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Neighbourhood Mothers: empowering immigrant women in Finland

Being a newcomer in Finland can be tough. Finnish language is hard to study and learn, and it can be difficult to find your place in Finnish society and to feel at home. The Finnish NGO Nicehearts ry, founded in 2001, aims to empower women and girls. Their project Neighbourhood Mothers was started in 2015 and targets immigrant women. I met with Anna Lenkewitz, promoter/project assistant of the initiative, to know more and help spread the word about this fantastic action.

Paola: Hi Anna, it’s great to meet you. Can you explain more about Nicehearts and its mission?

Anna: Nicehearts was founded in 2001. We have three big projects at the moment. The first is Wahva Nainen (“Strong woman”, red.) where we offer services to immigrant women, like helping with Kela (the government agency for social assistance, red.) or with the TE toimisto (public agency for employment, red.), helping with translating documents and official things, maybe with finding jobs and whatever the customer needs. Then we have a project for young girls aged 12 to 18 in Tikkurila (Vantaan Tyttöjen Tila, red.), where we give young girls a safe space where they can bake, watch movies or spend time. We offer sexual advice or help them with typical puberty issues. It’s focused on young girls of any background. Finally we have our big project “Neighbourhood Mothers”. The idea originated from Germany. For example the Berlin area is a big multicultural melting pot. There they started thinking about how to reach families and people who are not usually reached by the official government structures. The idea was to use women as a bridge between cultures. They would get trained as a Neighbourhood Mother to go back to their neighborhood and start to help other people and families in whatever they needed: children education, information about  the healthcare system and so on. We brought the idea to Finland with some variation. We organise 2 day training for Neighbourhood Mothers, then there’s a “practical trial” of about two months where people can try out things and organize events and engage and encourage their community, empower other women to participate and start to be actors.

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Pic courtesy of Nicehearts.

P: Do you organise events or do the trained Neighbourhood Mothers?

A: We organise the training for the benefit of the woman who takes part, because maybe she has an idea in her mind she wants to bring to reality, so we help her with that. Then this  woman will start to have her own network and in the “practical phase” Nicehearts supports her. For example in building up the events she wants to organise. Ultimately the network can help the Neighbourhood Mother to  get employed somewhere because she is going out there and showing what she can do.

P: What is the goal of the association?

A: Our goal is to empower women and girls, to show them that they are the ones who can influence their own situation. Immigrant women from cultures, where women usually do not have a strong position in society, don’t have the feeling that they can influence anything in their lives and this is what Nicehearts wants to do, by for example planning different events.

P: Is the majority of the staff Finnish or what is the cultural distribution in the organization’s staff?  

A: The permanent employees at Nicehearts are Finnish except our Neighbourhood Mothers‘ training coordinator who is from Philippines and our regional coordinator from Helsinki who is from Namibia. Then we have two interns from Finland. I have started as an intern too and I’m from Germany. One of my friends from Nepal also did the internship. Then of course we have the volunteers which are the actual Neighbourhood Mothers and they are from all kinds of countries: Russia, Somalia, Iraq, Iran, Germany, Poland. All kinds of women, people with different languages or abilities. It is really great for us because if something comes up we can go to one of our Neighbourhood Mothers and ask “hey, there’s someone who needs help, are you able to help her in your language and explain this to her”.

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Pic courtesy of Nicehearts.

P: Is the official language of the association and events Finnish?

A: Yes, the working language is Finnish. The training now is only in Finnish, very basic Finnish. Our training coordinator is very good. When I attended the training two years ago I was amazed by how much I could understand when she was talking. You can follow if you have a basic understanding of the language. Recently we decided to try and have one training in English.

Nicehearts is a Finnish organization so we encourage people to speak Finnish. Most of us speak also English and we help in the language the customer needs. At the same time we also want to give women the space where they can try out Finnish language, without any judgement. For example I myself have been here about two years now, I’m trying to talk Finnish at work but if it doesn’t work then I can talk in English and no one is judging. We try to motivate women to go out of their comfort zone.  

P: Do you actively promote cultural integration in Finland?

A: Partly we do. Our aim is to get the people out of the homes, not forgetting about their cultural background but to find a way to use what they already know from their cultures and use it to get integrated into Finnish culture. That is not always an easy process but the main thing is building bridges. In some immigrant communities, women are mostly staying at home with the kids, they barely speak Finnish language and they have a really closed culture. To bring those women out of the homes in the true sense of the word and let them participate in Finnish culture is what we want to do. Then women hopefully start to feel useful and the feeling of helping others motivates them further. We welcome other cultures. For example we organise a lot of dancing evenings with dances from India or Iraq, or cooking events where we have flavors from different countries. But we also have law evening, for example, where women can get information on their rights and ask advice on divorce, job contracts and any other situation they need help in.

P: Who are the women who are the right target for this initiative?

A: For the Neighbourhood Mothers training our target are all women and not only mothers. We use the term “mother” as a person who helps, guides, mentors others and gives support. The target group is all women from Finnish as well as immigrant background who want to do something and want to help. They should be unemployed because they are the ones who need support, empowering and uplifting actions. It’s fine also if they are doing an internship or an integration training. The Neighborhood Mothers training is also part of the integration process.

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Pic courtesy of Nicehearts.

P: Is there a target age?

A: Over 18 for Neighbourhood Mothers but any age for Nicehearts.

P: On the initiative of NM. Anything you feel proud of that you’d like to share?

A: After 3 years we have a bit over 200 Neighbourhood Mothers in all Finland. We think it’s crucially important that’s when you come here as an immigrant there are some actions and structures you can rely on. It’s really important for a woman who just arrived in the country that there’s a network of women who support her. For us it’s really important to get that connection to another culture so that we can target our services better and we better understand what is going on in the integration process. When I come from Germany I experience a different integration process compared to a woman who comes from Iran or Turkey.

P: Do you feel there’s also a blending of cultures as a result? Or do you observe that some ethnic groups or groups with the same cultural background tend to stick together.

A: There are cultural groups which are hard to target or reach, like groups with a strong religious background. In those cultures women don’t have a good status and they are mostly kept away from everything. We can see in our trainings that those are also women who go to training, but don’t follow up. It’s due to a big cultural difference. It’s really hard to stay in touch with them, and once you reach them it doesn’t mean they stay in contact forever.   They may not have the time or their energy because they have children and family obligations. Our challenge for the future is to reach especially those women and to find better/easier ways for them to stay engaged

P: You mentioned kids. Someone may read this post and think “It would be nice to go but I have to look after my kids”. How about that?

A: Nicehearts is one of the few organization which offers childcare during training. We have 2 really amazing child carers at the moment. They have really great ideas what to do with the kids and they cover all ages. It’s sometimes challenging but they are managing great. They plan activities and crafts with the kids, so they can also take something home, it’s really exciting for them.

P: I bet this makes a big difference for some trainee/women. Where can people find Neighbourhood Mothers and Nicehearts?

A: Our home page www.nicehearts.com. Then we have a Facebook group for Neighborhood Mothers. I am also contact person and people can contact me. Nicehearts also has a fan page, and Neighborhood Mothers too. For more background information on the whole project and our activities, check out our magazine we published beginning of 2018 https://joom.ag/NJd.

***

I am deeply grateful to Anna for her time and to all the staff and volunteers of Nicehearts for making Finland a more welcoming place for girls and women!

If you feel you can benefit from these actions or know someone who does, do not hesitate to share this post or Nicehearts‘ page. As you heard from Anna, it’s not so simple to reach all groups, so word of mouth can work miracles.  

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