Estonian integration policy: a personal perspective of a student from Bangladesh

Fahima Hossain


It has been eighteen months since I moved to Tallinn as a student of international law and human rights in the University of Tartu in September 2016.  It was in 2004 that my student life was over in London and I was called to the Bar by the Honorable Society of Lincoln’s Inn. After practicing for a number of years in the Supreme Court of Bangladesh, I decided to peruse my 20 years old dreams of a further study on human rights. It was not an easy decision to put my career on hold at this stage. I managed to do that thanks to the encouragement by my husband, who is also in the same profession.

After arriving here, in Tallinn, I found the beautiful city even more beautiful than I had imagined. I was thankful for the opportunity and happy for taking up the challenge. As mentioned, I am not new to Europe as I had lived nine long years in England and travelled in many parts of Western Europe. Nevertheless, when I arrived in Estonia, there was a massive cultural shock in social situation as it is very different from both Bangladesh and England. This small city is very quiet and people are mostly individualistic. Quite a contrast to Bangladesh!

Having said that, I found people are very cordial and helpful, willing to help, when asked for assistance. Also, there are people who tend to avoid you when you ask for any information in the street and stare at you like an alien because colored skin is far less visible here than in London. I felt very awkward at the beginning, but I am getting used to it now. I know for sure that they don’t have any malice against us and it is just the new experience they are facing.

My school building has become my home now. I am enjoying my relationship with my teachers and the university staff and every moment that I am spending here. Everyone is so accommodating: problems are dealt with immediately or really as soon as possible. I can remember when I was looking for Halal meat (at the time of slaughter all blood is drained from the carcass of the animal) in Tallinn. One of my Estonian classmates drove me to several places just to get that. Also my other Estonian classmates tried to help me out as much as possible with my requirements whenever needed. For example, when I was bed-ridden with severe pain in my pelvis in the beginning of last semester, one of my classmates visited me to discuss about the research method of one of our class works which’s the deadline was very close. She even brought me some herbs from her parent’s garden. These small but kind gestures have a gigantic power to make a person feel welcome.

Over this period, I have noticed that also the government of this country has taken many steps to integrate immigrants. Before coming here, I did a lot of research about this country and found it quite inviting compared to many other European countries. Needless to say that for me there is a very limited social life. I am not fond of the pub culture and my community is fairly small and scattered. To mitigate this problem, I decided to take part in the workshops and training programs organized the government under a program known as “SettleinEstonia.” I have attended many workshops which convey the message that they are trying hard to accommodate foreigners in every possible way.

Gradually, I have tried to apply what I have learned at these workshops. Unfortunately, also a shocking truth started to unfold. While studying in London, I managed to get a part time job which was enough to pay my bills. Here, there is no part time job suitable for me as only kitchen helper jobs are available in restaurants.  Although, unlike London, there is no limitation of number of hours to work, it is definitely not possible for many students to work and study simultaneously. In Tallinn, many owners of restaurants and shops only offer jobs without a contract and without any formal break even for a twelve hours-shift. Having no other option, many students are accepting the offers which give them wages below minimum. I have spoken to a few people about that and found out that the employers have to pay taxes for each employee and therefore prefer to keep one full time worker rather than paying taxes for two who work part time. Many businesses also depend on tourism and during dull season, almost half a year, the business can be very slow.

Before coming to Estonia I knew that without learning the Estonian language finding a suitable job will be a problem. So I started applying for the jobs which do not require Estonian language. Unfortunately, all the rejections made me realize that there is hardly any progress in curbing racial discrimination in the labor market, especially for non-white women. I can only relate these rejections to my background, because I found out that people who already worked at these places in the same position, had less academic qualification than me.

Unfortunately, I experienced discriminatory treatment in the dormitory which does not belong to Tartu University. As a member of the British Bar and a practicing lawyer I managed to win my case through the equal treatment commissioner. That made me understand that justice triumphs here in Estonia and I feel that I can perceive this country as my second home. I know that this type of an incident has also happened to a few other Asian students but no-one has dealt with it in a way I did due to the lack of knowledge and resources.

I am thankful to my university for being very supportive during that difficult time in my life. It affected my studies and I was not as productive as during previous semesters. It was really very difficult for me to sustain my expected grades.

The reason I am writing this blog post is to let people know that international students who leave their family and country to gain knowledge need love, affection and acceptance in a foreign country. But it is not only needed for them – the host society also needs its immigrants. Estonia is a country with a negative population growth and has developed rapidly since becoming member of the European Union. So, welcoming foreigners also brings mutual benefits: without new people coming the population of Estonia will be very small within the next fifty years. It is important for the people to understand that all major countries in the world have been built by the contributions of immigrants.

In the integration process, there are two sides involved. In order to formulate the appropriate policy, each and every level from towns to national capitals have to play a role. A long-term framework will only succeed, if citizens and institutions are brought together under the integration program to understand each other’s needs. Otherwise it will remain a short-sighted policy without mutual benefit.

Edited by Mariann Rikka

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