Triin Pehk

Triin Pehk loves to observe, think and write, and she even has a degree in people watching - Anthropology. She currently lives with her family in Sydney which is her second home after the beloved Kalamaja in Tallinn.

Estonian communities around the world: keeping the flag flying in Sydney

Australia hosts the fifth largest Estonian community in the world. Among the Estonians currently living in Australia, the Sydney community is the liveliest one.

The first Estonians settled in Australia in 1853, and the first Estonian society was established in Melbourne in 1914. During the course of the Second World War, Australia became one of the most important destinations for Estonians looking abroad for safety. In the autumn of 1944, just before the second Soviet occupation, approximately 70,000 Estonians fled the country – first to Germany and Sweden, and subsequently to the US, Canada, the UK and Australia. Around 7,000 Estonians ended up “Down Under”.

Estonian houses were set up in Sydney, Thirlmere, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth. Estonians, known for their protestant work ethic, generally thrived in the country. Some, such as Sir Arvi Parbo (so far the only Estonian to be honoured with this title), flew very high, becoming, at various times, a chairman of the three largest companies in Australia, retiring in 1992 as the chairman of what is now BHP Billiton – the largest mining company in the world.

Arvo Pärt, although he has never resided in Australia, is an honorary doctor of Sydney University. Arvo Volmer has been the principal conductor of the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra since 2004.

During the Soviet occupation, only a very few lucky ones left behind the Iron Curtain to visit their relatives in Australia. Since the restoration of Estonia’s independence in 1991, and re-accession to the Western world, however, more and more young people have ventured out and taken advantage of the Australian working holiday visa program that Estonia agreed upon in 2005. Many work and live in Australia for a couple of years, and return to their home country, but some opt to stay and even set up their own companies.

The Estonian community in Australia is now one of the largest abroad – along with those in Finland, Sweden, Canada, the US and the UK. No one knows the exact number, but it is estimated that approximately 10,000 Estonians live there. The “Estonians in Australia” Facebook group alone has over 17,000 members – although not all of the members actually live in the country anymore.

The young Estonians who have settled in a new country, cite the positive and adventurous Australian spirit, good quality of life and financial and professional opportunities as the reasons for staying.

Keeping the Estonian flame high in Sydney

Sydney boasts the liveliest and biggest Australian Estonian community in Australia. The community is lucky to have a conveniently positioned Estonian House that is right next to the city centre. Having undergone some renovations, the Estonian Cultural Centre looks more inviting and modern than it has in many years.

Like in many Estonian communities around the world, the national identity and traditions are kept alive by singing and dancing.

Every Monday the singing group Lõke and folk dancers Virmalised meet to practice. The ultimate aim – the cherry on the cake, if you like – is for the singers to make it to the next Song Celebration in Tallinn.

On Thursdays, the female choir Heli gathers to practice, and every Thursday night Eesti Klubi or the Estonian Club opens its doors. Eesti Klubi is a social event where every time a different Estonian meal is on the menu and Estonian drinks are available from the bar. Often the most recent arrivals fresh from Estonia can be found here, sitting side by side with the old timers – some of them third generation Sydney Estonians. Every last Sunday of the month the same E-Klubi organises a market where different Estonian products from jars of soup to black bread are for sale.

The Estonian House is also the place for major yearly celebrations like those for the Independence Day, Mothers Day, the Day of Restoration of Independence and Christmas, to name a few. And among some of the long-running organisations that also regularly meet at the Estonian House are the Art and Craft Society, the Seniors’ Club and the War Veterans.

The Australian Estonian Archives, that would be the first and main destination for anything related to the history of Estonians in Australia, can also be found here. The archives are open on Wednesdays.

Every week, for the last 65 years, the Australian Estonians’ newspaper Meie Kodu has been published from the Estonian House.

Movie nights

On the last Friday of every month, the Sydney Estonian House opens its doors for movie nights. It is a relaxed club-style setting for watching Estonian feature films and documentaries while very affordable Estonian food and drink is on the menu.

One of the aims of the organisers, Leen and Siimon Rampe, has been to attract the wider Australian audience to these film nights. Luckily this aim is gaining momentum due to the very convenient location of the Estonian House as well as some well-positioned film posters in front of it.

The Estonian House is also the place to go to whenever guests from Estonia arrive. In 2013, the Estonian Philharmonic Choir and conductor Tõnu Kaljuste were invited to perform Arvo Pärt’s music at the Sydney Opera House. They also met with local Estonians beforehand and gave them a mini-concert. The Estonian House has greeted a long list of visiting musical and theatrical groups over the years.

