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It’s not always easy being an outsider in a country as homogenous as Finland, but volunteering can help foreigners find the inside track in their new homeland.

Joseph Knowles Marmaris is a small but bustling port on the south-western coast of Turkey, known since the days of Herodotus for its ancient castle, in modern times as a convivial resort town thriving on local wines, hand-woven carpets, and hot, bright sunshine. It doesn’t have a whole lot in common with the snowy expanses of Oulu.

But in 1991, that’s exactly where Marmaris native Hilmi Oral found himself, when – like so many foreigners in Finland struck by Cupid’s fateful arrow – he left home to join a significant other in the great white north. As any foreigner living here for romantic reasons can tell you, though, the “happily ever after” part is only the beginning of the story. “In my first few years here, foreigners were a new thing in Finland and I didn’t get much help or much knowledge,” Oral remembers. “I didn’t have many friends. I’m a social personality and it was a difficult time.”

Ten years later, he finally found his vocation as a professional “cultural mediator” at Oulu Settlement’s Friendship House, which organises events and social activities for immigrants hoping to engage more with Finnish society. He now teaches Finnish – the language that once left him baffled – and helps others have an easier time with their cultural transition than he did. “If you are a foreigner and not in school or working, you are alone,” he says. “I try to help people through that.”

Markets of Possibilities showcase the work of many different NGOs.

Welcome to the funhouse

Oulu Settlement was one of dozens of local organisations on hand at Oulu’s Mahdollisuuksien tori, or Market of Possibilities, held in May as part of a series of similar events taking place in 20 cities across Finland this summer, coordinated by the Helsinki-based Service Centre for Development Cooperation, or KEPA. “These events are showcases for multicultural non-governmental organisations to explain their activities, spread information and perhaps attract a few new volunteers,” says KEPA’s Katja Hintikainen. Helsinki’s event, the World Village Festival on 28 and 29 May, was something of a multicultural funhouse, with concerts by performers from Tanzania to Nepal to Uzbekistan and food stalls and shops from almost every corner of the globe. Meanwhile, chapters of well-known international NGOs like Amnesty International and Friends of the Earth rubbed shoulders with local sporting and culture associations such as Helsinki’s boisterous Aztecas Football Club, each making a pitch for more participants.

According to an EU study on volunteering in Finland, commissioned this year as part of the European Year of Volunteering, the average Finn belongs to three civic organisations, ranging from athletic and cultural societies to professional associations and service-oriented charitable groups like Rotary and Lions Clubs. Around 36 per cent of Finns actively engage in voluntary work of some kind – the sixth highest rate in the European Union – and do so at an average of 18 hours per month. Historically, this entrenched civic engagement developed part and parcel with Finland’s national awakening in the 19th century and created the conditions that eventually led to a sustainable independence. Indeed, it is said that behind every great democracy is an even greater civil society, and Finland’s robust stew of 127,000 registered associations and 30,000 unregistered citizen groups and other organised networks is no exception. Only about 1,000 of these groups operate nationally; almost all of them do their work at the local level.

Volunteering can open the door to a variety of new cultures.

Breaking the ice

Finland, then, offers no shortage of things to do. For an immigrant, volunteering is one way of overcoming that initial sense of loneliness in a new country, as well as gaining work experience and improving Finnish language skills. And though it may sound counter-intuitive, sometimes the best path into Finnish society is through one’s own ethnic group. Sudipta Chatterjee Paukkonen, a business administration student in Kuopio, moved to Finland from India in 2008 after marrying a Finn. “I took Finnish lessons at Kompassi, Kuopio’s multicultural center, and soon realised that Finns were really curious about India,” she says. “So I started as a dance instructor at a community college and also volunteer through Kompassi,” offering lessons in Bollywood dance and organising shows. As a result, she wove herself into Kuopio’s social fabric a good deal more so than your average foreign student. “I also go around to schools, doing performances and presentations telling about India.”

Like other aspects of life, however, immigrants face hurdles as volunteers too. Tea Tönnov is from the volunteer-run Kirjakahvila, a bookshop, café and multicultural hotspot in Turku. She’s helping to organise Turku’s Market of Possibilities event on 3 September. “It is extremely difficult for non-native Finnish speakers to participate in voluntary organisations,” she says. “First, they can’t even find out about the organisations in the first place if all information is available only in Finnish. And then, if the voluntary tasks are not well defined and there is no clear feedback system – which often is the case in voluntary organisations – it is less motivating and requires lots of self-esteem to keep up with the natives.”

Hilmi Oral (left) helps other foreigners in Finland.

Acquiring and maintaining that self-esteem is a core aim of virtually all ethnic-based civic groups, such as the Chinese Association of South Karelia, which Ling Leppänen started with friends in Lappeenranta. Making her home in Finland since 2008 with her Finnish husband and working full time as an export sales assistant, Leppänen decided to get involved to help the more isolated Chinese in the area integrate and “build a bridge between local Chinese and Finnish people,” taking a lead role in coordinating Lappeenranta’s Market of Possibilities on 27 August. As tough as the language barrier can be at first, Leppänen concludes, “Everyone has their own talent, everyone has something to offer. Finland is so cold, do something to get warm.”

Joseph Knowles
Photos: Jani Ahosola, Kaisa Kinnunen