Estonians in the USA

Beebi Boomers – the children of fate

Andres Simonson writes about the Beebi Boomers – the children born in the United States, Canada, Australia, Sweden and other countries to native Estonian political refugees who fled the Soviet invasion and the illegal occupation of their fatherland.*

In the war-torn Estonia of 1944, two families from disparate parts of the country make a most difficult decision. With a future of despair advancing rapidly from the east on tank treads and the wings of well-armed bombers, unbeknownst to the other, both families decide to flee for the prospects of the unknown. They make a trade. Life, or quite possibly death, under the invading Soviets for a chance at nomadic normalcy under the premise of returning at some future date. The die has been cast. The families, meagre belongings in tow, are now political refugees on the run.

Separately, but with a shared destiny in front of them, the two families find security and shelter in American and British-controlled displaced persons’ camps in Germany as the Second World War winds down. Separately, but with an intertwined future to be, they later make the long journey across the Atlantic Ocean for the shores of the United States. Separately, but with a connected fate emerging, they find housing in the New York and Philadelphia metropolitan areas and transform the structures into homes. Separately, but soon to meet even if they don’t know it yet, the two families assimilate while holding their ancestries close to their hearts.

Later still, in 1960, the young children fleeing with their divergent families two decades ago are now adults – a young man and a young woman. In an Estonian enclave in Lakewood, New Jersey, at last, they meet. Shyly at first, they chat. Stories are exchanged about the journey they hold in common and the memories of their places of birth. Comfortable with each other, and with butterflies in their bellies, they go on a first date. A subsequent phone call leads to another. Soon, they fall in love. They marry. They procreate. A new family is born…

Ironically fortunate souls

Imagine owing your very existence to one of the 20th centrury’s greatest atrocities. Well, as briefly summarised above, that’s me. Not just me though – there are countless other ironically fortunate souls that fill out this story. We are the Beebi Boomers – the children born to native Estonian political refugees that fled the Soviet invasion and the illegal occupation of their fatherland.

Most reading this are familiar with the Baby Boomers. They are the post-World War II population cohort that sprang from the returning infantrymen and service people. In the United States, Canada, and parts of Europe, the Baby Boomers are the generation born from roughly 1946 through 1964. They compose a large population segment of their respective countries. But substitute the English spelling of the word “baby” for the Estonian translation “beebi”, add a decade or so to the birth years, and you’ll have a unique subset and extension of the Baby Boomer populace – Beebi Boomers.

These Beebi Boomers are natural born citizens of the United States, Canada, Sweden, Australia, and dozens of other countries around the globe. Their birth certificates are as varied as are their lots in life. And yet, they share a commonality of being. For you see, if the Soviets had never invaded, their parents would have never fled Estonia as small children. If they had never fled, maybe their father had stayed in Elva and their mother in Tallinn – as probably would have been the case with my parents. If those families had never left, the Beebi Boomer’s parents would have never caught each other’s eye at a location thousands of miles from a land where they most likely would never have met.

I am a Beebi Boomer. My brother is a Beebi Boomer. My friends from Suvekodu Laager (a summer camp) in Long Island, New York, are Beebi Boomers. I have extended family in the form of Beebi Boomers in Canada. I see Beebi Boomers often at the Estonian-American clubhouses in Lakewood, New Jersey, and in New York City. I keep in touch with them on social media. I read about Beebi Boomers in publications such as the one you are reading right now.

An Estonian-Australian teacher in Melbourne, she is a Beebi Boomer. An Estonian-Swede, a musician born to parents from Pärnu and Tartu, he is a Beebi Boomer. A natural born German tech consultant, who spoke Estonian at home and now uses those same language skills to do business in Tallinn, he is a Beebi Boomer.

Hyphenated Estonians

In a strange twist of fate, we owe our very existence to the same forces that decimated many of our extended families. When I look back on the Soviet war crimes, it’s a tough pill to swallow. I am here. But many were slaughtered to set my existence in motion. Still, none of us can shape our ancestries. We are all functions of an infinite amount of historical twists and turns. Call it what you will – chance, destiny, or a divine plan – the individual has no control.