In addition to meeting up in person at the Estonian House, the Sydney and Australian Estonians also refer to their online meeting place called “Estonians in Australia” where info about coming events and articles of their experiences gets published.

Own slot at the Australian public broadcasting

In a multicultural society such as Australia, Estonians have even been allocated their own slot on SBS – the multilingual radio station owned by the Australian public broadcasting. Every Friday, Australian Estonians tune their radios to the Special Broadcasting Service’s or SBS’s radio station to listen to the weekly Estonian radio programme. It is one of the 74 different language programmes being aired every week on SBS.

Every second week, the young generation of the Sydney Estonians meet at the Estonian Church hall for a session of songs, dances and activities – all in Estonian. Mudila was established by active parents who saw the need for such a gathering and boasts already over 15 families as its members. The younger generation has also started a tradition of celebrating the Estonian Independence Day at Clark Island.

Estonians celebrating in Clark island, Sydney

Sydney is also the home to the Consulate General of Estonia, making it so much easier for Australian Estonians to apply for passports and other documents that one needs when leading this globally dual-home country life. Neither country has a resident ambassador; in addition to the Consul-General in Sydney, Estonia has two honorary consulates – one in Perth and another one in Brisbane. Australia is represented in Estonia through its embassy in Stockholm and through an honorary consulate in Tallinn.

As can be seen then, Sydney is a home to a great variety of Estonians – from backpackers to the third generation Australian-born enthusiasts who, despite their weakening links with the Estonian language, participate in and contribute to the vibrant community life.


Cover photo: Estonians celebrating at Shark Island, Sydney. Credit: Additional reporting by Silver Tambur and Tiina Tamm. This article was lightly edited on 6 August 2019.

Estonian folk costume stripes on Australian Aboriginal art

What do the world’s oldest continually living cultures, i.e. those of the Australian indigenous people and Estonians, have in common? At first glance not much, but at a closer look at their respective cultural history, we can surprisingly find many similarities.

Although the recorded Aboriginal history traces back at least 50,000 years and the Estonian one “only” 5,000, both have traditionally lived from the land and have a very close connection to it. Nature guides them both. In Aboriginal Australia, it is the whole life philosophy or the Dreamtime that is the foundation of all; in Estonia it used to be the nature god Taara and being connected to the land.

Similarily, the history of displacement and foreign people taking over their land, is what both Aboriginal people and Estonians have in common.

One of the most fascinating spheres that reveals the aboriginal world view is their art. Australian Aboriginal art is among the oldest art movements in the world. But art should not be separated from the rest of the aboriginal philosophy since it is just a part of it.

When we look at a Western painting, often there is no right or wrong answer and different interpretations may be welcomed. In case of an aboriginal painting, however, specific knowledge of the tribal members would be needed to fully understand the work. There is almost always an outside story for the public and an inside story that only the initiated tribe members would understand.

An artist called Jimmy Robertson Jampijinpa has said: “Our tribal members look at our paintings and they can read them. They know where things began and ended, and which place is holy. The Europeans have to look onto the paper and read from the book what the artwork is, they do not read from a painting. They only look at the patterns.”

Aboriginal art is not created for aesthetic purposes. It is rather a natural process to describe the surroundings and pass on the stories of Dreaming. Art has a strong didactic meaning.

The most common technique used on Aboriginal paintings are dots. Historically, they would cover a secret subject or represent the desert environment which looks dotted from high above due to its grass tufts. Lines are also common and they usually represent sand dunes in the desert. In addition, a myriad of different but often repeating symbols are used, such as concentric circles, half circles or animal prints. The meaning of these differs in different regions and tribes. The artworks are tied to the specific place where they were created, the images are often from a bird’s perspective – and paintings can be viewed as maps of the country.

Aboriginal art is characterised by a complex set of rules. Some works are meant to be viewed by initiated men only, some are for women to see, and only a part of the created artworks are for the public.

But if Aboriginal art is such a multi-faceted complex world of hidden meanings and historical secrets, how would a person from a non-Aboriginal background feel to be involved in it?

Di Stevens, who runs an art gallery dedicated to indigenous art, Tali Gallery in Sydney, explains that the art is aesthetically beautiful and contemporary, yet holds traditional stories that are 40,000 years old. She says that she is passionate about it because it never ceases to amaze her. The extraordinary diversity of Aboriginal art makes her realise that the more one learns about it, the more one realises how little one knows about it.

