A group of refugees are the first to try a new way to integrate into life in Finland.
Through the Finnish Refugee Council Pakolaisapu they will receive Finnish lessons, and separately, a class in their own language to help them navigate the welfare system, and learn about Finnish culture, society, values and history.
It’s the first time such an approach has been attempted in Finland.
“We have noticed one big structural problem which is in Finland there is an integration course which is offered by law to people who could potentially be employed. So people who get residence permits on the basis of quota refugee status, most of them fall into that categtory” explains Milla Mäkinen, Head of Community Engagement Work at the Finnish Refugee Council.
“In practice, that course is a Finnish language course even though you should be getting information about Finnish society” she says.
The new initiative launched this week in Forssa with a group of 24 refugees from Syria, Iraq and Mauritania, who have already been given the right to live in Finland.
One day per week during their Finnish course, they’ll receive class instruction in Arabic.
Usually, municipalities buy the Finnish integration lessons from a third party. So the Refugee Council stepped in to offer this new approach to tackling the problem.
“We know that there are fundamental differences in the way our society works, and how their society works” says Mäkinen.
“Our target group are people who are really at risk of staying out of society […] you grow up in one society and learn a set of skills to survive in that society, but here you need a separate set of skills to cope with our Nordic society” she says.
The new classes don’t just teach information by rote, they allow the group the chance to talk together about what they’ve learned, and discuss why something might be different in Finland than their own country.
“People need information but they need the possibility for dialogue to talk about their experience, their skills and knowledge […] why we have this welfare system, why we have social or unemployment benefits, the history of the country” says Mäkinen.
“We need to give this information from a value perspective, why the country has been developed the way it has. They should know the story of this country and find their own place in this story” she adds.
Khalid Iddriss is the teacher for the new project, and started his first day in the classroom this week.
He knows first hand about the challenges of trying to integrate: he only came to Finland two years ago as a quota refugee, moving from Sudan with his family.
The new Arabic lessons are vital, says Iddriss, because of the diversity of people on the course.
“I have 24 men and women as well in my group, and each from a country with different strife” he tells News Now Finland.
“Their education level is different. One of them is a dentist. One is a journalist with 20 years experience, he is writing in three or four magazines. Six persons are illiterate, even they don’t know how to write their names”.
The gulf in education levels highlights why a Finnish language course, which also tells people how to engage with KELA or the school system in Finnish, doesn’t match the needs of the refugees.
“When we start to give people information [in Arabic] first of all they are not expecting something like this. They expect the old version given by municipalities with information about services, like health service, and that doesn’t help someone to integrate when I tell them to go and fill in a form. It just tells you how to cope with the system” says Iddriss.
At the first lesson this week Iddriss – who spent many years working in Sudan with aid agencies on humanitarian projects before being given refugee status in Finland – told the students about Finland’s independence and civil war, about how the young nation developed its laws, values, economy and political structures.
And the refugees see parallels with their own countries.
“They feel like yes we are at war in our country and if we get those kind of leaders like Finland had, we will be unified like Finland” says Iddriss.
One of the most important subjects to communicate to the refugees is Finland’s welfare state – not just how it works, but why it’s an important part of society’s structure.
“We have people who come from countries where there is no functioning public service system and that experience is really different to come to this society where many things are revolving around public services” says the Finnish Refugee Council’s Milla Mäkinen.
“Even the concept might be totally new to them. Those are the people who we think really urgently need this kind of possibility to get a deeper understanding about it” she adds.
The idea of trusting that public officials won’t ask for bribes, but instead will do their jobs professionally can also be an alien concept. So Khalid Iddriss made a point to explain it to the group this week.
“We talked about […] why the Finnish are trusting the officials, and decisions […] and by the end one of them just start saying ‘yes Khalid I am happy to get that information about the country and now I trust Finnish and I am going to feel safe to live in this country'” he says.
The new integration classes won’t shy away from sensitive topics such as religion or women’s rights, and those issues will be discussed by the students and teacher in Arabic.
“Some topics do come out that require a lot of conversation, about gender equality, children’s rights, and Finland is very advanced with these topics and other societies aren’t so advanced” says Milla Mäkinen, who encourages conversations about Finland’s rights and value-based society.
And Khalid Iddriss has already had one breakthrough from the new initiative, where education and discussion overcame a lifetime of ingrained thinking.
“After the class, I asked the final question I said ‘what do you think about this country?’. One of them said ‘Khalid, honestly, I saw these people making the right differences. They separate religion from the government. That is what we needed in our country, that has been governed by religion and put our country in a very bad position. In my country we need to separate religion from government’ and everyone else said ‘yes, yes, yes, yes!'”