So, we owe it to our ancestors to tell our stories. We owe it to our forefathers and foremothers to keep the Estonian traditions and language alive. We owe it to those that perished to lead fruitful lives, but to never forget the means to our end.

But maybe most importantly, we owe it to ourselves to contemplate our path to existence while enjoying our lots in life as hyphenated Estonians.

We are the Beebi Boomers.

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Cover photo: Young Estonian expats in the United States in the late 1950s (courtesy of Kalev Ehin). * This article was originally published on 4 July 2013 and lightly edited on 11 January 2018.

Estonian-American admiral Edward Masso named the next US ambassador

US president Donald Trump announced his intent to name the retired rear admiral, Estonian-American Edward “Sonny” Masso as the next ambassador to Estonia.

According to the White House, Masso is a decorated naval officer and the founder of Flagship Connection, a consulting company on business development, strategic planning and operations analysis in the areas of missile defense, cyber security and data analytics.

“During his distinguished 32-year career in the US Navy, he held nine command assignments, including Commander, Navy Personnel Command/Deputy Chief of Naval Personnel,” the White House said in a statement.

Masso has also served in NATO and the United States European Command. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies in Cyber Security. He graduated from the University of Mississippi in 1977.

A son of an Estonian refugee

According to the US Navy, Masso’s decorations include the Distinguished Service Medal, Legion of Merit (Gold Star), Defense Meritorious Service Medal, Meritorious Service Medal (three Gold Stars), Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal and Navy Achievement Medal (Gold Star).

“He is most proud, though, of being an honorary Chief Petty Officer and of the Meritorious Unit Commendation awarded to the men and women of Navy Command Center 106 for actions during and following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks,” the Navy said.

Rear admiral Masso is also a contributor to Breitbart News, a right-wing news, commentary and opinion website that is managed by Steve Bannon, president Trump’s former chief strategist.

According to the Estonian media, Edward Masso was born in the United States as a son of an Estonian refugee.

Masso will have to be confirmed by the US Senate before assuming his duties as ambassador.

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The cover image, a US flag in Estonian flag colours, is illustrative.

Hundreds gather in LA to celebrate Estonia and their heritage

The West Coast Estonian Days, taking place from 31 August to 4 September, will see several hundreds of visitors celebrating Estonian culture, identity and the upcoming centenary of the republic.

The United States hosts one of the most vibrant Estonian expat communities in the world – there are cultural societies, singing choirs and hobby groups all across the country, from California to Washington, DC. Estonian-American organisations, such as the Estonian American National Council, also do the political lobby work in Washington, if needed – especially when security situation in the Estonian vicinity offers some concern.

According to latest available survey, approximately 28,200 US citizens have responded “Estonian” as either a first ancestry (47.4%) or second ancestry (52.6%). It’s not easy to pinpoint when the first of their ancestors set a foot in the States – Estonian sailors, serving on Russian vessels, are reputed to have participated in the California Gold Rush of 1848, but definite proof is lacking.

It is a fact, however, that one Jaan Sepp arrived in New York in 1855 as a seaman. After a stint as a stevedore and a construction worker, he left for the West Coast, where under the name of John Smith he became a trapper and a barger. Having made enough money, he decided to return to Estonia, but not before losing the $2,000 he had saved gambling aboard the ship taking him back to Europe. Many of the later Estonian immigrants were luckier, however – hundreds, if not thousands of them embraced the “American dream” and made great fortunes.

Many Estonian entrepreneurs thrived in the West Coast – one of them, Charles Gustav Janson, was even called the “Orange King of San Fernando”, owing three large storages and selling up to 600,000 oranges a day. It was the will and money of those Estonian immigrants that initiated the Estonian Society of Southern California in 1928. The post-war Estonian immigration to the US intensified the need to keep the cultural spirit alive further, and the Los Angeles Estonian House was set up in 1953.

The West Coast Estonian Festival

In the same year, two close communities – the Los Angeles and San the Francisco area Estonians – decided to put heads and hearts together and organised West Coast Estonian Festival, the first of its kind for Estonian Americans. On 5-7 September 1953, about 700 Estonians and at least 300 Americans came together to sing, compete in sports and mingle. This spirit is carried on still today. Organised by the West Coast Estonian League, comprised of various Estonian organisations on the west coast, the festival rotates on a two-year basis among the cities of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and Vancouver in the Canadian province of British Columbia.