Stevens also points out that the people at the Tali Gallery have found that indigenous art is a highly successful medium to create a profound and impactful understanding of Aboriginal cultural traditions among non-indigenous Australians in a more general sense. Artwork also conveys evidence of living cultural practices still to be found. Its diversity shows that Indigenous Australians are not a homogeneous culture. The paintings and crafts can hold the key to generating respect as well as a far greater appreciation of this complex and cleverly structured civilisation which is the longest living continuous culture in the world that should be widely revered.


Paintings by Alice Nampitjinpa. Nampitjinpa’s all three paintings are called “Sandhills” – and to an Estonian viewer they look distinctly like the stripes of our folk skirts. Alice Nampitjinpa comes from Haasts Bluff, Northern Territory, Australia.

Leen and Siimon Rampe – Estonian film ambassadors in Australia

Leen Rampe (née Võrno) and Siimon Rampe are a wife-husband team passionate about Estonian film. They have run monthly film sessions called KiNO! nights at the Sydney Estonian Cultural House for over a year now and finished 2012 off with an Estonian Film Festival in Australia.

Leen has a Master’s degree in Scenography from the Estonian Academy of Arts.  She has worked for several years as a set and costume designer as well as Art Director for Estonian movies and TV ads. Leen moved to Sydney in 2008 and now works at the Museum of Contemporary Art as well as for the annual Sculpture by the Sea festival.

Siimon is from Wollongong, an hour south of Sydney but has lived in Sydney most of his adult life. Having started an internet communications degree, he has never studied art in any medium, but naturally gravitates towards it. He has been a keen surfer for most of his life and is currently working as a stevedore. Siimon is a dedicated family man who would love to move to Estonia with his family one day (despite no surfing there).

I talked to them both about their love for film and tried to find out their motivation behind doing such an admirable job in promoting Estonian cinematography.

What is your relationship with Estonia?

Leen: I am an Estonian living in Australia.

Siimon: My father is an Australian Estonian and mother is Australian. I am Estonian citizen myself and have visited Estonia enough times to start loosing count.

Why film?

Leen: Film is my first love, my husband is my second (laughing). I always liked film, since I was a kid. In kindergarten, I was asked who I wanted to be. After I realised that I couldn’t be a dog, I decided that I would be an artist – an animator. When I finished high school, I found the Department of Scenography at the Estonian Academy of Arts. After producing my first film set, I was hooked – creating a whole world for the film was mesmerising to me!

Why Estonian film?

Leen: My reasons to promote Estonian film are definitely personal. I am detached from Estonia and this is my link with it. I have worked in Estonian film industry and I understand it. Now I want to be more involved in Estonian things but film comes naturally to me. That’s why.

Siimon: There’s nothing as morbid as Estonian film (laughing jokingly).

What is your favourite Estonian film?

Siimon: “Tühirand” because from an outsiders point of view, it is a fairly good representation of the Estonian vibe.

Leen: It’s not so easy to answer. My taste changes over time and some films that I didn’t perhaps understand or liked before, have started making sense and growing on me now.

Where did you get the idea to start showing Estonian films at Sydney Cultural House?

Leen: From my husband. We had talked about it and he had suggested it. When we went to Estonia in summer 2011, Siimon said, “call your friend in the film industry and ask what he thinks about it” and that’s how it started.

Have your expectations about monthly KiNO! nights met the reality?

Siimon: Slightly disappointing, but not surprised. When we started, we had a figure in mind. We were hoping to attract around 40-50 people. The numbers have gone up and down. But we have our audience now. The same people are coming back. We haven’t seen as many young backpackers from Estonia as we hoped for though!

What are the plans for future?

Siimon: We will run another year of KINO! nights, but we will broaden the choice of films. Countries like Sweden and Finland will also be included in the attempt to get more people to attend. If our plan will not succeed after another year, we won’t run the monthly nights anymore.

We are also looking into doing Estonian Film Festival again in 2014, but then during Australian winter, sometime around May or June. Winter is a time for film festivals in Sydney, renting a proper cinema would be much cheaper then.

Both Leen and Siimon agreed that organising a film festival is difficult and expensive. Nevertheless, the local Estonian film lovers as well as the Sydney Estonian Society are grateful to the couple for embarking on such an endeavor.


More info about Estonian Film Festival in Australia:

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