Lisa Trei, a graduate student at Tallinn University, has been awarded a Fulbright Specialist Award to work with Vabamu Museum of Occupations and Freedom.

Trei plans to develop a digital exhibit and educational resources based on the stories of Estonian refugees who initially fled to Sweden in 1944 to escape Soviet terror. A few years later, fearful of being deported back to Estonia by the Swedish government, hundreds of Estonians escaped again, this time secretly crowding into small boats to sail across the Atlantic to North America.

“The tales of these 20th-century Vikings, who risked all to live in freedom, is especially relevant today in the wake of Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, which has created millions of new refugees and once again threatens the security of Estonia and Europe,” Trei said. “During Soviet times, this remarkable chapter of Estonia’s history was suppressed and even today is largely unknown. It deserves a wider audience.”

Trei’s project aligns with Vabamu’s mission “to educate the people of Estonia and its visitors about the recent past, sense the fragility of freedom, and advocate for justice and the rule of law.” Vabamu runs two museums, develops educational activities, and organizes international partnerships, including with Stanford University. Trei will also advise the museum on communications and fundraising strategies aimed at developing deeper relationships with the Estonian émigré community in the United States.

The digital exhibit, which will launch in fall 2024 to coincide with the 80th anniversary of the Great Escape, when 80,000 Estonians fled their homeland, will highlight journeys recorded in Jüri Vendla’s book Unustatud merereisid (Forgotten Sea Journeys). Although accounts of individual boats have been published, Vendla’s 2010 book, which Trei is translating into English, is the only record that covers all the known boats and ships that escaped from Sweden to the “free world” in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

An Estonian connection

Trei’s grandparents emigrated from Saaremaa to New York City in the 1920s during Estonia’s first period of independence. In 1990, as a journalist, she was invited to teach reporting at Tartu University and work at The Estonian Independent, the republic’s first English-language newspaper. Trei covered the breakup of the Soviet Union and the reemergence of independent Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania for many U.S. publications, including The Wall Street Journal. In 2023, following a long career in communications at Stanford University, Trei returned to Estonia to pursue a master’s degree in Estonian Studies at Tallinn University.

Fulbright Specialist Program

Trei is one of more than 400 U.S. citizens selected each year to participate in the Fulbright Specialist Program, which supports the development of short-term, collaborative projects that aim to promote long-lasting relationships between professionals and host institutions. Since its establishment in 1946, the Fulbright Program, the flagship international exchange program sponsored by the U.S. government, has given more than 400,000 professionals the opportunity to study, teach, and conduct research in more than 160 countries worldwide.

This is Trei’s second Fulbright award. In 1994, she was selected to teach journalism at Tartu University, which led to the publication of Uuriv ajakirjandus (Investigative Journalism), Estonia’s first handbook on investigative reporting. Today, she is active in Estonian activities in the United States as a member of the Estonian American National Council and the Estonian Society of San Francisco.