Second Viru Vanem donation to help Estonians connect and reflect on their heritage
By the time Merike Kalm was 12 years old and a newly arrived immigrant to Canada from Estonia by way of Finland and Sweden, she had already experienced more than most will in a lifetime.
Merike is a Viru Vanem level donor to KESKUS International Estonian Centre under development now in downtown Toronto. The donation is in honour of the Himel, Kalm and Roos families.
This is Merike’s second Viru Vanem donation; she made the first in memory of her aunt, Eva Kalm.
Journey from Estonia
Merike’s precarious journey began in 1943. At the age four, she, along with her parents Georg and Maimo Kalm and two year-old brother Mihkel, escaped the invading Soviet troops from her home town of Tallinn by fishing boat.
“There were 100 souls on that boat, with the women and children in the hold below,” she recalls.
The family’s first stop was at a displaced persons’ (DP) camp in Helsinki. Afterwards, they settled into a rented farmhouse in the countryside while Georg served in the Finnish army.
Their next move was to Sweden, and yet another DP camp. A fortunate circumstance enabled them to obtain permission to purchase land and build a home, not usually granted to immigrants at that time. This was due to Georg’s father’s link to Russian nobility; he served in the Russian army in 1904 (Estonia was under Russian rule at the time) and rose to become an aide to Czar Nicholas.
Georg built the family’s home in Roslags Näsby, a municipality north of Stockholm, an accomplishment he would repeat when they emigrated to Canada – their next, and final, move.
Early days in Canada
The family arrived at Pier 21 in Halifax in 1950, the gateway to Canada through which a total of 1.5 million immigrants passed between 1928 and 1971 in their search for a safe and permanent home.
Shortly after their arrival, Merike entered school.
“I didn’t know any English, so I was put into Grade One, but I progressed through the grades quickly.”
Georg in his industrious fashion, built the family a home in Mississauga, where they settled into a more permanent life. Merike by this time had lived in four countries and six different “homes.”
Move to KESKUS nurtures strong future
It is this early displacement that fuels Merike’s desire to help the Estonian community nurture a strong future. That, and her late husband Jaan Roos’ dedication to supporting the transition from the former Estonian House to the new KESKUS.
“My motivation is how much my husband Jaan believed in KESKUS,” Merike said. “He knew the old Estonian house on Broadview had outlived its capability to serve the community. KESKUS has a whole new energy.”
Merike didn’t have a lot of connection to the Estonian community while growing up. “I knew I was Estonian, but it wasn’t until I met Jaan that I really became a part of the community. It has added such a positive dimension to my life.”
Her family is firmly behind the decision to support KESKUS.
“My children are keenly interested in their Estonian heritage,” she said. “This new centre will give all people with Estonian roots the opportunity to connect and learn about where they come from.”
Merike and her first husband Dr. Calvin Himel have four children: Jeffrey, Susan, David and Leigh.
She has three step-children with her late husband Dr. Jaan Olav Roos: Jamie, Martin and Richard. Jaan, who was a shareholder in the Toronto Estonian House, a member of the Estonian Students’ Society (Eesti Üliõpilaste Selts) and the Estonian Folk Music Ensemble (Eesti Rahvapillide Orkester), died August, 2021.
Jaan was a respirology specialist whose passion was competitive sports including running, cross-country skiing and race-walking. He and Merike shared a love of race-walking and met at the Central YMCA in Toronto while practicing their sport.
Connection to Estonia continues
Merike plans to take an extended trip to Estonia with her children and grandchildren next summer. This is not her first trip. One of her most interesting trips was in 1993 when she worked in President Lennart Meri’s office as an administrative consultant as part of the Canadian Executive Service Organization.
“It was a very interesting time to work there and contribute to Estonia’s evolution,” she recalls. “There were constant changes as they set up new systems and practices.”
Her goal in visiting now is more personal: “I want to say goodbye to my family members,” she said.
For Merike, the journey to life in Canada was often tumultuous but her “eestlus” has remained intact. With this donation, Merike hopes to help other Estonians connect with their heritage.
“As an immigrant, you always know you are the ‘other,’” she said. “KESKUS will help every Estonian discover and celebrate their rich heritage and reflect on what the idea of ‘other’ means for them.”
Get involved and help support our future
Are you interested in helping build this spectacular new home for the global Estonian community? Please join our growing list of capital campaign donors! The International Estonian Centre’s donor categories are Kalevipoja Laud for gifts over $100,000 (including naming rights for specific areas), Viru Vanemad for gifts over $10,000, and Kungla Rahvas for gifts up to $10,000. Stay tuned for the launch of the Kungla Rahvas campaign in 2021.
Donations may be made as a family gift, or in honour of an individual or family. All Canadian and U.S. donations will be issued a tax receipt.
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DIGITAL Estonian Life No. 25 - June 24, 2022