Isabelle: The floating village where Ukrainian children live and learn

A passenger ferry is an unusual place to find a classroom, but this is life for the Ukrainian refugees and their children who live on board Isabelle.
The silhouette of a couple holding hands and dragging a suitcase, as they walk through the snow towards a ferry under bright floodlights. To their left is a sign with arrows reading “ISABELLE”

Isabelle: The floating village where Ukrainian children live and learn


Written by Adam Pensotti

Head of Young People Programme, Canon EMEA

Media reports of the number vary. Some say 2000 people, others say 1400. What is well documented, however, is that Isabelle has been docked in Tallinn Harbour in Estonia since April 2022. Isabelle is a 35,000-tonne ferry and before the pandemic, it spent its days transporting people and goods between the Latvian port of Riga to Stockholm. When Russia invaded Ukraine and many thousands of refugees headed to Estonia, the ferry did not resume its duties. Instead, it became a temporary home for well over a thousand displaced people. Just under half of these are children.

More than 65,000 Ukrainians have fled to Estonia since the beginning of the war, and most are now settled into homes and jobs in their new country. To begin with, however, every refugee is welcomed into temporary accommodation and the ferry Isabelle was chartered to help Tallinn to cope with the huge numbers of arrivals into a relatively small city. As you might imagine, finding residences and jobs for so many people is a huge challenge and this has meant that, for some, this unusual floating village has been ‘home’ to them and their children for many months.

If you have ever travelled by ferry, you’ll already be able to picture the scene – cabins of various configurations, lounges, cafeterias and a restaurant. On board shops. A disco. Many of these spaces have been cleared out and repurposed with the needs of the new residents in mind. A couple of times a week what was previously a small conference area becomes a classroom, where Vera Pirogova, of voluntary educational organisations KINOcourse and OGOGO and Canon Ambassador Katya Mukhina are joined by more than dozen children and young people. Vera, a photographer and filmmaker, attends Tallinn University and is a student of Baltic Film, Media and Arts School. It felt like an important step to support these young refugees face-to-face at a time when their lives have changed beyond recognition.

A teenaged girl holds LED light tubes in front of a woman and two small children who are sat at a table. Behind her, a woman holds a camera to photograph them.

The young people learned the fundamentals of photography, yes, but the primary aim was to bring smiles to the faces of young people who have been through so much.

“When they are not at school, children are playing around the boat all the time,” explains Vera. “So, I think they have a lot of motivation and desire to try something new.” The youngsters study via online classes from Ukraine or attend different schools in Tallinn, so in their free time “something new” is the opportunity to get their hands on a Canon camera and not only learn how to use it but be able to explore their surroundings, both literally and figuratively, and share what they have discovered. “It’s about finding a view on something that seems very familiar to you but is actually not.” She and her fellow teachers encourage a sense of investigation, challenging their students to examine their circumstances in new ways at every lesson. “We have very simple tasks – to shoot a reflection, for example,” she recalls. “We realised how many reflections there are on the ship, how many interesting locations the ship has. The children understood how different every picture was and got excited – ‘oh look, I found this!’ Then they are smiling because they’ve found something no one else has. And this is the point.”

Each class is a mix of ages, with older teenagers often trailed by their younger siblings of ten or eleven years old. So, Vera, Valentina and Katya quickly understood that while their initial educational goal was to teach technical, compositional and editing fundamentals, there was a wider role to play. “The point” of their being on board: to put smiles on the faces of young people who are living with the kind of upheaval that the majority of us will never have to experience. Most of their students come from occupied regions and have left their homes, family members, friends and everything familiar behind. Some have lost loved ones to the war. None of them know what ‘home’ will look like in the future. These classes offer the children some respite, and so too for their parents, for whom day-to-day life can be overwhelming as they seek permanent places to stay, jobs and news from home. Lessons, including those provided by Vera and Valentina, provide necessary structure.

A girl sits in a purple armchair, surrounded by other purple armchairs. In front of her is a large dirty window that overlooks a city. She rests her socked feet against the window.

The student’s photographs offer a rare insight into daily life on Isabelle.

The nature of the ferry means that the young people come and go, and the programme needs to reflect this, making it easy to drop in and out but always taking away something new. Accomplishing this across the age ranges proved to Vera that their programme is not only strong and flexible, but valuable for many different children. “I’m proud that our programme is created that way. With the younger ones I can ask, ‘what do you see? How do you feel? What do you think about this man? Is he angry or happy?’ But we ask the older ones more complicated questions: ‘how is this picture constructed?’” Either way, the team are encouraging new ways of seeing and the ability “to speak about yourself and to talk with people using visual language.”

As well as teaching students face to face in Tallinn, Vera also holds online lessons for young people who are still in Ukraine with her colleagues Valentina Korabelnikova, Sofiya Babiy, Janna Akimova and Aleksandr Arnautov. As we all know, a teacher is never just a teacher and educators always keep a close eye on the wellbeing of their students, but in Vera’s case, this means having incredibly difficult conversations with young people who perhaps aren’t even fully cognizant of the extent of their trauma. “It’s very emotional and hard when they are in the hotspots, where there is bombing,” says Vera, visibly upset by the recollection. “Thank God none of my students have been harmed. I don’t know what I would do.”

When teaching, she finds that her language has subtly changed and she uses gentler terms “to avoid the sharpness” of certain words (such as ‘harmed’ instead of ‘killed’), even though they are the terrible reality of the conversations she has with her students. “Of course, we have these talks with the kids, but only when they want to talk,” she says. And while she understandably will not discuss what is said, she is comforted by the knowledge that the work she is doing helps, giving them an additional language through which to talk about their world, as well as a distraction from a war that has absorbed their lives. “Right now, in Tallinn, we’re safe and what’s important is that it’s helpful,” she says. “They are telling us that, yes, they are waiting for our lessons. And for the children in Zaporizhzhia, it makes them feel out of the war.”

Learn more about how Canon supports and empowers young people.

Written by Adam Pensotti

Head of Young People Programme, Canon EMEA

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