Welcome to International House Joensuu

As of 30 May, 2022, the immig­ra­tion ser­vices of the city of Joensuu are effect­ively renamed International House Joensuu. The new name shares sim­il­ar­it­ies with other International Houses oper­at­ing in other major Finnish cit­ies, such as Helsinki, Tampere, and Turku. You can even find an International House in Estonia and Copenhagen, mak­ing the concept truly inter­na­tional and not just a Finnish phe­nomenon.

TalentHub Joensuu paid a visit to the International House premises, an office com­plex in down­town, and talked with Eija Asikainen, IHJ’s integ­ra­tion man­ager, about the name change, cooper­a­tion, and immig­rants seek­ing help and shel­ter. There is a nasty war going on, after all.

Eija Asikainen took an interest in the immig­rant issues as Bosnian refugees star­ted pour­ing in to Joensuu in the breakup of Yugoslavia, provid­ing mater­ial in her theses and a research pro­ject. After gain­ing immig­ra­tion and integ­ra­tion com­pet­ence in vari­ous pro­jects, she moved to Joensuu’s immig­ra­tion ser­vices to be a pro­ject man­ager, devel­op­ing immig­rant guid­ance, guid­ance skills, elec­tronic ser­vices, and net­work­ing cooper­a­tion. With this skill­set, Asikainen surely knows what is going on in the renamed immig­ra­tion ser­vices.

Locally, in Joensuu and gen­er­ally in Finland, too, there is an ongo­ing labor short­age in many fields, as it is dif­fi­cult to employ people, so we have to be open-minded and look else­where for labor, lure people in from abroad for luc­rat­ive jobs. Even if these people become employed and Finnish cit­izens, the big ques­tion is that how do they enjoy liv­ing and set­tling here.

”International House’s aim is to make the people com­ing here feel easy about set­tling in, to feel that they have help, to have people assist­ing them with daily mat­ters. That the people who move here from abroad for work and other reas­ons would have a pos­it­ive first impres­sion. That they would feel at home and stay in the area instead of feel­ing the life and set­tling in dif­fi­cult even after get­ting a job”, Asiakainen explains.

She fur­ther explains that with the name change, the inten­tion is to reach and also serve work-related immig­rants even more indi­vidu­ally. Refugee work con­tin­ues as a large part and image of IHJ, and it has been such ever since the immig­ra­tion ser­vices’ incep­tion in 2018. IHJ strives for reach­ing the people com­ing here for other reas­ons, too.

International House’s Joensuu branch mainly cooper­ates region­ally with dif­fer­ent oper­at­ors, siphon­ing the com­pet­ence related to immig­ra­tion and integ­ra­tion together. The core cooper­a­tion is handled with Business Joensuu, schools, and Luotsi’s career coun­sel­ing ser­vices. In the future, there are plans to work together with other International Houses with great interest. Of the core cooper­at­ors, the local International House was col­lab­or­at­ively formed in the city of Joensuu by using the resources of Business Joensuu’s Become Karelian! ini­ti­at­ive, which developed a web­site and an integ­ra­tion ser­vice for the people mov­ing here for work. As for TalentHub’s cooper­at­ive role, IHJ’s web­site con­tains its link and the cus­tom­ers are encour­aged to take a look.

Next, TalentHub dis­cussed about IHJ’s cus­tom­ers, the immig­rants arriv­ing to a brave new world in need of a help­ful nudge. As Asikainen told us, ”there are act­ive cus­tom­ers with reg­u­lar appoint­ments, around 120–130 of them, and pass­ive cus­tom­ers, some of them long-time, who have per­haps vis­ited just once or occa­sion­ally again, ask­ing for advice.” Due to IHJ’s inclin­a­tion towards refugees, there are many Arabic cus­tom­ers, with Syrians as the largest cli­en­tele, and many Russian lan­guage cus­tom­ers, some of them work-related and also spouses. As such, Russian and Arabic lan­guages see the most use in the office.

The pan­demic has nat­ur­ally been a pro­ver­bial wedge in the cus­tomer growth, but it was unlodged when Russia invaded Ukraine. Hence, a steady onrush of Ukrainian refugees, who have also vis­ited IHJ’s premises. According to Asikainen, the recent crisis has been more about local con­cerned cit­izens and oper­at­ors who have called IHJ, ask­ing how they can help.

The thing about IHJ, how­ever, is that they can only offer sound advice and dir­ec­tions instead of con­crete decisions. The Finnish Immigration Service, for instance, handles secur­ing a work per­mit, but IHJ offers advice about its applic­a­tion forms and other related mat­ters. Work advice is not strictly given only to immig­rants; an employer can ask about hir­ing people from abroad and what kind of a pro­cess would it take to do so. Only after apply­ing for tem­por­ary pro­tec­tion and receiv­ing ser­vices from refugee recep­tion cen­ter and becom­ing local res­id­ents after get­ting a work per­mit or some other pro­cess, only then can IHJ offer its ser­vices to immig­rants to a fuller extent. In other words, International House Joensuu is meant for local res­id­ents, who are stay­ing here more or less per­man­ently.

”People with a refugee back­ground receive very intense guid­ance in the ini­tial steps”, Asikainen explains about how International House Joensuu’s ser­vices oper­ate around dif­fer­ent cus­tom­ers. ”Quite a few refugees visit us weekly for a long cus­tomer appoint­ment for about half a year. Work-related cus­tom­ers, then, maybe only require around 1–3 appoint­ments to get pub­lic author­ity mat­ters, daily liv­ing mat­ters, and other daily mat­ters rolling, after which they no longer require our ser­vices. We try to offer indi­vidual ser­vice very much.”

