The Somalis of Helsinki appreciate their home town

As one of the largest groups of immigrants in Finland, Somalis would benefit from recognising the obstacles blocking their access to education and jobs, claim Marja Tiilikainen and Abdirashid Ismail.

Jamilah came to Finland in her mother’s womb. Her feeling of being different intensified as she progressed through her school years. As a teenager, she experimented first with having short hair, and then donning a hijab. Jamilah was interested in fashion, but could not find a job in any clothing shops.

Eventually she got a job at airport security, but was treated poorly by both management and customers. Finally, Jamilah was accepted into a fashion college in London and got her life on track, but to her surprise, she found herself homesick – for Finland.

This is one story of a Somali living in Finland. The life of the Somali community in Helsinki has now been the focus of an extensive research project, in which social scientists from the University of Helsinki called more than a hundred Somalis to group discussions and interviews, along with nearly thirty experts in relevant fields.

Who are Somalian Finns?

Life in Helsinki is good, compared with many other major European cities. Somalis feel that the environment is safe, and most of them are happy with the housing and health care. On the other hand, in a previous study, Somalis living in Finland reported they had experienced a great deal of discrimination.

According to the researchers, one of the reasons for this is that Somalis live alongside the white Finnish population, which means that discriminatory attitudes are more readily apparent. In many other major cities, minority groups tend to stick to their own areas.

One central issue is a sense of not belonging in Finnish society.

“Somalis living in Finland find it difficult to call themselves Somalian Finns, even though their Swedish counterparts identify as Somalian Swedes,” states post-doctoral researcher Abdirashid  Ismail.

Paths to education

Finding employment can be difficult for Somalis for a number of different reasons – language barrier, style of dress, or many years spent at home caring for a large family. On average, Finnish Somali families have four children.

Academy Research Fellow Marja Tiilikainen, who headed the project, lists education as a further component.

“Somali families need guidance and support long before their child reaches the final grade of comprehensive school. They should be helped to understand what kind of different education paths exists, and what are the requirements for entry into upper secondary school. Currently a very small number of Somalis are involved in higher education."

Researcher Abdirashid Ismail is a happy exception. He fled the civil war in Somalia to arrive in Finland in 1991, with only a list of completed courses as proof of studies from his destroyed home university. It took years to get his studies recognised by a Finnish university. Now he and Tiilikainen are involved in research projects which benefit immensely from his specific competences and cultural connections.

The Somalis in Helsinki report was published this Thursday in cooperation with the City of Helsinki. It is part of the At Home in Europe project. Reports focusing on the situation of Somalis in six other European cities will be published later. The next city is Oslo. The background organisation for the project is Open Society Foundations.