On 31 August, both Estonian Americans and visitors from the country of their ancestors gather in Los Angeles to welcome the West Coast Estonian Days again.

This time, the event is especially high profile. The republic of Estonia will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2018 and many historic events that have helped preserve the Estonian culture will be honoured. The West Coast Estonian Days are not an exception – for the first time, Estonia’s prime minister will be present. Jüri Ratas will express gratitude on his country’s behalf and highlight the centennial celebrations to come.

The West Coast Days’ diverse programme will feature a mini “song festival”, an Estonian folk party, film screenings, a number of seminars and a theatre production from Estonia.

“Since Estonia’s independence, we have been fortunate to have participants from Estonia perform and participate,” one of the organisers, Mati Laan, told Estonian World. According to him, still very little is known about Estonia in the region. “That is why it is very important to have events like the West Coast Estonian Days and promote Estonia as much as possible,” he emphasised.

Considering the festival is funded by the local Estonian American community, they no doubt deserve gratitude and all the support they can get.

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Cover: Member of the Los Angeles Estonian community dancing traditional folk dance. Images courtesy of the Los Angeles Estonian Society. The West Coast Estonian Days will take place from 31 August to 4 September at the UCLA Conference Center in Los Angeles, California. Please consider making a donation for the continuous improvement of our publication.

Global Estonians podcast: Steve Jurvetson

The Silicon Valley-based technology entrepreneur, Rainer Sternfeld, interviews the Estonian-American polymath and venture capitalist, Steve Jurvetson.

Born to Estonian parents Tõnu and Tiiu in 1967, Jurvetson graduated at the top of his Stanford University class as a Henry Ford Scholar. After gaining work experience at Hewlett-Packard and Bain & Company, he returned to Stanford to earn a master’s degree in electrical engineering, after which he joined a venture capital firm founded by Tim Draper and John Fisher. In his day job, Jurvetson invests in bold human endeavours in quantum computing, deep learning, electric cars, rockets, synthetic biology, genomics, robotics and other areas.

Although Jurvetson never learned Estonian – his parents used it between themselves – he has retained an interest in the country’s global affairs and in 2014, became the first non-European to receive an Estonian e-residency card.

In the podcast, Jurvetson talks about his technology-infused, Estonian-influenced upbringing in Arizona, fundamental shifts in computing and the future of humanity in the light of artificial intelligence.

He also shares his thoughts on why Estonia is competitive on the world stage. “I think increasingly small companies matter and small countries matter and small teams matter.” But Jurvetson recommends Estonia to stay clear of regulations, make it easier to form companies and make it easier to run experiments.

Sternfeld interviewed Jurvetson for his “Global Estonians” initiative – mostly an Estonian language podcast where globally active Estonians share their life and work experiences. Yet, every tenth episode features an English-language interview with someone who is of Estonian descent – or a good friend of the country.

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Cover: Steve Jurvetson.

Silicon Valley’s Intertrust acquires the Estonian-founded Planet OS

A Silicon Valley company, Intertrust Technologies, has acquired the assets of the Estonian-founded geospatial big data service provider, Planet OS.

Planet OS, founded by the Estonian technology entrepreneur, Rainer Sternfeld, is a big data infrastructure company for geospatial IoT (Internet of Things), solving the most difficult data discovery, data access and decision support problems for energy industries and government agencies. Its platform allows users to manage and visualise multi-format, large-scale data from numerous sources, enabling operators to see patterns and act on analyses that they may have previously overlooked. The company is based in Silicon Valley, but maintains a small team in Estonia.

From profiling buoy to global company

The story of Planet OS started in 2008, when four friends in Estonia designed a new kind of profiling buoy. It was built and deployed in 2009 to the Gulf of Finland, starting to collect data and understand phytoplankton concentration in the area. In 2011, after hearing feedback from the marine industry experts, Sternfeld and his partner, Kalle Kägi, decided to build the world’s first big data platform for ocean data. The entrepreneurs founded a company called Marinexplore, which aimed to organise the planet’s ocean data, allowing marine professionals to easily find and access the information they need.

