Finland is struggling to cope with the asylum seekers who’ve arrived here this year, but waves of volunteers have stepped up to do their part. One group in Helsinki is helping new arrivals adjust through the international language of football.
Record numbers of asylum seekers have arrived in Finland this year, and more are on the way. Reception centres and authorities meet their basic needs for food and shelter, but how do they adjust to life in a new country? It’s not an easy process and information flow is crucial.
In Helsinki, volunteers have stepped in to help out. Twice a week one group of asylum seekers get to play football with Finns on a modern pitch in Kallio. The facility manager has granted them pitch bookings, local firms have offered kit, and plenty of players are keen to play with the newcomers.
The initiative grew out of a Facebook group set up so Kallio resident could ‘meet the neighbours’ at a reception centre.
«Kallio people are open-minded; they want to meet new people,» says Tiia Nohynek, one of the organisers.
Elsewhere in Finland there have been some hostile reactions to the newcomers, but those active in the group say there is nothing to fear.
«I’ve been with them at a disco and everywhere, and walking around, and I’ve never had the feeling that I should be afraid of anything,» says Nohynek.
Nuts-and-bolts advice needed
An immigrant who’s helping newer arrivals, Jean-Louis Stephat, says that the asylum seekers are eager for advice on day-to-day tips on the neighbourhood.
«There are 200-300 people in the [local facility] but they didn’t know where the library is, where they can pick up a book, where they can pay for the bus…they don’t even know who the president is here! It’s a minimum, when you arrive in some country; you have to inform yourself about this stuff. Even though you have papers or you don’t have papers, you’re still a man; still a human being and you can enjoy that,” he says.
The government has high hopes for sport and exercise as an integration tool. Culture Minister Sanni Grahn-Laasonen has announced some 2 million euros in extra support for sporting activities at reception centres and integration efforts in communities, in response to the increased number of asylum seekers this year.
That money will go to NGOs and local sport clubs to kick-start provision of exercise and sport opportunities for young migrants. The Kallio ‘Meet the Neighbours’ group is a much more grassroots phenomenon, but no less crucial for that.
The new arrivals who’re taking part are enthusiastic.
«Don’t be afraid»
One from Iraq, Ali Kareem, takes a break from keeping goal to offer his impressions of Finland.
“I’m really happy here, I’d like to stay in Finland. I really feel like I can fulfil my ambitions here. That’s not possible in Arabic countries but here you have it all. There’s humanity and like-minded people here.
Mustafa Abdelwahab says there are plenty aspects of life to get adjusted to, and through his contact with the locals he’s learned that Iraqi responses to Finnish food have been in the news. When asked, he takes a diplomatic tack.
“It’s quite new for us. We’re not used to food like that, but little by little we’re getting used to it,” he says.
Volunteer Tiia Nohynek had some simple advice for Finns who might hesitate to get involved.
«Just meet people, and don’t be afraid. They’re also people!»