|(left-to-right) Luz Peltoniemi, Simeon Walls, Li Chen and Melis Arı-Gürhanlı attend a meeting for the iCount project at Moniheli’s head office in Helsinki’s Sörnäinen.|
Along with Finland’s increasing diversity has come an effort to strengthen the influence immigrants have on the direction of society.
Just some 30 years ago, seeing a person of foreign ethnic background in Finland was a rare thing. Since then, an influx of immigrants has made the landscape much more colourful. The rainbow extends from the Russians and Estonians who make up most incomers, to Somalians and Chinese, Thais and Turks, and also Latin Americans, just to name a few. But within these growing numbers, the societal influence remains limited. Thus, organisational efforts are arising to give these groups a stronger voice in a still very Finn-dominated society.
Moniheli, an organisation started in 2010, provides a network for over 60 multicultural associations representing various ethnic groups or themes in Finland. It joins them in membership and provides services such as advice and training in project management and financing, information flow through newsletters and updates of current changes in societal systems and laws, and even use of its facilities.
“The main idea behind what we do is to help make Finnish society a good place for anyone to live and work,” states Riitta Salin, executive director of Moniheli. “And this is not just through promotion of the immigrants’ ways of doing things, but to develop a well-rounded environment along with the ways also desired by Finns.”
Impacting the direction of society
A current ongoing Moniheli project, iCount strives for the goal of “active citizenship”. Funded by the EU Integration Fund, the central idea is to empower new and aspiring citizens to impact the direction of society, beyond simply the power of the vote.
“Immigrants can feel like outsiders even if they have a career, a family, and love being here,” observes Li Chen, an iCount member and immigrant from China. “This is a project to motivate these people to get involved in societal life and impact the future lives of their children.”
Moniheli is currently training three iCount members to become versed in potential avenues for minorities to influence society’s decision-making processes, who will then return to their respected cities and spread these ideas within immigrant groups. These means vary from making a citizen’s initiative, to having a demonstration, from writing articles to local newspapers, to simply taking advantage of increasingly powerful social media outlets.
Chen will focus on the Chinese minority living in Turku. Liberian immigrant Simeon Walls will work with Russians, among others, in Lappeenranta. Luz Peltoniemi, a Peruvian immigrant, will be working mostly with Thai and Sudanese people in Oulu. And the doors are surely open to others who want to take part.
“Segregation begins by keeping those without a vote excluded from influencing society,” says Melis Arı-Gürhanlı, project coordinator at Moniheli. “At this point when it comes to who sits at the decision making tables, it’s all Finns. The long term goal of iCount is to see immigrants having these seats as well.”
The iCount project is just one of many other projects on the table at Moniheli related to newcomers to Finland. One expertise of the organisation is to conduct surveys investigating the causes of various societal issues in order to better find remedies. Currently they are working on a survey for the Ministry of Environment on the issue of homelessness among immigrants, a circumstance that is on the increase. The survey seeks to uncover why it is becoming more common, and the reasons which make it difficult for immigrants to acquire housing.
Furthermore, learning more about the relation between trade unions and immigrant workers is another survey currently being conducted by Moniheli. Why are immigrants not joining unions? What are the fears keeping them away? The organisation also hopes to learn why the unions have difficulty reaching out to and attracting immigrant workers.
Moniheli in a nutshell
A safe yet challenging haven
Overall Finland is an attractive place to immigrate. It provides a safe society that is economically competitive, with fairly good opportunities. But it also has its challenges with a difficult language, harsh weather and, being that it is fairly new to multiculturalism, various social barriers that may prove difficult to overcome.
“The racism of today may not come in the form of physical violence by skinheads in the streets as in the past,” states Abdirahim Hussein, chairman of Moniheli. “But it now comes in a structural discrimination embedded in the system, where minorities have a difficult time influencing the direction of society.”
“It’s not that people are necessarily racist,” Salin reinforces. “It’s more a fear towards something you don’t know or understand.”
This is exactly what Moniheli is working to eradicate: the fear of the unknown among natives, and among immigrants, the fear of not having a say. Therein lies the driving vision of the organisation; to have an open, cohesive and multicultural Finnish society where diversity is understood, valued and supported.
But, most of all: to give all immigrants a voice.
Image: Bafrin Eskandari