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When Home Isn’t Where the Heart Is

12 minute read

In Polva, a rural village deep in the Estonian countryside, Iyman Ateek and her sister-in-law Taimaa Abazli squeeze onto a packed public bus. The pair are Syrian refugees, and they have been in the Northern European country for little more than 36 hours. Today they will attend an orientation session for recently arrived refugees in the city of Tartu, 45 minutes away. Iyman and Taimaa are the only women on the bus wearing headscarves, and Taimaa, whom TIME has been following since the September birth of her daughter in a Greek refugee camp, is convinced that everyone is staring at them. Gazing at the patches of snow and sleet outside, Iyman groans. “Living in Europe is very different from the picture we drew in our minds when we left Syria,” she says. “We were idiots.”

Neither Iyman nor Taimaa chose Estonia. Their families were assigned to the country as part of an E.U. plan to disperse the hundreds of thousands of refugees washing up on Mediterranean shores as a result of Syria’s ongoing conflict. When the two families set out from Turkey in a rubber raft on Feb. 17, 2016, they thought they would be joining family in Germany within a few days of landing in Greece. Instead, they were trapped on the wrong side of Europe’s closing borders. After living in refugee camps for nearly a year, they were offered relocation to Estonia–and only Estonia. “It feels like an arranged marriage,” Iyman says as she watches sparsely populated farmland roll by. “Like when a family forces their daughter to marry a person she didn’t choose and doesn’t like.”

Nearly 13,500 refugees from Greece have been settled in their new countries so far. Most would have preferred Germany, Sweden or France, countries with flourishing immigrant populations, long histories of accepting refugees and large economies. Instead, many have been moved to smaller, less wealthy and more homogenous countries like Estonia in an effort to fairly distribute the burden across the E.U. The result is a grand social experiment in which families like Iyman’s are thrust, unprepared, into alien cultures with little experience of outsiders.

Estonia, a nation of 1.3 million, is doing everything in its power to make the transition as seamless as possible. It offers one of the most comprehensive refugee-integration packages in Europe, providing each family with a furnished apartment immediately upon arrival, language courses, schools, translation services and a dedicated support person who will help guide the newcomers through the settling-in process. This is in addition to the unemployment and welfare benefits available to all Estonian citizens. “The aim is to make it as good as we can,” says Liana Roosmaa, deputy head of the citizenship and migration policy department at the Ministry of the Interior. Neighboring Lithuania, for example, does not offer housing, and its meager benefits package is cut in half after six months.

Still, Estonia’s generous, two-year package may not be enough. More than a quarter of the 150 refugees taken in by Estonia since the program started have already left, taking advantage of Europe’s open borders to rejoin family or seek better opportunities elsewhere, even though they risk losing their benefits and ability to apply for asylum. For a country staking its prestige on successful integration, the departures–called remigration–have prompted searching questions. Estonia is beginning to realize that for this arranged marriage to work, it must look beyond material needs and figure out the cultural intangibles that turn a temporary rest stop into a home.

Estonia has one of the smallest Muslim populations in Europe, and no mosque, though there is a prayer hall in Tallinn, the capital. Halal meat, a dietary restriction for even mildly observant Muslims, is difficult to find outside of Tallinn. But like Iyman and Taimaa, most of the refugees have been dispersed to the country’s smaller towns and villages. It was a political decision made with practical considerations: sparsely populated rural areas, it was thought, could offer better opportunities for schooling, employment and language immersion. Iyman’s and Taimaa’s 3-year-olds are automatically entered in preschool, and their infant children, born in Greece just a few months apart, are eligible for free day care at the age of 1½. But the peaceful solitude so treasured by Estonians only accentuates the isolation of Syrians, who prefer the raucous sociability of large communities and the solace of their co-religionists. “They know we are all Muslims,” says Iyman. “Why couldn’t they put us all together in Tallinn? At least there we can eat halal.” Asked if the stunning forest scenery outside her window offered any recompense, she quotes a Syrian proverb: “Even paradise is no fun without people.”

Had the refugees come straight from the battlefields of Syria, they might be more appreciative of their warm apartments and generous benefits. But most of the new arrivals spent the past year stuck in Greece, anticipating the triumphant culmination of their arduous journeys and seeing the successes of refugees who landed in Germany or Sweden through the filters of Facebook and Instagram. Estonia, with its cold winters, reserved people and limited economic opportunities, cannot live up to these fantasies–or even Iyman’s and Taimaa’s comfortable middle-class life back in Syria. “We are getting a lot of things right,” says one woman working on Estonia’s relocation program. “Where we fail is in managing expectations.” I ask how many cases of successful integration she has seen among the recent arrivals. After ensuring that her organization won’t be quoted by name, she sighs and says, “Honestly? Zero.” She cites the unforgiving weather–this year’s spring is one of the worst on record–as well as difficulty learning the language, an inability to find fulfilling jobs and the lack of a strong community of migrants.

But, she argues, most other countries have similar challenges–even Germany. “Sometimes I feel like we are competing with a dream,” she says. Successful integration, she continues, “probably won’t happen until the next generation, when the children in school today grow up, learn the language and get jobs of their own.” But in order to reach that point, the families need to stay.

When Iyman and Taimaa arrive at the orientation in Tartu, it is with a palpable sense of relief. Several Syrian families are already there, and most of the women are wearing headscarves. Arabic ricochets throughout the room at a high volume, a marked contrast from the funereal silence of Estonian public transport.

