Yesterday I travelled to Jyväskylä, a 3-4 hours drive from Helsinki in Finland. Originally my plan was to run a 2-day storytelling workshop for immigrants and asylum-seekers at the multicultural center, Gloria. However, the timing was not right, and the workshop did not take place. Instead I had a chance to get an insight into the activities at Gloria, which offers many activities and help to all kinds of foreigners.
The greatest take-away from my 24-hour visit was spending time with my schoolmate Hanna, whom I had not seen for over forty years. In 1972-75 she had been sitting behind me in Senior High School. She remembered those years with the same horror as I. Thinking especially of the Finnish teacher, “The Black Death,” made us still shiver after decades. The Black Death was one of those single women who one could imagine having been a torturer in the Gestapo or working for the Inquisition had she lived in another country and at another time.
Hanna is retired after a 30-year career as a special teacher in Jyväskylä. For a couple of years she has been volunteering enthusiastically at Gloria teaching Finnish to foreigners. She uses a Finnish teaching method Toisto developed by the Helsinki University in 2015. It is based on oral repetition of whole sentences. This works very well with foreigners, who may be analphabets or don’t master the Latin alphabet. Principally, it is exactly how small children learn their first language: listening speaking and repeating.
Gloria’s Toisto-lessons have been well attended: over 1000 learners last year. Hanna and her assistants all have reasons to be proud of helping hundreds of immigrants and asylum-seekers to integrate into the Finnish society.
Friday morning I witnessed Hanna playing guitar at a weekly get-together of parents and kids from different countries. It was fun to join singing songs in all kinds of languages. I had never tried that previously.
Walking on the pedestrian street of Jyväskylä afterwards Hanna introduced me to many people. She seemed to know most of them through her volunteering work. “My retirement coincided with an interesting period in the Finnish history”, she explained. “Suddenly many asylum seekers started to arrive from war-ridden countries in the Middle-East to our previously homogenous Finland. Many Finns were surprised and frightened too. Finland had always been a country of emigrants: hundreds of thousands of Finns opted to move abroad due to poverty and unemployment. Now Finland was on the receiving end and the newcomers were not welcome”.
Multicultural centers, like Gloria, try to bridge the cultural gap between local residents and newcomers from other countries. Funding these centers is a enormous challenge to their leaders. Volunteers like Hanna make it possible to help keep them functioning.