Riin Lumiste, International Youth Work Coordinator at Tähe Youth Club in Tartu, Estonia, here tells of how a youth exchange brought to light the troubling spectre of racism in our societies, and calls for action to overcome intolerance. Despite the rigorous planning that had gone into the exchange, meant to be a space where young people could explore health, the main aim soon became how to deal with the intolerance of others.
Riin Lumiste, International Youth Work Coordinator at Tähe Youth Club in Tartu, Estonia
I am a youth worker from Estonia, specialising in international youth work. I can say for sure that challenging yourself in other countries develops your character so much more than staying in your comfort zone. I have seen how one week on youth exchange has changed young people more than one year in school. I believe that youth work changes the world.
Almost two months have passed since a youth exchange that I hosted here in Tartu, Estonia. This youth exchange opened my eyes to a profound problem in our society and opened my heart in search of a solution. I know that I cannot find the solution alone. I need your support. So I ask you to read and share this article. I want to share my story, because I want to show my support and love for those who are not always supported and loved as they should be.
I coordinated a youth exchange named “Well mind in a well body”, which was funded by Erasmus Plus (previously Youth in Action). The project brought together young people from Spain, Romania and the UK, as well as Estonian young people. The aim of the project was to get the young people to think about their health, both physical and mental, and to discuss how one affects the other. Many young people suffer from depression and stress and this often leads to self-destructive behaviour. So we wanted to create a space where the young people could talk about healthy and unhealthy lifestyles.
People made snide comments to them, took photos of them as if they were animals in a zoo, and even made Nazi salutes
Despite the rigorous planning that had gone into the exchange, the main aim soon became how to deal with not our own health, but rather the intolerance of others. The six young people from London, all from none-white backgrounds, all received constant negative attention every time we went out in public. People made snide comments to them, took photos of them as if they were animals in a zoo, and even made Nazi salutes. Scarily, at one point they were even physically attacked, when, at an open-air film festival, a group of drunk people started to throw beer bottles at them before chasing them. This was at the end of their first day in Estonia, and despite the efforts of the Estonian young people to support them to stay calm, the only thing any of the English young people could see was the way in which in this country they were persecuted because of the colour of their skin.
This event brought up a number of questions for everyone involved in the youth exchange. How to support your friend who has been attacked by racists in the city centre? How to remain calm when hearing their stories how they have been persecuted? How can I stay positive and not start to hate the world when seeing that this happens in my home town, which is supposed to be the safest place in the world?
I believe that with communication, you reap what you sow, that sharing love creates love. But how can you practise this when you receive a kick like this out of the blue? When you have been attacked too many times, you have to be strong and attack before somebody attacks you. The mental strength of all the young people on the exchange, who were determined to have a good time regardless of the intolerance they came up against, was impressive, but should should not be necessary and cannot be expected.
As a youth worker I can organize projects where young people have the opportunity to learn about other cultures through personal experience
Where does this intolerant behaviour come from? I can say from my experiences as youth worker that this comes from home. The way parents communicate with and about minority groups. The movies that are watched at home with parents. The open discussions that parents and kids have about differences. As a youth worker, I cannot control what happens behind closed doors, I cannot say to somebody what they should talk about with their kids. However, as a youth worker I can organize projects where young people have the opportunity to learn about other cultures through personal experience. I can be more than sure that the young Estonians who have been with me on this project will never throw beer bottles a someone because of the colour of their skin. They will never made rude comments at somebody because of their ethnicity. Indeed they cannot wait to meet people from different backgrounds and with different experiences to their own!
I want to believe that education reform is on its way in Estonia. There are many foreign students studying in Estonian high schools and universities and many of our young people are studying for shorter or longer times in other countries. I really admire them and I am happy that there are so many opportunities for them to get these experiences. However, I feel that our young people should also have more education about other cultures around the world in the high school curriculum. Why is mandatory to study different maths theorems but not about cultures? I do not want to underestimate formal education, but I see that there are some topics that are underestimated. This is one of the reasons that youth work is so important, as it concentrates on the social development of young people.
I have taken this topic to heart and it will be the focus of my next project. I promise to stand against hate and abuse. I wrote an article about this situation in a local newspaper and I got very supportive feedback from my colleagues, friends and acquaintances all over the country. I hope that you are also supporting me. I hope you share the love. I want to say thanks to all of you who are working to reduce minority groups’ persecution. And for those who have been abused, I want to assure them that there are people out there working hard to overcome intolerance in our society. It will not be easy, but we cannot and will not give up.