By the end of 2013, the team learned its platform was capable of handling the growing needs of internet-connected devices in the world of Industrial IoT, and that weather and the environment had become increasingly important. To address that market need, in 2014 they renamed their company Planet OS – and by the end of that year, the startup signed its first large customer, Bravante, working with five international oil companies on an environmental survey in north-east Brazil.

In recent years, Planet OS studied renewable energy data – in 2015, its first project in this field was to integrate data for the second largest offshore wind farm in the world, based off the coast of Wales. For the last two years, the company worked with information from more than 150 wind farms, providing data infrastructure, visualisation, monitoring and analytics solutions.

Engineering talent in Estonia

Founded in 1990, the Silicon Valley-based Intertrust provides computing products and services to many leading global corporations – from mobile and CE manufacturers and service providers to enterprise software platform companies. The two firms announced that the entire Planet OS team will join Intertrust while the company’s engineering operations in Estonia will be expanded.

“Planet OS is a highly innovative geospatial big data platform,” Talal G. Shamoon, Intertrust’s chief executive officer, said in a statement. “We are very enthusiastic about establishing technology operations in Estonia, which is a hot-bed of technology innovation, and a serious source of engineering talent,” he added.

The companies didn’t disclose the value of the deal.

Read the feature story: Rainer Sternfeld: taking over planet Earth.

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Cover: Rainer Sternfeld, the founder and CEO of Planet OS. Please consider making a donation for the continuous improvement of our publication.

Why the relationship between the US and Estonia matters

As the United States celebrates Independence Day, commemorating the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on 4 July 1776, the date on which the country formally separated from the British Empire, it’s timely to send good wishes from Estonia and be grateful for the American support throughout the years.

On 4 July, 1776, there were 2.5 million people living in the newly independent United States, comprising 13 former British colonies. Today, America’s population is more than 323 million and it is still the most powerful single nation on Earth, albeit under growing pressure from a “country of dragon”, China.

Just as for the rest of the world in the last century, the US has also played an important – and occasionally, major – role in the Estonian affairs, both institutionally and on a personal level.

While Estonians first started immigrating to America in the late 19th century and the United States established official diplomatic relations with Estonia in 1922, it wasn’t until the 1940s – the Soviet annexation of Baltic states and the WWII turmoil – that the role of the US became crucial.

The Welles Declaration

First, there was the Welles Declaration. On 23 July 1940, the United States’ acting Secretary of State, Sumner Welles, issued a declaration that condemned the Soviet Union’s aggression against Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

The Welles Declaration clearly stated that the invasion by the Soviet Union, which soon led to the annexation of Estonia, was unacceptable and initiated its refusal to recognise the legitimacy of Soviet control over these countries. For the next 51 years, it formed the basis for the American refusal to recognise the Soviet occupation of the Baltic states.

Even today, there are still a number of people in Estonia, who argue that the US and other Western allies could have done more to save the Baltic states from the Soviet takeover, calling it Western betrayal. They argue that the Yalta conference in February 1945 – at which Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill discussed Europe’s post-war reorganisation, leaving the Central and Eastern Europe under the Soviet domination – should have had a different outcome.

This author sides with those who say that realpolitik made it impossible to do anything else. Due to the significant power and role of the Soviet Union in the war against Nazi Germany, the US was unable to confront the Stalin-led tyranny militarily in the region, immediately after the end of the war. But the Welles Declaration, at least, enabled Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania to maintain independent diplomatic missions in the US, while their financial assets were also protected until they regained independence in 1991.

Crucial role

Then there were people. In 1944, in the face of Estonia being occupied by the Soviet Red Army, 80,000 people fled the country by sea – first to Germany and Sweden – becoming war refugees. Thousands of them were soon allowed to move on and settle in the US, where Estonians generally prospered.

Meanwhile, the US-based Estonian political activists and diplomats in exile consistently lobbied successive American presidents on their cause and made sure the Soviet occupation of Estonia would not be forgotten.

But it didn’t matter only to Estonian expats in the US – it mattered also to folks back home. When the Cold War – the confrontation between Soviet Union and Western allies – got into a full swing, the US set up a radio station, Radio Free Europe, in West Germany, as close as possible to the countries behind Soviet-controlled Iron Curtain. And Estonians caught the signal, too.

