Story of Oulu, Finland
“The teachers at our school are racist. They treat us differently than others.They say that we immigrants are aggressive, we don’t listen and we don’t understand. That we are violent and don’t know how to behave, like Finnish children. I am also Finnish. I was born in Finland. But they treat me like I’m an outsider. They ask me all the time if I can speak Finnish. No one believes, not even our parents, that we can achieve anything in life.” –High school student from Oulu
These kinds of stories Faiza Abdulqadir, 27, started to hear around 2019.
She moved to Finland in 2015, and after spending a few years in a smaller city in the north, she decided to relocate herself to Oulu, a city of 210 000 inhabitants in the northern shore of the Gulf of Bothnia.
Faiza quickly became a very active and well-connected member of the immigrant community in Oulu. Among her various commitments in the city were youth work studies, municipal election candidate campaigning, dance class organization, homework club for immigrant background children and youth, and work as a school assistant for Somali background children. In her everyday life she talked, and still does talk, with many people – and people talked to her.
As time passed, the stories started to pile up. She heard perspectives from teachers, who were struggling to understand what was going on in their classes with some of the students, and stories of immigrant background parents, who were saying for example: “We don’t call them [the officials] child protection. We call them “the people who steal our children.”, and started to wonder, what was true, as the stories were so different from each other.
“As I’m also an immigrant, we talk a lot and share things together. We share the problems, and often there’s something about the teachers and about the school with their kids or youth.” Faiza explains, “I have also worked in the schools and I’ve seen how the teachers are working. And not all of them are mistrusting the immigrant background youth. There I realized that the people just don’t understand each other. And I was wondering, why people [immigrants] are feeling scared even when they stay in a safe country?”
Around the same time she met with Anna Litewka-Anttolainen, also an active member of the migrant community and training officer in Peace Education Institute Finland (RKI), as well as Sari Lahdenperä, who works as a Multicultural Youth Work Coordinator for the city of Oulu. They started to collaborate in other projects, but it wasn’t until the early summer of 2022 and the first training of the Connect -project, when they were able to define what was the main cause for all of the misunderstanding and rumors, that Faiza heard around her.
“The problem we want to solve in Oulu is the disconnection and mistrust between people. As immigrants, people are often afraid, because they don’t trust the system. They are afraid that maybe social workers or the police are intervening in their lives. They are afraid to say what they want to say, or what they are thinking of. Some of us don’t even know that you are free to say what you need to say. I know the situation especially in the somali community of Oulu, as I’m one of them.“ Faiza explains.
“We want to discuss trust in the society” Anna continues, “What interests us, is what happens when there is no trust and how it affects young people, the school world, teachers and ultimately Oulu as a whole. And how the lack of trust affects safety in society. Our goal is to understand how we can create change and start implementing it.”
Faiza, Anna and Sari are especially concerned about the youth, as many of them live between two cultures and try to make sense of themselves and the society around them in a situation, which is not always very supportive.
“I’ve been with the youth in the evening times as a youth worker, and they have told me many of their problems. They feel that nobody understands them. They might be lost between the languages. They don’t have good Finnish, but they don’t either have a good mother tongue and they are just living in the English world. When I found this out, I realized, these people need connection.” Faiza says, and continues, “We are losing some young boys. They are under aged and some of them are getting into troubles.”
There are many cases, when there’s been a fight between the children or youth from immgrant background in the schools, and teachers have been calling a school police to handle the situation, as the teachers can’t use any physical force in the school. Many of the youth or their parents don’t really understand, why this has happened and there’s rarely an interpret who could explain the situation for all of the parties involved. When many of the parents might not be well integrated into Finnish society, they might not know the language or the customs or trust authorities, these kind of incidents create more mistrust than solve anything.
Faiza continues: “The first generation immigrants, especially those with a refugee background, can have very traumatic experiences in their lives and it’s very hard to trust others. When something bad or shocking happens, many will also contact their own peer group, for example other somali mothers, who might live in different counries of Europe and this again exelarates the cycle of mistrust, as nobody really understands what happened and why.”
The situation is complicated, as there seems not to be common ground with the youth, their parents, schools and other officials. Anna gives an example of this: “It is often thought that when young Finns are together, it is just a group of friends, but when young people with an immigrant background are together, we talk about gangs. The root causes of these are certainly lack of trust, prejudice and racism. And lack of support and information.”
Sari adds a youth worker’s perspective: “When people understand each other’s points of view, we can better begin to understand each other and through that we are better able to be present in the lives of young people. There are more safe adults involved and if there’s trust, we are able to influence even big things.”
When Faiza, Anna and Sari were able to define the problem, they started to work on their theory of change. What kind of change they’d like to see in the society, how to achieve this and with who?