Said Karam Abbes, a Moroccan man who immigrated to Estonia a decade ago, kicks off the session in Arabic with a few cultural lessons. Estonians don’t jaywalk, he explains before exhorting his listeners to be careful of bears when walking in the woods. “As long as there are no lions, we’ll be fine,” quips one of the refugees, a pun on the name of Syrian President Bashar Assad. But it’s not long before the fundamental disconnect between what Estonia thinks the refugees need and what they themselves want comes up.

Abbes has just set out the refugees’ subsistence benefits, which average about $560 a month per family, when the discussion turns to the exorbitant price of tomatoes at the local grocery store. “Four euros a kilo!” exclaims Iyman of a price equivalent to $2 per pound. “It seems like we will live on the edge here. If we buy clothes for our children, we won’t have enough for food. And if we buy food, we won’t be able to save any money.” The others nod in agreement.

“People, you know what is happening in your country,” Abbes replies. “You are here because you are looking for security and safety, and this is the only thing you should be thinking about right now.” Eventually, he adds, once they learn Estonian, they will all have to get jobs–even the women–in order to live a comfortable life. Salaries are low in Estonia, less than $1,300 a month on average, and chances are that few of the professionals will be able to make the kind of money they were used to back home right away. So far, only five members of the 30 or so newly relocated families have found jobs, and none with salaries that exceeded their welfare benefits.

Even those low-paying jobs–as a security guard, a grocery stocker or a day-care assistant–offer the best path toward successful integration, says Eero Janson, head of the Estonian Refugee Council. “At the end of the day, the wish is that most of the refugees become self-sufficient. To not just live off the social benefits [but] to find this independence [and eventually] to not need our services anymore.” Children integrate easily when they go to school, picking up customs and language from their peers. Jobs, says Janson, offer the same experience for adults.

To Mohannad Abazli, Taimaa’s husband, working full time to earn a salary equal to state benefits is demoralizing. He’s not afraid of hard work, but what’s the point if you can’t make a living? Integration, he tells the orientation group, is not a priority. “My goal is to go back to Syria. And I need to work to be able to do that. I want to save money so I can go back and rebuild what I lost.”

For that reason, he says, he has heard that Germany is far better for the refugees. Not only do they get more cash assistance, but he has read on the Internet that it’s much easier to find a well-paying job through the migrant network. Surely that provides better opportunities. The room falls silent, and the refugees look to Abbes for confirmation. He takes a deep breath. “Sometimes Sheik Google gives out wrong information,” he says.

In February, a rumor spread through social media that Germany would take in any refugees who arrived before March 15, much as it did back in 2015, when nearly 1 million people flooded in over the course of the year. The rumor was false–once refugees are relocated through the E.U. scheme, they cannot apply for asylum elsewhere–but the allure of a country that has become synonymous with Shangri-la in refugee circles proved to be too much. At least five families packed up and left. The Estonian government still considers three of them to be “traveling,” since they haven’t been gone for more than 90 days, but Amjad Wahem, one of those who stayed behind, knows better. A family with no income and no cash doesn’t pull kids out of school to take a vacation. They were going to risk it in Germany.

To Amjad, it doesn’t make sense. He stayed in contact with one family. The father boasts about hearing birds sing and having good weather, but the family is back in a camp, and the kids can’t go to school. Amjad shakes his head. Why risk the security of Estonia for a camp in Germany, where you won’t even be eligible for refugee benefits? “I have ambitions, I want to become someone, to do something, but I will not allow myself to fall in the same hole twice,” he says. “It’s safe here. My children are happy here. People are very nice. It’s not Estonia’s fault that you’re here. It actually solved your problem and brought you here. Give it a chance.” But Mohannad, Taimaa’s husband, isn’t sure it’s worth taking that chance. He wants to get on with the next chapter of his family’s life, and he is urging his brother, and Iyman, to do the same.

Janson says the departures risk changing Estonian attitudes toward the refugees. Unlike the rest of Europe, where antimigrant sentiment is growing, Estonia has seen little backlash. Yet the stories of “traveling” refugees are causing perception problems. Even families who have no intention of leaving are tarred with the suspicion that they might. Communities, especially in rural areas, put a lot of effort into welcoming the refugees. Landlords are less likely to rent to refugees they think might leave, says Janson. Schools are reluctant to accept kids who won’t stay long. And the people of Estonia are hesitant to keep opening their hearts.

“I understand that it is difficult here,” says Aike Juks, an unemployed mother from Polva, the same rural village where Iyman and Taimaa are living. “It is the same for us.” She doesn’t resent the fact that refugees receive the same benefits she does; instead, she regrets that they don’t stick around long enough to learn how to cope and enjoy what Estonia has to offer. “It would be nice if some families would decide to stay and live as we have been living,” she says. When a refugee family moved into the apartment next door, she did everything she could to welcome them. She helped furnish their apartment and gave them good winter clothes. They left in the middle of the night. When a new family took their place, she did the same. They left as well. Taimaa and Mohannad Abazli are her newest neighbors. Now she has nothing left to give them. Maybe it doesn’t matter, she says with a shrug. “The new family isn’t likely to stay very long either. One family comes, then it goes. Soon the new family will be gone as well. And then it will be a new family again.”


Continued reporting for this project is supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and Merck for Mothers

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