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A cruise ship in Tallinn, Estonia, is housing Ukrainian refugees


More than 5 million Ukrainians have fled their country since Russia invaded in late February. Tens of thousands are in Estonia. Estonia shares a border with Russia, and it's a place where people remember what it was like to be occupied by the former Soviet Union. NPR correspondent Jenna McLaughlin is on board a cruise ship in the harbor of Estonia's capital city, Tallinn, a ship that's now housing some of those refugees. Jenna, what's it like on board?

JENNA MCLAUGHLIN, BYLINE: So - hi. Good morning, A. We arrived this morning on board the Isabelle in the Port of Tallinn. Normally, this ship takes people overnight between Riga in Latvia to Stockholm, Sweden. But in March, the Estonian government asked the cruise company to host refugees, who were overflowing from downtown hotels. And they said, yes. They canceled the summer's cruise service for this ship. Ukrainian families are temporarily living on the ship, mostly women and children. They arrived with almost nothing from different parts of Ukraine. But they've been welcomed by Estonians, who are donating toys, clothes, even household goods like lamps. Today, many people are working on computers or relaxing in the sun. The kids have been adjusting pretty well. But it's been difficult for women, particularly at night.

I spoke to Ylena Chovgun (ph) and her sister Ana (ph) who's 16. Ylena's 30. They came here with their mother, who is already at work at a sewing factory in Tallinn. They've been spending their days looking for more permanent housing in Tallinn and sightseeing. Her sister's actually an artist at a local art school. But things are really uncertain for them. They came from Donetsk in eastern Ukraine, where war has been raging for eight years already. Their grandparents are still there. They talk on the phone every day. And they really want to return because to them, it's home.

MARTÍNEZ: We know so many of these refugees fled to Estonia. Any sense of what the numbers are?

MCLAUGHLIN: Absolutely. The Estonian government actually estimates that around 30,000 Ukrainian refugees have come through Estonia, and on this ship, there are about 1,500. It's kind of mind-blowing.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. Any other sense of what else Estonia is doing?

MCLAUGHLIN: A lot, actually. The Estonian government is giving Ukraine a huge stockpile of weapons and defense equipment, more than a lot of countries several times its size in Europe. I actually spoke to permanent secretary of defense earlier this week, Kusti Salm. Here's what he said about Estonia's support for Ukraine.

KUSTI SALM: Up to date, we have sent lethal aid north of 230 million euros.

MCLAUGHLIN: That's about $250 million. There are also a ton of Estonian volunteers, particularly in the flourishing tech sector. We spoke to several who are sending convoys of vehicles, drones and even more to Ukraine. And they're helping relocate refugees using job relocation software, for example.

MARTÍNEZ: So why is this so important to Estonians to extend this kind of welcome?

MCLAUGHLIN: It's really because the war in Ukraine is deeply emotional for Estonians. This tiny Baltic nation gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, and everyone we've spoken to says they never want history to repeat itself again. They're honestly surprised and pleased that the West has finally started to show some real unity and strength against Russian aggression, something that they've been fearful of, many for their whole lives. Estonians really feel a kinship with Ukrainians. We were even told the flag factory is working overtime to print Ukrainian flags. We're seeing them everywhere.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR correspondent Jenna McLaughlin. Jenna, thanks a lot.

MCLAUGHLIN: Thank you, A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Jenna McLaughlin
Jenna McLaughlin is NPR's cybersecurity correspondent, focusing on the intersection of national security and technology.