For someone working with refugees on a daily basis, there are many disturbing clichés around concerning immigrants with a refugee background. One that personally has started to seem as particularly irritating and false is the idea that refugees are passive recipients of help who just wander from one social service counter to another. This stereotype is especially widespread in Nordic countries. It is somewhat understandable, as immigrants do need advice and counseling at least during their first years of residence and in the Nordic welfare states these services exist and are based on legislation. However, contrary to what we also often tend to think in the Nordic countries, the state alone does not solve all the problems and receiving services is not the whole truth about individual integration to a new country.
Since I started to work for Somali League in Finland in a project aimed at Finnish Somalian civil society I have travelled around the country meeting NGO activists and learnt about the enormous amount of voluntary work people do to learn, help themselves and each other to adjust.
There are hundreds of associations, or NGOs, established by immigrants in Finland that provide help and services in school work, parenting, hobbies and other everyday matters especially to newcomers in the country. Coming up with one´s own ideas, taking initiative and creating own actitivies is usually most motivating for NGOs volunteers, because the agenda for activities is created on local terms and not given by a higher authority from above.
Social exclusion of young people has been a huge national topic in Finland during last couple of years. The risks of exclusion among the youth with immigrant background are expecially alarming, as the number of so called drop-outs, who are out of both labor market and secondary education system, is many times higher than the general population.
The Somalian civil society in Finland has become very well aware of educational problems and has reacted rapidly. There certainly is work to do and horror scenarios to fight, because many people who have arrived from Somalia during recent years are on a very weak ground, especially when it comes to basic education. At the moment, one of the most common activities Finnish-Somalian NGOs organize is extra tuition for school pupils (läxhjälp, or läksykerho in Finnish). Help with school homework is available all over the country, and practically In all the suburbs in the capitol region with a dense population of Somali migrants.
There are some local varieties, but mainly the extra tuition is based on voluntary work and is realized without any financial support from outside or the authorities. Parents may collect some funds among themselves to pay for rent of classrooms and teacher´s fees. The tuition is mainly given by Somali speaking volunteers with a background as a teacher or other specialized education in Somalia or with a degree acquired in Finland. Sometimes there is co-operation with local Red Crosses that have both younger volunteers and reserves of retired school teachers of Finnish background still willing to teach.
The adult learners have followed and started their own clubs to provide extra lessons. Many young adults who have grown up during the years of civil war in Somalia have missed education altogether or only gone to school sporadically. In Finland they need to acquire the certificate of primary education before they can move on to vocational or high school. Extra lessons in math, English and Finnish are sorely needed to get to a level that most Finnish people reach automatically through the public school system.
People coming from a war-torn country with a destroyed educational infrastructure appreciate education and schools in a way that many of us have forgotten. This is very true with Somali parents (while it may be universal that parents appreciate school higher than children…). When visiting a community center in Helsinki which gathers immigrant children for extra lessons five days a week I was told by one experienced community worker that Somali parents have such an interest in their children´s school success that they need to be restrained from working their children too hard and give them freedom from extra lessons at least for the summer holiday months.
Even though the social exclusion of young people has been such a huge issue recently and solutions are being sought at many different levels of decision making, the activities and initiatives on the ground level of civil society are quite invisible in the public debate and media.
There are many reasons for the invisibility. The phenomenon of immigrant NGOs is still quite new and local volunteers often work on small, almost non-existent resources to keep their basic functions going – like counseling, teaching, organising women´s groups and hobbies for youth. There is no energy or funds left for anything extra. And often for small associations the documentation of their own activities and informing the public about them are extra responsibilities that end up ignored. Also, people may not think their local activities as noteworthy compared to big national issues. The poor documentation and invisibility leads to resources being scarce in the future, too.
This is of course a challenge that the NGOs and their media folks must take on and handle better, but the invisibility also tells us how strongly certain positions are fixed in the media reprentations . The refugees have long been portrayed either as a threat or victims and recipients of help and it is not even noticed how much they are active agents taking responsibility for their own and their community´s wellbeing. Many of the refugees also seem to be happy about the opportunity to be active in their new homecountry, and a content immigrant without complaints is also something you rarely encounter in the media usually focused on problems.
Sanna Rummakko, project manager at the Somali League of Finland