The University helps asylum seekers

Different departments and disciplines at the University of Helsinki have made spontaneous initiatives to help asylum seekers and refugees. The ‘University of Helsinki Says Welcome’ event brings the University community and asylum seekers together in November and December.

When University Lecturer Maria Kela from the Department of Teacher Education heard that asylum seekers in Helsinki cannot participate in Finnish classes as of the beginning of October, she decided to take action: 

“Due to the tendering process, Finnish courses are on hiatus until the end of the year. So I suggested to my students of subject didactics in Finnish as a second language that instead of coursework we could do actual work.”

The students responded with enthusiasm. Together with a graphic designer and video professional working pro bono, they are developing a website which will allow anyone to teach beginner-level Finnish to asylum seekers.

In addition to the website, members of the University community plan to offer face-to-face Finnish teaching. In addition to Kela’s students, the idea has sparked interest among students of the Finnish language.

One course in speech communication lets students plan a Finnish course for asylum seekers as part of their studies. Some students will coordinate the teaching and the others will teach.

“The students are free to choose Maria Kela's or other methods of teaching,” explains Salla Kurhila from the discipline of the Finnish language.

The sessions are dubbed Suomen kieli sanoo tervetuloa (The Finnish language says welcome), and will be arranged at the University of Helsinki's Think Corner in November and December.

Legal help

At the Faculty of Law, plans are underway to establish the Helsinki Law Clinic, a low-threshold info point offering legal advice for asylum seekers. The clinic will be piloted at the University of Helsinki Says Welcome events.  

Tuomas Tiittala, the teacher coordinating the Helsinki Law Clinic, says that the help will involve providing general information about the Finnish legal system, identifying the organisations to turn to for legal aid and explaining what fundamental rights asylum seekers have.

The intention is also to visit reception centres to help answer any questions recently arrived asylum seekers may have.  

New at the University

Anne Pessi and Henrietta Grönlund from the Faculty of Theology have studied volunteer work extensively and find the University’s initiatives welcome news.

“At many top universities, volunteering is integrated into studies, but the idea has seemed foreign to Finnish institutions,” says Grönlund.

Pessi also considers volunteering important from an educational standpoint:

“When students are encouraged and even obliged to find out about NGOs, for example, it is a wonderful teaching and learning opportunity.”

According to the researchers, the strong trust Finns place in the welfare state has meant that help has been channelled to professionals, perhaps excessively, while universities have focused on education. According to research, basic governmental welfare should nevertheless be supplemented with cooperation with other institutions. This leads to better results than leaving everything to the public sector.

University of Helsinki Says Welcome events from 10 November to 8 December