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Volunteer of the year 2021, Ilkhom Khalimzoda. Photo: Pentti Snellman.

A year as a volunteer ambassador 

Looking at a bit less than 100 candidates nominated and reading their work in 2021, I was fascinated by their job, and so I did not expect my nomination would make that big sense. To begin with, I had a difficult beginning in Finland, as do many others who have a struggle and challenges in a new place. That was the time I was most engaged in volunteering without planning, without any specific intentions, because I just felt like doing so. So, I built on that and reached to a conclusion now that, if that was the most stressful time for me and I have been heavily involved in volunteering, that means a lot! On a personal level, that is a sort of evidence of wellbeing through volunteering! That said, it was not easy to get involved in volunteering, or I did not have everyone around talking or engaged in volunteering. Instead, to get in more networks, to meet people and to feel the taste of the new place, I always looked for possibilities. And one day, a friend of mine who was born here, took me to their association’s board meeting. There it started. 

4 years later, today I hear more often about volunteering, but still, it might be unknown to many others. Finding where to volunteer is one thing and gathering people around the idea is another thing. I had to bring people together around interethnic, interfaith, intercultural, and interpersonal dialogues through more engaging events, of which, most of them have come by the support of many people, especially newly arrived refugees from Turkey. As I have studied the Turkish language, we found a common ground and moved on together. Other people then also started joining. Now I am a board member of Etnisten suhteiden ja kansainvälisen muuttoliikkeen tutkimuksen seura ETMU ry and chairperson of Suomen Kulttuurienvälinen Yhteisö for about three years. 

   Now from the minority background context, we also need to know what is the newcomer’s participation rate in continuous volunteering, how they find it, how they would describe it. One may assume that newcomers have more difficulties and barriers from the time they arrive in Finland such as bureaucracy, financial sustenance and language, and therefore they might be involved less. But I am here to say that, although that is one reason, actually volunteering helps to solve the problems that we have around in many ways, giving a greater purpose and meaning in this new home, turning one very involved in the city that resides in.

After being rewarded with volunteer of the year, we are striving to hold the consistency of the work. Apart from those apple projects and living libraries, we have now launched a national campaign to donate blood and help save more lives. As for the direct impact of the reward, we were collectively discovered by many other organisations and building relations turned easier compared to the past. The Jyvaskyla Volunteer network Valikkoryhmä has been very helpful this year since we discovered each other. I have got a letter of congratulation from the Mayor of Jyväskylä city Timo Koivisto. My colleagues in SKY were also supported by other municipalities, for example in Hämeenlinna. They went there many times with ideas and projects, and they were always supported by information and financially. Organisations in Oulu invited us for their seminar. JAMK University of Applied Sciences involved me in their webinar. I opened the Jyvaskyla Volunteer Fair in May. In Jyväskylä, also Gradia 

gave me the opportunity to motivate the younger generation. Tampere Seurakunta was also active in cooperating with us. Very meaningful and long-lasting social ties were built and we continue building it. This would not be sustainable, if we didn’t think about youth, so we launched SKY Nuoriso in January and got our first solidarity project fund from the national education board, where youth are doing great work. Their aim is to empower their fellow young generation, especially those who might need more support, that is the people of foreign background, and strive for equality and equity. This is not to say about voluntourism and many more capacities that we yet have to discover and bring together for the future. 

What is yet to see is that organisations and individuals are keener to cooperate, get involved, and include us as much as we want to include others. So, our idea is not to stay as a minority in its own bubble, but to become the part of a bigger, more multicultural community where all kinds of people come together for a common good – to work for the wellness of our society, resolve problems we can deal with, and make the process fun and engaging. 

What encourages and empowers are such support from the institutions, access to their know-how, more translation of materials in more languages and more coordination. We should not expect that everything is available and clear, instead we have to reach out and make sure that the communication is two-way and that the feedback is taken seriously. For example, Yle Jyvaskyla and Keskisuomalainen newspaper reached us, and I was worried about my Finnish language because of course these journalists will talk in Finnish but am I able to understand what they will ask? So, I chose to message Yle about this, and they said English is ok, we will translate. Another newspaper journalist just came over and asked questions in Finnish first and clarified again in English and we used both languages. I am aware of the globally dominating place of English and we have to uphold Finnish too, but that can still be done, as in the examples given above. 

Once more, I want to thank the voters and the jury for their trust and encouragement. As well as the organisers and everyone else. 

Ilkhom Khalimzoda, Volunteer of the year 2021

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