As Mari-Ann Kelam, the Vice President of the Estonian American National Council from 1986–92, wrote recently, “Each year on 24 February (the Estonian Independence Day), thousands of ears were pressed close to their wireless sets to hear, through the crackling generated by radio jammers, broadcasts of festive assemblies organised by Estonian expatriate organisations, the Estonian national anthem and the US president’s annual message to Consul-General Ernst Jaakson, expressing the hope that Estonia would become free again one day.”

And free it became again. In October 1991, the US officially returned to Estonia when its embassy started operations in Tallinn again, first in temporary offices located at the Palace Hotel. Few months later, in February 1991, the US embassy resumed operations in the same building on Kentmanni Street that had housed the pre-war US legation to Estonia until it had been forced to close in September 1940.

Perhaps unexpectedly, the US’s role became clearly evident again in 2014, following the annexation of Crimea by Russia. Made nervous by Moscow’s resurgent aggressiveness, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania asked for security assurances from their Western allies – until then, no permanent NATO troops were stationed there.

American support was crucial; enforcements – “boots on the ground” – arrived in hour of need. “The defence of Tallinn and Riga and Vilnius is just as important as the defence of Berlin and Paris and London,” the then-US president, Barack Obama, said while visiting Tallinn in autumn 2014.

Optimism and innovation

But the partnership between the two countries is not only tied to security matters. The US is a top 10 export partner for Estonia. In recent years, many Estonian high-tech companies and start-ups that have received American financing have gone on to open up US offices while maintaining important jobs in Estonia. There are also aspiring Estonian artists who have moved to New York or Los Angeles – to make or break in the global world.

“The American, by nature, is optimistic. He is experimental, an inventor and a builder who builds best when called upon to build greatly,” John F. Kennedy, the iconic US president, once said. For this author, this saying really embodies what’s great about America – even if on these days these virtues don’t always apply anymore, they are always worth aspiring to. Happy Independence Day!

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The opinions in this article are those of the author. Cover: People waving the Estonian and American flags during president Barack Obama visit to Estonia on 4 September 2014 (photo by Rene Velli/Office of the Estonian President).

Estonian-founded Bikeep installs secure bike racks in San Francisco

Bikeep, the Estonian startup that builds smart and secure bike racks, has announced the first pilot station installation for the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) to reduce bike theft at its stations.

The company’s first installation for BART is now installed at the 16th Street Station in San Francisco and available to use for everyone owning a Clipper card, a reloadable contactless smart card used for electronic transit fare payment in the Bay Area. Instead of carrying a personal lock, cyclists can park their bikes with a swipe of a Clipper card, free of charge.

Focusing on personal bike parking technology, Bikeep has its headquarters in San Francisco, but the R&D department is in Estonia, where most of its team also comes from. The company that managed to start its US operation with just USD100,000 investment offers a solution that enables to lock all mass-produced bicycles, charge e-bikes and act as a P2P bike share platform.

Expanding across the Bay Area

According to Kristjan Lind, the company’s CEO, Bikeep’s smart racks have industrial grade steel bars, a loudspeaker alarm, a distress signal forwarding to local security and a surveillance camera. “So far, out of one million parking sessions, we haven’t had a single bike theft incident,” he said in a statement.

The BART installation is not completely without hassle and restrictions. It requires for bikers to register online to use Bikeep stations and continuous parking is limited for 24 hours. However, if someone forgets their bike, BART is liable to get in touch with them, before removing it from the station.

The startup said BART had already decided to install its system to another station, and is considering new sites. In the meantime, Bikeep is expanding its smart bike rack systems across the Bay Area with installations to local retailers and real estate developers.

Bikeep said the company was this year planning to secure USD2 million investment to scale business across the US.

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Cover: Bikeep’s pilot installation at 16th Street BART station in San Francisco (Bikeep.)

Support the ban on fur farming in Estonia – Mena Suvari

The Estonian-American actress, Mena Suvari, known for her role in “American Beauty” and other films, has sent an open letter to the Estonian prime minister, Jüri Ratas, expressing her support for a bill introduced by parliament members in February to ban fur farming in the country by 2028.

