Film and Media Blog

A Fulbright Scholar from the U.S. studies Ukrainian war refugees in the Estonian school system

Dina Birman

Who are you and where do you come from?

"I plan to conduct a study of how Ukrainian refugee students are adapting to school in Estonia, and how schools are adapting to them"

I am Dina Birman, Professor of Educational and Psychological Studies at the University of Miami, USA. I arrived from Florida a few days ago and am enjoying this beautiful city. I am a psychologist specializing in clinical and community psychology. My work is focused on understanding how immigrants and refugees build a home in a new country. For over 30 years I have been studying acculturation, the ways in which immigrant families learn the new language and culture, construct a new identity, and maintain a connection to their heritage. This topic has special meaning for me because my own lived experience. When I was a child, my family left the Soviet Union and came to the United States as refugees. I watched my parents struggle to learn the language and establish themselves professionally while I was adapting to school. I remember how helpful some teachers were as I was learning English and trying to understand the American culture. Today there are so many more immigrants around the world moving to new countries and entering their school systems. I admire the hard work teachers do to incorporate newcomer students in their classrooms. As a scholar, I am particularly interested in how the contexts of local communities and schools influence the ways in which immigrants acculturate and adapt, and how educational programs can be structured to make this experience easier.

What has brought you to Tallinn University/Tallinn/Estonia?

I received a Fulbright Scholar award from the U.S. Institute of International Education to study integration of Ukrainian war refugees in schools in Estonia. I decided that Estonia is the ideal country to study their adaptation because it has been so welcoming of Ukrainian refugees. Professor Anastassia Zabrodskaja kindly agreed to host my fellowship at Tallinn University Baltic Film, Media and Arts School. I heard about this innovative school and decided it was the best place for me! We have many interests in common, as they relate to integration of linguistic and cultural minorities. I am excited to collaborate with her on my research. The resettlement of refugees in Estonia is quite different from refugee resettlement in the United States, and I believe that learning about the unique aspects of the Estonian context will help me develop a deeper understanding of the issues involved. I am also excited to be in Tallinn because I came here as a child and remember it as a beautiful, magical place, and an oasis of the western way of life within the Soviet Union. It is very special to have this opportunity to live here for a few months and get to know the city and the country.

What do you plan to do here as part of your Fulbright professorship?

I plan to conduct a study of how Ukrainian refugee students are adapting to school in Estonia, and how schools are adapting to them. I want to interview parents, students, and their teachers to understand their educational experiences. I want to learn from Estonian teachers about how they address the challenges of helping these students integrate at school while also being mindful of the trauma, family separations, and uncertainty about the future that they experience. I am very interested to learn about the educational and refugee resettlement systems in Estonia. Moreover, I would like to learn some Estonian. The cadence of Estonian speech sounds lyrical to me, and I am intrigued by how different it is from other languages I have studied (English, Spanish, and Mandarin).

What are you going to do here with Professor Anastassia Zabrodskaja?

I plan to collaborate with Professor Anastassia Zabrodskaja on this research project and am very excited by this interdisciplinary opportunity. I will give a lecture and meet Masters’ students in the Globalization and Identity in Society course in the Communication Management program. I welcome students to become involved in this research project if they are interested. If you are a student who needs to do an internship and or get ECTS for a free course, please feel free to contact me and or Professor Anastassia Zabrodskaja. We will be happy to introduce you to the project and find a way to involve you, especially if you speak Estonian, Russian or Ukrainian and are ready to support Ukrainian children in the Estonian school system.