantage of Baby Steps for Tartu is that the series is created by two local students in cooperation with three foreigners who have had to adjust themselves when arriving in Tartu and are now able to share recommendations with others based on their experience. Hopefully, we will be able to continue with a similar series also in the following semesters.
Our premises also host courses and events offered by other organisations for new immigrants. For example, we hold Estonian language courses and various adjustment seminars offered by the Settle in Estonia programme. We find it important that the various activities are available at our centre, as this is how people get used to visiting us, and if there is a real need to solve some issue, it is helpful to already know where to turn with your question.