They’d all like to see Oulu, where all the people could truly trust each other, as well as officials and institutions, and where there would be space for honest dialogue. Dialogue is crucial, as people don’t seem to understand other people’s perspectives. As Sari puts it: “When we dare to trust, we also learn to see other people’s perspectives and understand them. People would also get an experience that they are understood. With the help of dialogue things could really move forward.”
Understanding another person’s perspective is not only important on a societal or community level. It is vital for individuals. “I hope that people can truly feel that they are staying in a safe country. Also in their hearts and in their minds. Not just to go to school, eat and have permission to stay and have a mentality of being scared and thinking a hundred times before you can talk. Thinking, if I say this, will they get me wrong? So mentally safe, safe in the heart and physically safe.” Faiza adds.
As the question is complex, they also understood that they needed to get all of the parties involved into the process: immigrant background youth, their parents, teachers, youth workers and officials.
After creating their theory of change, they started to design the process. They understood very early on that they needed to put much effort into inviting people and make it personal. As Faiza is a well connected member of the immigrant society, she knew that she could reach the parents quite easily. Sari could also get the municipal youth department in but the big question was: how to get the youth, officials and schools involved?
The issues they wanted to address in the process were extremely delicate, and when done wrongly, they could cause immense harm and make the situation even worse. It required quite a lot of personal contacting and discussion to get the school involved, but they managed to persuade the principal of one school in Oulu that the process would be worth the risk and expected the youth to follow the invitation coming from Faiza, the school and the youth work department of Oulu.
They also assumed that it would be better to talk to each group separately first. In the end, their aim was to get people to sincerely talk with each other and make the different perspectives and points of views visible, so people could start to understand each other better. In smaller groups, there would be more space for each person, and more time to discuss about sore spots of each individual and group, as well as to define the crucial questions and misunderstandings of each group in relation to others.
As in every process in the Connect project, also Oulu wanted to use stories as discussion openers. Unlike the other groups, who used video, they wanted to use written story cards from different perspectives that Faiza had collected over the time. But they brought the voice of why this was important, in a format of a video into the room.
The written stories that they used were collected from different people and put together in a way that people couldn’t recognise persons behind them. This was important as Oulu is quite a small place, and one of the things they wanted to impact was false rumours going around the city. There was one story from an immigrant background girl’s perspective, one story from a teacher’s perspective and one story from an immigrant background mother’s perspective. After each story card, they presented an image of different actors and their positions in a story and asked a series of questions for discussion openers.
The idea was to start with one school, where there’s pupils from immigrant backgrounds (especially Somalis, with who Faiza has good relations) and identified mistrust between them, school, authorities and parents, and then continue with other schools in the city, if the model would prove to be efficient or succesfull.
For English subtitles, please click the “cc” icon on the lower right corner of the video player.
Preliminary work: mapping out, who need to be involved and designing the process
Invitation to workshops (planning and sending)
First workshop with young people
Workshop with parents
Workshop with teachers and youth workers
Second workshop with young people
Faiza, Anna and Sari started with a workshop with young people, after which, they had separate workshops for parents, teachers and youth workers and one more meeting with young people before final discussion. The only challenge in the process design was reaching the youth, as in the first workshop they didn’t quite have the people they were expecting to have. The participants in that group were more primary than secondary school students. Fortunately they had some time before the final discussion to reorganise another workshop for the youth, where they finally could talk with the right people.
The process turned out to be a real success. It was the first time in the final discussion, where for example parents and youth workers really started to discuss and share with each other. Some of them even changed phone numbers. The participants were also able to define what kinds of actions create trust between people and, on the other hand, what generates feelings of mistrust. They also managed to discuss and agree on possible actions for the future to improve communication and build connections, such as regular meetings with parents with teachers and parents with police.
There were several reasons why the process turned out to be as good as it was, but the most important factor was connection. Connection with communities; parents and young people, connection with schools and connection with youth workers. Faiza played the key role in the process, as she was both designing the process with Anna and Sari and also reaching out and engaging with communities.
Empathetic listening without judgement, holding space for others and the possibility to use one’s own language in the process were also crucial. With the help of the skills Faiza, Anna and Sari had gained in the process (see The Guide), they were able to create space, where they could build and maintain trust between the participants and where different points of view could be heard and understood. People were able to ask questions and explain different aspects of the problems. Faiza worked also as an interpreter and mediator and was able to achieve common understanding and concrete, peaceful discussion.
Stories and story cards turned out to be impactful means to open discussion, that led to a dialogue. They offered a possibility to distance the actual problems from individuals and they were also something the participants could identify with. Written stories might not always be the most practical way of using stories in discussion or in a dialogue process, however, as there might be different levels of language skills in the group and some level of visualisation of the stories might help in this.
They also collected examples that have happened in a real life from the participants, which create trus or mistrust between different groups, which they shared with everybody in the final discussion.