Researcher helps children seeking a new life in Finland
“Aid work is not about helping victims but about helping people”, notes Academy Researcher Anna-Kaisa Kuusisto-Arponen from the University of Tampere.
The increased number of asylum seekers has mobilised Anna-Kaisa Kuusisto-Arponen into action. This autumn, she has invited her colleagues and friends to form a group that donates clothes and other items to a newly-founded local group home for children and young people. The group home accommodates asylum-seeking children who have arrived in Finland without a guardian and have not yet been granted a residence permit. Among other things, the children have needed winter coats, jeans, underwear, socks and hygiene products.
“After making their journey from the Middle East or Africa through Europe, the children often have nothing. Just a backpack, if even that – or a plastic bag full of clothes that they have managed to get on their way here.”
Kuusisto-Arponen is well familiar with the situation of children arriving alone; in her profession as a researcher, she investigates the forced displacement of children and young people. Her previous studies have focused on war children, and the most recent study examines immigrant children and youth living in family group homes. The children and youth in group homes move to family group homes once they receive their residence permit, and family group homes then accommodate them until they turn 18.
In autumn 2014, Kuusisto-Arponen embarked on a seven-month fieldwork project in a family group home. In practice, this fieldwork meant spending time with the children – doing homework, cooking and watching movies with them, as well as helping the children load their bus cards.
“Having to separate from one’s family is a difficult experience, which you cannot access by interviewing. A great many stories are told when spending time and relaxing together. Then the children open up and talk about their situation, thoughts and longing for their home country.”
The fieldwork period ended at the turn of March and April. For Kuusisto-Arponen, this meant leaving the everyday life at the family group home behind completely for a while, to ensure that her roles as a researcher and volunteer would not get mixed up.
“It was painful at first, because these children and youth have already been abandoned in many ways before. As an adult, I felt enormous pressure and responsibility to make sure that the end of our fieldwork period wouldn’t be one of those moments of abandonment for the children.”
After a five-month break, Kuusisto-Arponen has now returned to the family group home to work as a volunteer adult. Currently, she is helping the home to find new volunteers. According to Kuusisto-Arponen, there is a severe need for volunteer homework helpers in Maths and Finnish, for example.
At the University of Tampere, individual people have taken the initiative to start building up a network of contacts to help the asylum seekers. One idea that has been presented is that students could be engaged as volunteers to teach Finnish.
To Kuusisto-Arponen, it is extremely important that people at the University try to find ways to help asylum seekers. This has to do with one of the University’s tasks: influencing society.
“We have an absolute duty to support both educated and non-educated immigrants alike to integrate into everyday life. It is immensely important that universities take a stand on matters to help take control of the situation in an orderly manner.”
The University is waiting for instructions
Before making decisions concerning help for asylum seekers, the University of Tampere is waiting to receive instructions from the Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture.
“Those coordinating the big picture have presented a wish that they would be allowed to do their job without individual players acting too much on their own initiative”, states Rector Kaija Holli.
The University of Turku has reported that it is already developing a support programme for asylum seekers. To Holli, the University of Tampere would have the capacity to do the same.
In October, the University of Tampere hosted a discussion event to brainstorm ideas to help asylum seekers. The event was organized by Campus Journalist Taina Repo and University Lecturer Miia Collanus with the aim of distributing information and establishing a network for individuals interested in aid work.
“We were brainstorming ways to offer information- and activity-based aid that would actually help and not just mess things up”, Collanus notes.
Ideas on natural ways for the University to help included suggestions such as asking researchers who have left their home countries to give lectures. Moreover, as of November, the School of Social Sciences and Humanities will have a new trainee who works to engage students of Social Work as volunteers. Marja Nyrhinen, Head Coordinator of Immigration Work in the City of Tampere, notes that the members of the University community would be welcome to conduct research on related topics, such as crisis management. Between the beginning of September and mid-October, Tampere has received around 950 asylum seekers.
The fruits of the discussion event have been delivered to the rectorate. Thus far, any decisions on actions at the University level have not been made.
Anna-Kaisa Kuusisto-Arponen serves as the contact person for the group home and family group home for underage immigrants who have come to Finland alone. Members of the University community with an interest in aid work can contact her by sending e-mail to anna-kaisa.kuusisto [a] uta.fi.