Estonian integration project opens doors

Estonian integration project opens doors 17/10/2008
Messurme Pissareva

Messurme Pissareva takes part in a European Social Fund integration project in Jõhvi, Estonia and improves her professional life.

“The training programme made people think for themselves, rather than looking for others to help them,” says Messurme Pissareva. “It didn’t tell us what to do, but made us examine what direction we would like to take. It wasn’t difficult for me to learn, because I wanted to know it all. Now I want to learn more!”

Petite and dynamic, smartly dressed in a tailored trouser suit, Messurme is managing director of a real estate company Ida-Virumaa Kinnisvara in Jõhvi, northern Estonia. But before she embarked in 2004 on a training programme for the integration of non-Estonians, co-funded by the European Union through the European Social Fund, her life was very different. She was unemployed, isolated and frustrated.

Growing up - facing challenges

Messurme grew up in Dagestan in the Soviet Union, in a mountain village by the Caspian Sea, where her family kept a vineyard. She spoke the local Lesgin language, which has a Cyrillic alphabet and incorporates elements of both Russian and Turkish.

Twenty years ago she moved to Estonia. Her older brother had arrived in the country as a soldier with the Soviet army, when the Baltic States were still part of the USSR. After military service he decided to stay on and settle in the region, enabling Messurme – then aged 17 – to join him and go to school in Jõhvi. “He said it was a different kind of civilisation,” she remembers. “Initially I intended to go back to Dagestan after my education finished, but then I met my husband.” 

So instead she got a job in a local chemicals plant in Jõhvi where her engineer husband now works for a machinery manufacturer. She signed up for an evening course in Tallinn studying mechanics and construction, undeterred by making an unusual choice for a young woman at that time. But the job was hard, with long, tiring shifts, and when her second and third sons were born she took maternity leave and then stayed on at home to look after them.

After six years confined at home with the family, she began to feel increasingly excluded and under-qualified. “It was hard financially because we had only one income, but I didn’t know what to do to fit back into the labour market after being out of it for so long.”

Besides a lack of confidence, her main problem was linguistic. Messurme had studied in Russian. About one-quarter of Estonia’s population is of Russian origin, and Jõhvi, which is near the border, has many Russian speakers. At school in Dagestan she secured good grades in the language, but finding herself among native speakers she realised she was far from fluent, and she knew no Estonian at all. “If you don’t speak the local language it’s much harder to communicate, whereas the more languages you know, the more the world is open to you,” she believes.

Training in action

The local employment office referred her to the ESF co-funded project, run by the Ontika Training Centre. It offered not only a chance to learn the language, but also to get to know Estonian history and culture, as well as social skills such as writing a CV, applying for jobs, and interview techniques. Through discussions, video presentations and excursions, with experts ranging from lawyers to psychologists, Messurme gradually recovered her self-esteem.

After three months, she found a job in a bookstore, where she was later promoted to manager. “My goal was to acquire the skills to go further,” she says, so she started more courses to upgrade her knowledge, and moved into the real estate business. Once her Estonian is perfected she plans to apply for a law degree at Tartu or Tallinn University. “I feel I need more knowledge,” she declares enthusiastically.

Jõhvi is very different from Dagestan. Although Messurme misses the good wine from her father’s vineyards, she reveals that she learned to drink coffee in Estonia. Now her daily routine starts with a quiet cup of coffee in her kitchen after the three boys, 15-year-old Vladimir, Jeugeni, 8, and Renat, 7, have left for school. She begins work in her nearby office at 10am, and as head of the company her tasks include carrying out administration at her computer, liaising with clients, and showing them round the houses and apartments on her books. Her responsibilities are not limited to selling property. In Kivioli, 30 kilometres outside Jõhvi, for example, her agency works with a building firm converting a traditional stone apartment block into 44 flats, plus rooms for people who come to Kivioli to work in the thriving garment factory.

Messurme feared that when she quit her job she would never get another one. But the project changed that. It taught her to look forward without being afraid of the future. When she arrived in Jõhvi she knew only her brother, but now she has a wide circle of friends.

Increased self-confidence

The most important thing she gained was self-confidence. “Psychologically, the project taught me that I could do anything – that I’m not a pushover. Whatever I want, it’s possible if I put my mind to it. I needed a shove to get out of the situation I was in, and on the project we were told: ‘You can do it!’ I knew I would get a job afterwards because it gave us a good feeling about ourselves.”

“If you want to achieve something you have to work hard,” confirms project coordinator Eha Korkus. “Messurme is one of the best examples. It was a wonderful group of people. We were told that if 30% got jobs it would be a good result, but in the end 60% were integrated. The results were unexpected and we were very happy. Now we are running another project, because workplaces are waiting for people.”

Eha also believes the teachers gained as much as the students. “Not all Estonians are fond of Russians,” she explains. “We had to change ourselves – not everyone can do it.”