Suvari’s letter follows a recent survey that found that 69 per cent of Estonians do not support breeding and killing animals for their fur. Politicians will cast their votes on the bill on 9 May.

Estonian World hereby publishes Suvari’s letter in full:

Dear Prime Minister Ratas,

As a proud Estonian-American, I was thrilled to learn that 14 members of the Estonian parliament have proposed a bill to ban fur farming. On behalf of kind people everywhere, I urge you to support this legislation when it comes up for a vote.

Animals on fur farms are often given no veterinary care, and investigations into fox and fur farms in Estonia have revealed that animals are confined to filthy, cramped cages and suffer from festering, open wounds and eye infections.

As you can see in this PETA exposé, chinchillas – animals currently raised and killed in Estonia – are often confined to tiny cages before workers snap their necks or electrocute them. According to a recent survey by Kantar Emor (the Estonian branch of the world’s largest insight, information and consultancy groups – editor), 69 per cent of Estonians do not support raising and killing animals for fur.

The proposed ban’s transition period of 10 years will give fur farmers plenty of time to adapt their business and get out of this cruel, dying industry.

I urge Estonia to join other countries – including Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Great Britain, the Netherlands and Slovenia – in taking a stand against cruelty to animals by banning fur farms. Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely,

Mena Suvari

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The opinions in this article are those of the author. Read also: Annika Lepp: Ban fur farming in Estonia. Cover: Caged fox cub in fur farm in Estonia (picture courtesy of Loomus.)

Estonian folk music presented in Washington, DC

As part of the centennial celebrations of Estonia, the country’s folk music is to be presented at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.

The concert, called “Tonality of Culture”, brings together Estonian folk music with contemporary art and dance, the curator of the event, the New York-based Estonian artist Valev Laube said in a statement.

The concert is to take place on 3 May and it celebrates “Estonia’s freedom of expression and cultural celebration by performing folk tunes from the 19th and 20th century, as well as more recent folk-inspired instrumental music”.

“In cooperation with an Estonian dancer and choreographer Diina Tamm, old folk tunes will find a new life through contemporary dance, music and video installations,” the curator said.

The show is put together by five artists – Laube (violin, video art), Diina Tamm (dance, choreography), Evan Basta (viola), Reid Zuckerman (guitar) and James Koroni (dance).

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Cover image courtesy of “Tonality of Culture”.

Estonian cultural days celebrated in New York

An annual celebration of Estonian culture takes place in New York City from 5-9 April, with a lineup of performers from Estonia.

The cultural days feature concerts, theatre performances, lectures and other events, engaging Estonians from both the local diaspora and abroad and celebrating Estonian culture in the United States by bringing together a wide variety of performers.

The lineup includes singers Ott Lepland and Tanja Mihhailova, girl band La La Ladies, We Are Family (WAF) choir, Tallinn City Theatre, artist Jaanika Peerna and many others.

Retaining a sense of culture and heritage

The idea behind the event is to ensure that the Estonian population in New York retains its sense of culture and heritage. “In addition to bringing some of the most impressive and relevant performers from Estonia to New York City, we also wanted to pay special tribute to the 47-year-old tradition of holding cultural days in New York,” Kadri Napritson Acuna, the event’s executive director, said. “We are also aiming to bring more attention to contributions that Estonian-Americans have made to the Estonian culture and the unique stories that this community embodies”.

The eclectic programme draws special attention to the history of Estonians in the United States through a book presentation, “Estonians in America – 1945-1995, Exiles in a Land of Promise”, conducted by Estonian-American Priit Vesilind, a former photojournalist of the National Geographic magazine. The book was published by the Estonian American National Council in 2016.

The programme also includes lectures and discussions by many other speakers, such as art critic Heie Treier, e-governance expert Hannes Astok and children’s writers Piret Raud and Kätlin Vainola.

WAF choir will also collaborate with local New York-based artists currently working on a musical “The Innocence”. The musical follows two Estonian children across 50 years, through two world wars and across three continents.

While most events take place at the historic New York Estonian House, the festival also holds events at the Scandinavia House and the Immanuel Lutheran Church.

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Cover: We Are Family (WAF) choir performing in Estonia.

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