By Tanja Saariaho
Tanja has worked with themes related to integration and cultural diversity. Her professional background has been inspired by her personal experiences of growing up in a bicultural family.
I started working in the project “ItseNaiset – From ’stay-at-home’ motherhood towards studying and working” (ESR 2019–2021) in April 2020. I jumped behind the steering wheel during a time when corona restrictions hit us hard for the first time, and all our work was transferred to our home offices. This was not the easiest starting point for getting to know the service users and their needs, and neither was it easy to build trust as a new employee via phone calls or a laptop’s screen. However, over the course of time, I was able to build memorable connections with women who come from diverse backgrounds. Working in this project also allowed me more time and space to reflect on the structural barriers that many deal with as they navigate their way in Finnish society.
ItseNaiset is a good abbreviation, merging two central aspects of our work: focusing on the agency and resources that one has within (”Itse”), and the presence of womanhood in our lives (”Naiset”). I got to learn how these two aspects interact with each other, and how they intertwine with the social reality of being a migrant. It is the question of belonging that I pondered many times during my work. What does it mean to ”be an immigrant”? What does this label really say about an individual? How to support someone with their professional aspirations, whilst placing them in relation to the way Finnish society functions in terms of education and employment services? And how to support one’s sense of well-being and worthiness, when it seems difficult to enter the Finnish labor market, and one’s job search or applying for studies prolongs over time?
I noticed that many women needed support to realize their own abilities. This required some encouragement, combined with compassion and patience. One woman, for example, was very shy with using Finnish. She brought her sister along to our first meetings to use her as a translator. However, after some while, she became more encouraged to use the Finnish skills that she has. Eventually, she met with me by herself and we applied together to adults’ primary education. She got the study place. I met her a few times after that, and she continued to say how thankful she was for the support she had received. For her, being part of the new school community mattered much, as she had moved forward on her path. The key was to encourage her to use her abilities little by little, to show her that she had the skills she thought she didn’t.
There were many other gratifying encounters with the women who sought assistance from ItseNaiset. However, not everyone was able to meet the requirements of the labor market. I became more critical of the structural obstacles that discourage us on our journey toward studies and employment. We all encounter them, but there are specific aspects involved with many migrant women. We all know, for example, that fluency in Finnish language is often a required skill in the Finnish labor market – to an overexaggerated level across sectors, some might contend. There can also be exhaustive application processes to an updating professional training to boost your employability. For example, you might need to fill in your background information on different electronical systems (i.e., contact details, educational and professional experience, a motivation letter, and a CV), then shoot video answers to a couple of video interview questions, and then search for partner companies on your own so that you could have a work practice place in the training. All this is done in Finnish. Some struggle with these types of application processes due to a lack of understanding of instructions in Finnish, feeling uncomfortable with digital tools, or feeling insecure about one’s own work life abilities after being at home taking care of children for a long time. Additionally, prejudices related to a jobseeker with a foreign background also exist, as we know from Akhlaq Ahmad’s recent research about jobseekers with foreign-sounding names in the hiring process1.
Our project was often complemented for the support it offered. Some women would highlight the need for low-threshold services and open meeting places to support integration – to assist women with a migrant background to be connected to social networks and up-to-date information about Finnish society. Our services in ItseNaiset were able to meet that need, in which we could combine the elements of being a listening ear, a compassionate and trustworthy associate, whilst also being professional workers. Women could come and seek for assistance related to studies or employment, and to discuss and reflect on their possibilities in the work life. Simultaneously, they could share their concerns or joyful news through a text message or WhatsApp. This included asking for help with translating documents, or informing if they had joined a labor union, received a job, or started studying. Having someone to support you on your path matters when you are otherwise mostly at home, wondering what to do next and where to seek for guidance.
One of the women said the following about the support she has received from ItseNaiset:
“Due to language barrier many of us women get stuck in life, and not because we are not educated but because of the language barrier. All the knowledge and skills we had gained from our country of origin, when we come here most of our education becomes useless. We get stuck asking ourselves who am I? ItseNaiset have been there to guide us with options on what one can be. Getting out from those problems that delay us in life. It’s also a place where us women can be able to express ourselves well and be understood and get advice on what to do next.”
In the end, we need to feel valued as we encounter the reality of having to rebuild our professional and other social identities in a new country. Perhaps, you cannot work in the same field that you did back home, due to long bureaucratic processes of recognizing foreign qualifications. Maybe you are trained to a field that does not offer viable opportunities in Finland. Maybe you are used to having a strong social community around you, but now you must make new connections in a country where community ties are generally quite loose. To meet someone at such crossroads requires that you adjust yourself to a welcoming space of appreciative encounters. As one woman said before she left from our meeting: ”I feel like it’s kind of psychological help, that when you feel welcome and valuable, in my opinion it is the best way to integrate.”
1Ahmad, A. (2020), When the Name Matters: An Experimental Investigation of Ethnic Discrimination in the Finnish Labor Market. Sociological Inquiry, 90(3), 468–496. https://doi.org/10.1111/soin.12276