International House Joensuu’s role and strength is to be part of their cus­tom­ers’ daily life as an advis­ory ele­ment, a com­pass whose north points to the guided tour of the Finnish ser­vice sys­tem, advising fresh immig­rants about daily mat­ters, such as day nurs­er­ies and schools. Work-related mat­ters, how­ever, belong in the employ­ment ser­vices, and IHJ often receives enquir­ies about employ­ment, which they redir­ect to proper chan­nels.

”An obstacle to employ­ment is often some daily issue”, Asikainen elu­cid­ates. ”You might not get your child to a day nurs­ery; we try to help with such mat­ters. Or if there’s an issue related to health hinder­ing employ­ment, we can give advice on how to con­tact health care ser­vices. Our role also entails that if there is a cus­tomer with no con­tacts to employ­ment ser­vices what­so­ever, with no know­ledge that such a thing even exists, we help with regis­ter­ing at the employ­ment office, for instance. We help the per­son to nav­ig­ate in this soci­ety.”

One such nav­ig­at­ory endeavor is the twist­ing cur­rent rock­ing the immig­rant boat in unfa­mil­iar waters: the infam­ously com­plic­ated Finnish lan­guage, which non-nat­ives must almost always learn from scratch, as it fol­lows its own logic. Since there is an extreme demand for Finnish lan­guage courses, International House Joensuu’s Non-Stop Finnish courses are cur­rently full, even though Ukraine’s situ­ation res­ul­ted in more courses.

As Asikainen fur­ther explains, these are small courses, a few hours a week to get star­ted, with a focus on con­ver­sa­tions, for those try­ing to attain skills needed for daily life. ”Non-Stop Finnish courses are for the situ­ations when a per­son arrives here without prior skills; they can join and get a first feel of Finnish. Or you can tag along if your train­ing has ended and you want to train you lan­guage skills.” The employ­ment office’s integ­ra­tion train­ing, con­versely, is for the cus­tom­ers regis­ter­ing as job applic­ants. As such, the train­ing is more goal-ori­ented, basic­ally full-time study­ing.

The ser­vices have been well-received. ”It is a com­mon phe­nomenon among immig­rants: when you get help, you’re always really happy and sat­is­fied”, Asikainen says with a smile, believ­ing that the cus­tom­ers truly receive excel­lent ser­vice. As the Become Karelian ini­ti­at­ive developed integ­ra­tion ser­vices, the cus­tomer feed­back received was com­pli­ment­ary over­all. A cus­tomer ser­vice sur­vey for all cus­tom­ers is also in its plan­ning stage this year. Despite the pos­it­ive vibes, Eija also points out that there must be some issues that the cus­tom­ers would prefer to be changed, but they either can’t or won’t like to be crit­ical aloud, as they’re also depend­ent of the ser­vices in a way. Ultimately, the cus­tom­ers, espe­cially work-related ones, find it excel­lent that there is someone for them, unex­pec­tedly. As quoted by a cus­tomer:

“One of the best parts of your ser­vice was that I felt like hav­ing someone I can talk to from the moment we got in touch. I think this fact helps a lot the people who come here alone.”

Finally, Asikainen wanted to bring up three points as a way of think­ing about immig­ra­tion and integ­ra­tion, as also lis­ted in International House Joensuu’s web­site.

  1. Let’s change how we think about lan­guage learn­ing. Let’s not assume that you are good at Finnish before you get a job or take part in things. Let’s instead think that a lan­guage is an instru­ment of inter­ac­tion and learn­ing it requires inter­ac­tion and situ­ations where the lan­guage can really be prac­ticed. Instead of sit­ting firmly in a class for two years, let’s instead shape the lan­guage skills by inter­act­ing with the soci­ety.
  2. Let’s get the immig­rated people along to develop these ser­vices by act­ively ask­ing the cus­tom­ers about their needs and how to serve them. When a work­place has people who have come from else­where with their lan­guage and cul­tural know­ledge, let’s ask them how things are done else­where. Let’s tap into the abil­ity for a per­spect­ive change inher­ent to people.
  3. Let’s face the immig­rants as the new local res­id­ents, as whole per­sons instead of strangers. Persons with names as indi­vidu­als, with his­tory, know-how, edu­ca­tion, and life exper­i­ence. Tabula rasa they are not. Let’s hope they have a future here. Let’s make every effort that they stay here and make room for them both in our soci­ety and our work­places.

In the end, Asikainen has noticed in the con­ver­sa­tions with oper­at­ors that you can­not treat immig­rants as an uni­form mass. “We don’t move for­ward if we clas­sify people as per­petual immig­rants, as some­thing mys­tical that can’t be under­stood”, she says, look­ing for cooper­a­tion and a change in how we talk about things.

“It is immensely, dev­ast­at­ingly sig­ni­fic­ant how we call things and how we talk about them. Even though it feels super­fi­cial at the start, like what does it really mat­ter how you say it, but as this keeps repeat­ing in dif­fer­ent situ­ations, it shapes real­ity. This can be seen in the war in Ukraine. How there is no war going on, but a spe­cial oper­a­tion.”

Text: Juha Kuosmanen

Photos: Ari Tauslahti and International House Joensuu