Abdullah Al-Ani, a 29 years old Iraqi young man came to Finland on the eve of 2015. It was the year in which record-breaking number of asylum seekers, 32476, entered Finland; eighty-four percent of them were under 34 years old. According to the Finnish Migration Service, when adjusted to population size it was the fourth largest in the European Union; In the year 2009, the arrival of 5988 asylum seekers was the previous record for Finland.
After finishing high school, Al-Ani went to Russia to do his university studies majoring in electrical power engineering. He got a master’s degree from Russia and returned home. After staying for a short period because of the situation in his hometown he left Iraq and sought asylum in Finland. While living in the reception center in Helsinki, as he is an outgoing and active person, he did not like the inactive routine at the reception center. He heard from one of his friends about the Laajasalo local Red Cross branch and its services and went there to learn more about Red Cross and its activities and ended up registering as a volunteer. His first assignments were serving as an Arabic–English, and English–Russian interpreter and translator, both in person and over the phone, teaching Finnish alphabet and numbers for Arabic speaking children at the Red Cross refugee center, He was also an active participant in organizing the weekly multicultural evenings held at the Laajasalo branch.
Al-Ani got a residence permit after waiting for a year but continued volunteering actively. After developing his Finnish language skills, through attending intensive language courses and practicing what he learned with friends and volunteers, he has been able to serve the local branch in various capacities. He had also the opportunity to attend various courses and training arranged by the Red Cross. Presently, he is serving as vice chairman of the same local branch of Finnish Red Cross. Al-Ani is now attending a training that would get him a certificate of qualification to do electrical works – it was a Finnish friend of him who recommended this training.
– Volunteering for Red cross has enabled me to attend courses and training that are useful for my future career. I have never been employed, but through volunteering, I have been able to develop communication, teamwork and leadership skills, Al-Ani said.
The integration policy of Finland focuses on preparing immigrants to the labour market in their first three years, but studies have shown that refugees from Iraq, Somalia, and Afghanistan, have a higher unemployment rate after staying in Finland for more than ten years. Studies done in other western countries have shown that promoting volunteering among immigrants could speed up their social and economic integration into society. If we take Al-Ani’s case as an example, he had no earlier work experience and could have stayed idle at the reception center, but through volunteering, he has been able to develop his human and social capital i.e. he has developed communication and teamwork and leadership skills, and also social networks.
The number of immigrant volunteers in Finland is, needless to say, very small. Immigrants and those who are responsible for the integration of immigrants might not be familiar with or don’t appreciate the manifold benefits of volunteering like making social connections, advancing ones physical and psychological wellbeing, learning new skills, getting an opportunity to support good causes, learning about the host country and its work culture, improving language skills, and getting job reference.
Every effort must be made to integrate and use immigrant’s potential human resource for the good of immigrants and the society. As volunteering has multifaceted benefits, increasing the supply and demand for volunteering opportunities; Raising awareness of immigrants on the values of volunteering; funding small volunteer-involving organizations; the inclusion of volunteering in the integration policies of both national and local governments, should be considered as an imperative task by the government, municipalities, immigrant organizations, volunteer-involving organizations, and social funders.
Volunteering for mainstream volunteer-involving organizations can contribute a lot in speeding up the integration of immigrants into Finnish society, but as integration is a two-way process it calls upon both immigrants and the society to do their fair share. Proactive immigrants like Abdullah Al-Ani and broad-minded people like the chairman of the Laajasalo Red Cross branch and his team would make the integration process short and effective.