Anna Marie DiPasquale (left) and Jodi Harper (center) talk with Estonian news reporter.
When the topic of refugee resettlement comes up, Estonia is not the first place that many people think of. Indeed, since 1997 Estonia has only received 74 refugees prior to the crisis in Europe that started last year. However, with the mass influx of refugees to the continent, Estonia, along with the EU, has agreed to accept these people into their country. With this in mind, a group of 10 people from Estonia visited New Hampshire through the US Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs to learn about integrating refugees into schools and communities.
Acting as their host, the World Affairs Council of New Hampshire created an International Visitor Leadership Program for the group to meet with various refugee and school officials here in the state. The intent of the program was to introduce them to the different organizations that are helping to integrate refugees, so that when Estonia sees new refugees they are better prepared to welcome them. During their time in New Hampshire, the group found two of the meetings particularly useful and wanted to further the discussions on these programs back home, the BRING IT program and a Concord High School’s Social Worker who focuses on New Americans.
Anna-Marie DiPasquale, of Concord High School, and Jodi Harper of the Granite State United Way were invited by the group to Estonia this past October to speak at a conference on refugee resettlement. While both were extremely busy with other obligations, they took this “opportunity of a lifetime” to visit another country and share their expertise in the field. Their schedule, while there, was quite busy and provided several opportunities for them to engage with local people and explain how things are done in the state.
Their presentations were quite successful, with participants coming up to them afterwards to continue conversations, something they found out later was quite unusual in Estonian culture. Anna-Marie was able to set up an opportunity for some of her students to Skype into the conference and talk directly with those in attendance about the experiences of refugee youth in transitioning to a new culture. This was a highlight for both the youth and participants, allowing for the voices of those who have experienced this journey to inform those looking to make that transition as smooth as possible.
A couple of concrete changes are already starting to occur in Estonia that will benefit the refugees as they begin to be settled there. First off, Jodi and Anna-Marie both noticed there were some who were resistant to implementing changes, but that conversations started to bring people around to the idea. Also, they helped the Estonian participants to think things through on issues the US just takes for granted. An example of this is school lunches that need to accommodate new dietary restrictions. In Estonia many schools serve one lunch to all students, in contrast to the multiple choices students have here. This made the US more flexible in making the necessary changes, while Estonia is having more issues around that. Also, what may seem small is actually indicative of a larger shift in mindset. Many of the participants picked up on the idea of using the term New Americans, rather than refugees, dedicating themselves to using New Estonians instead. Going into this work with the idea that refugees are now “one of us”, shifts the mental calculations made about who these people are, creating a more welcoming atmosphere.
In the end, both Jodi and Anna-Marie loved this experience and hope to encounter more opportunities to be Citizen Diplomats. Not only did this trip benefit the people of Estonia, but both of them now have a wider world view, as well as many students at Concord High School who now feel more empowered than ever. It truly is amazing that only two people were picked from an entire three week long, country wide visit, to engage in this opportunity and that both of them work here in NH. Without a doubt, anyone anywhere can create change in the world; you just have to be open to the opportunity.