Typography
Swedish culture centre Luckan offers information regarding all aspects of the Finland-Swedish community here.

A foreign possibility?

While the pathway into Finnish society for a foreigner is one that is beset with challenges, one option for immigrants that receives very little in the way of support in the capital region is that of integrating in Swedish.

Being as it is a smaller community with a closer network of contacts, coupled with the fact that Swedish is traditionally seen as a much easier language to learn than Finnish for immigrants from many countries, on paper one could say that integration into the Finland-Swedish community in the Uusimaa region might provide a swift option to settle into life here. But at this stage, it seems, this potential pathway has yet to be comprehensively paved.

“If you come here to Helsinki there isn’t much on offer, unfortunately,” explains Christina Gestrin, Member of Parliament for the Swedish People’s Party. “Currently, the municipalities perhaps think that the easiest way, or the normal way, is to only offer integration in Finnish.”

While the law states that there should be the possibility to integrate in both languages, the reality sees official structures in place in the capital region that support one’s integration path only through the majority language.

“This doesn’t work well enough in the Helsinki region,” Gestrin continues. “The municipalities in the Helsinki region should enhance the possibility to integrate in Swedish, for example, by organising courses. It is unfortunate that the civil servants have not been active in this matter and understood the need for these kinds of initiatives.”

Chairman of IFISK, Gerd-Peter Löcke, remains sceptical about the possibilities in future of integrating in the capital region in Swedish.

Possibilities arise

Recent years, however, have seen gradual developments towards creating the possibility for foreigners integrating in Swedish, with the movement of immigrants from Finland’s Swedish-speaking areas into the capital region accentuating the lack of official support for such.

“People are now working on how to create a good way to integrate in Swedish,” Gestrin observes. “The Finland-Swedish information centre Luckan provides a very good service in Swedish, with information about everything you need to know concerning how things function here. They help newcomers to find a job, to find a place to study, somewhere to live, and inform about the possibility to integrate in Swedish. But it’s not an official service of the municipality.”

Receiving its funding from organisations and the community, Luckan has been increasingly tailoring their services to meet the needs of foreigners, who currently make up 20 per cent of their customer base.

“When a foreigner comes in there is a connection, being a minority,” Luckan Helsinki’s Centre Manager Sebastian Weckman explains. “We’re in a similar social space. I myself did not know how to speak Finnish until I was 19 when I went to do military service – and I grew up in Espoo. For foreigners it’s important to know that there are lots of places where you are accepted and you get help, and that this is one of them.”

The BRIDGE service at Luckan specifically assists foreigners with a wide range of issues regarding life in Finland, along with offering insights into Finland-Swedish culture and support for those who wish to integrate in Swedish.

“I think it’s important for the whole country that we try to help people into the system as fast as possible,” explains BRIDGE coordinator Anna Jakobsson. “We need foreigners in this country. For example, in the healthcare sector we need a lot of employees who know Swedish. But it is not enough in the capital region that you only know Swedish, as you cannot always choose Swedish-speaking cafes or shops to visit. We would like that people would see that you have to know both official languages here.”

Ann-Jolin Grüne, Project Manager of Delatktig i Finland i huvudstadsregion, seeks to develop official structures to enable people the choice between Finnish and Swedish integration in the Helsinki region.

Official integration pathways

Recent changes in the immigration law have seen the implementation of the Osallisena Suomessa (Delaktig i Finland) project. Made up of ten larger projects around the country with the common aim of enabling immigration to run more smoothly here in Finland, each of these contain a number of regionally specific projects. One of ten official projects in the Helsinki region, Delaktig i Finland i huvudstadsregionen (DiFih), seeks to develop official structures to enable people the choice between Swedish and Finnish integration in the Helsinki region. Headed by Arbis, the Swedish Adult Education Centre, along with participation from Luckan, DiFih is one of four projects around the country seeking to develop integration in Swedish.

“In a way nobody thought about the whole picture: how people tend to move to different regions,” explains project manager Ann-Jolin Grüne. “If you integrate into one part of the country in Swedish and want to transfer, how will it work out so that you can manage in Swedish in different parts of the country?”

Upon its completion in 2013, the project’s findings will then be presented to the ministry, with the aim that it will be officially possible to integrate in Swedish in larger cities that are bilingual. However, while this development will inevitably enhance these possibilities, Grüne is also aware of the limitations of only learning one language to live in the Helsinki region.

“Unfortunately, Finland’s bilingualism has been eroding,” she continues. “There has been a problem in the attitudes towards the two official languages. Therefore as an immigrant who only knows Swedish, it could be a challenging path to take. Finland-Swedes are aware of this and should take responsibility and do our best to open up and share our networks, and give opportunities to people that come from different backgrounds. We should be grateful and happy for those who choose Swedish.”

“People are
now working
on how to
create a
good way to
integrate in
Swedish.”

Critical thinking

However, not everyone in the Swedish-speaking community here is positive about the current advances in assisting with integrating in Swedish. “Integration is okay in Finnish here in the capital region, but not in Swedish,” states Gerd-Peter Löcke, Chairman of IFISK, International Finland-Swedish Culture Forum. “School kids are okay with integration in Swedish and university level is okay – but everything else does not work.”

Establishing the Swedish-language network back in 2000 to assist foreign Swedish-speakers in finding one another, Löcke’s experience working with foreigners through IFISK has given him a different perspective on the issue: he remains sceptical that the current integration initiative will be successful.

“It’s built up in the wrong way – they gave it to Arbis,” he exclaims. “It’s only NGOs that can do it. If you have someone like Arbis, it won’t work as they are closing next month for the summer. Integration is 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. The only way it can work is if the head of the group is a foreigner who knows what they are talking about.”

However, Grüne staunchly stands by the validity of not utilising NGOs in this instance. “This project can’t be administered by an NGO,” she claims. “None of the Osallisena Suomessa projects are. They had to be administered by the municipality and are projects of the municipalities and the state, because they are supposed to develop the structures of the municipalities and the state, making them better for immigrants. It is tied to the law, and the municipalities and the state have the responsibility to implement the law. Therefore these projects are aimed to develop their structures so that the law can be followed.”

Foreseeing little change in future, Löcke firmly believes that integration in Swedish is really only possible in the areas where the language is more commonly spoken. “Integration here in the capital region is only in Finnish. I have hundreds of cases why it doesn’t work in Swedish. Of course, if you are good at business, or good at football, for example, then you can integrate in Swedish in the capital region, but it is very difficult.”

A cultural insight

Whatever criticism the official project faces, however, perhaps the fundamental outcome will be is that the spotlight is shone more brightly on the Finland-Swedish community, as they learn of the role that they can play in integrating foreigners in the Helsinki region. Enjoying a more culturally diverse background themselves, historically the Finland-Swedish living here have been welcoming in their attitude towards foreigners.

“Finland-Swedes are excited and smile when I speak Swedish to them,” explains Andrey Moiseenko a Program Manager at Nokia. “It’s really nice.”

Having moved to Finland from Germany four years ago and initially studying Finnish, Moiseenko is currently learning Swedish and believes that the Finland-Swedish culture has a lot to offer for foreigners in Helsinki. “It’s easier to get to know people and make friends, according to my experience,” he observes. “I have a newborn baby and I want him to study Swedish in kindergarten and in school, and of course he will learn Finnish as well.”

With the number of immigrants arriving to Finland increasing each year by around 10,000 individuals, if this current project is successful for the Finland-Swedish community, there will be many others who share the same view of embracing bilingual Finland in the capital region.