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A Red Cross reborn:
Profile of the
Estonian Red Cross

by Leyla Alyanak
The fledgling Estonian Red Cross, in just eight years, has built up a full range of services, masterminded from an ageing historic building in the capital's medieval core. Its accomplishments are all the more exceptional given the poverty and uncertainty created by Estonia's transition from a socialist to a market economy.
Albina Sterzleva came to Paldiski, Estonia 23 years ago with her husband, a Soviet naval officer. In those days, Russian-speakers made up 64 per cent of Estonia's population. Russians moved to the region to work in the thriving Soviet naval base where Top Secret meant top paid. But the Russians, Ukrainians and Belorussians lost their status as first-class citizens after the Soviet Union collapsed and Estonia became independent. Many forfeited their citizenship when they chose not to go back, and lack of fluency in Estonian has prevented them from getting a new one.

"The way I see it, if I live in Estonia I must learn Estonian," said Mrs Sterzleva, a native of Siberia. "In Soviet days speaking Russian was enough. Now it is not anymore."

At 63, it isn't easy to learn a new language but she is getting help from the Estonian Red Cross (ERC). "Now I feel I can cope better with life in Estonia," Mrs Sterzleva said after completing a one-month Estonian language course offered by the ERC: "There were students of all ages. But I was the oldest," she laughed.

Today a third of the country's 1.4 million people are non-Estonian and integrating the Russians who stayed is one of the nation's major challenges.

For Riina Kabi, secretary general of the National Society, social and cultural integration programmes are simply reflections of the needs of the Estonian society at large. "If we live side by side, if we are neighbours, our everyday life dictates our needs," she said.

Reflecting Estonia's realities has meant radically different things for the Red Cross over the years. The ERC was first created in 1919 during Estonia's war for independence and for two decades it helped build the new country. But with the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact in 1939, the Soviets took over - first the country and eventually the Red Cross. The Society continued to exist but would henceforth be absorbed into the health and defence ministries, its emblem used indiscriminately for all health services. Then, in 1991, Estonia became independent for the second time.

"Like the country, the Estonian Red Cross was born twice," Mrs Kabi said.
Youth take the lead
Children and their education underpin a significant part of the National Society's work. "We need to support children from the start," said the secretary general. By start she means the 'Happy First Schoolday for Every Child' campaign launched in 1997 to pay for schoolbags and notebooks for the very first day of school.

"This is the one day in which they say goodbye to childhood and begin a serious part of life," said Mrs Kabi.

Each year the National Society helps over 1,000 children who could not afford their first-day school basics any other way.

Part of the money comes from the fund-raising efforts of the ERC's youth wing. On a balmy spring evening last May, 8,000 people of all ages crammed into Tallinn's fabled medieval Raekoja Plats, the town-hall square, to sway and stomp to the sounds of the Estonian rock group 'Blind'.

"They sold CDs of their music and we received 35 per cent of the money," said Indrek Ditmann, the ERC's youth officier. Five other groups and Estonia's Eurovision song contest candidate Evelin Samuel performed for free while several dozen volunteers worked the crowd for donations.

"The entire campaign raised more than US$ 12,000," Indrek said, a considerable sum in a country not yet accustomed to private charities. "Half the money came from the concerts, the rest from direct contributions to the campaign's bank account."

The concerts began in 1997 and are part of an initiative only enterprising youth would think up. Without a penny, they worked the media for free ad space and traded exposure for support, first from Estonian companies and eventually from multinationals operating in Estonia.

"At first there were some rejections," Indrek said ruefully. "There were so many charities just getting started in Estonia that it was difficult to compete. Many had poor results." Then there was the sticky point of raising money indirectly. "People will give you money if it goes straight to helping the disadvantaged but try raising money for a concert, even if the concert is for a good cause, and you run into difficulties."

In addition to concerts, the Red Cross youth sponsor theme-disco dances where contemporary topics like drugs or AIDS are addressed in a way young people understand. Indrek's personal appeal doesn't hurt either: he is a popular TV star with a show he describes as a "televised Beavis and Butthead". But he prefers to keep the two sides of his life separate. "It wouldn't do to mix something comical like my show with something as serious as the Red Cross."
Securing the grassroots
When Mrs Kabi started as secretary general in 1993, her priority was to reach out to local authorities and rebuild the National Society's local branches, wiped out by years of Soviet centralization.

A decentralization process was set in motion, and today throughout this tiny but diverse country, local Red Cross branches set their own priorities because what works in the countryside may not work in the city.

"The industrial north, for example, was the transit route for Russian raw materials and for Russians themselves," said Mrs Kabi. "This is why we provide language courses there and help Russians fill in forms for social benefits or requests for citizenship."

"In large towns there are growing problems of truancy, but this is not the case in the countryside or along the coast. We have to adapt our policies to the different situations."

Assessing the ERC's diverse achievements is easier with the back-drop of time.

"We started with nothing, no offices, not even any tables, chairs or faxes. All the old Soviet structures were dismantled and everything had to be started over," Mrs Kabi said.

"One local branch secretary had to work from home because she had no office, but we did it. Now we have 16 branches across the country." Sister societies in northern Europe helped, as did the ICRC and the Federation.
Furniture or no furniture, it takes time to build something from scratch and that the Estonian Red Cross has gotten this far is in itself an achievement.
Leyla Alyanak
Leyla Alyanak is a Canadian journalist who specializes in development.

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