Alexandra Davydenko is writer and illustrator of this article. Alexandra is designer and cultural figure from Belarus, living in Helsinki for 1,5 years.
Alexandra collaborated with Educational Center Visio during ”DiversCity Service Design Course” of Laurea University of Applied Sciences. Other members of the project team: Magdalena Kosova, Santa Bürkland, Duong Thuy Nguyen and Sayalee Karkare.
The week against racism (20. – 27.3.2023) challenges everyone to take action against racism! Anti-racism and standing up against racism takes all of us – and continues throughout the year. Educational Center Visio wants to challenge actors especially in the third sector to reflect their activities from different perspectives.
This article about belonging starts a series of writings of students of DiversCity Service Design – course by Laurea University of Applied Sciences. Visio challenged a group of students to discover how organizations could create more inclusive activities and culture.
People need to feel like an integral part of society or a group to participate in third sector activities, take an initiative, and feel entitled to change something. It can be challenging for immigrants who moved to Finland to do it, as the path to a sense of belonging here is not straight.
We are a group of five immigrant women living in Finland who dive deep into the theme of belongingness during the ”DiversCity Service Design Course”. We started by interviewing immigrants, NGO representatives and collecting questionnaires. For four months, we continued to discuss the topic with anyone we could find because this was our pain point too. Although the data we got is more qualitative than quantitative, we hope we grabbed some repetitive patterns that can be useful.
We asked our respondents what makes them feel like they belong. Almost all of the respondents tended to speak about being part of a group. These are some of the characteristics of the group:
- Welcoming and friendly people
- A language you can understand
- Common interests and values
- Making something together
- Sharing freely with each other
- Transparent rules
- Safe environment
Some immigrants are eager to meet locals but expect welcoming communication and emotional support from other people and have difficulties with it in Finland.
- I want at least someone to ask me how my day is today, – said one of the respondents.
Others claim they feel belonging only with people from the same cultural background and language, so those people try to socialize almost only inside their families and diasporas.
Sometimes the closest friends and relatives live in other countries, and it is possible to reach them only online.
Moreover, the language barrier makes it hard to find the information, understand what will happen, and even build trust. Previous negative experiences could make immigrants afraid of being used for the wrong purpose or getting into trouble.
Even more internal fears and anxieties prevent immigrants from being proactive in finding belongingness. Expats are afraid of being different, awkward, and not understood. Some immigrants worry about being asked about their background in the first place, as they expect some prejudices after it and feel unsafe.
Our study group in Laurea consisted entirely of educated immigrant women, so we had an excellent opportunity to speak informally on the theme during our lunches. Women in this group complained that Finnish society underestimated them . One of the women formulated her thought this way:
- I feel that I belong only when I am treated like an equal. I can’t stand other people patronizing me. I had a long life with a lot of experiences before I moved there. Why does nobody think that I already have something that can be valuable to this community too?
And, of course, expats need time to get accustomed to new people and their habits and to feel safe enough to open up. Many are busy with the integration process by learning new languages and skills, doing paperwork, supporting their families, finding a job, and changing their habits and mind patterns. So it is not always a good idea to expect them to be willing to rush or to go out of their comfort zone. They can be out of it for years.
Finally, it is essential to remember that migrants are not homogeneous. Depending on their age, gender, cultural, religious, and psychological experience, they can have different social strategies for entering a new country:
- Separation (isolating and living inside own cultural group)
- Adaptation (doing everything to survive in this country but not participating a lot)
- Integration (taking part in the society but still celebrating their cultural differences)
- Assimilation (melting into a new community, completely adapting to its culture).
These approaches change in time or could be implemented simultaneously for separate parts of everyday life. Immigrant strategies influence a lot of the willingness of an expat to be an active part of Finnish society or third-sector activities. Those attitudes cannot be easily changed. But the doors for immigrants who want to increase their level of participation should be opened, safe spaces prepared, and the host ready to listen and co-create.