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An Evangelical-Lutheran parish in Southern Finland decided to give asylum seekers useful work by teaching them how to carry out thinnings. At the annual Forest Days event, the project was awarded by the Finnish Forest Association.
Finland was caught rather unawares in the autumn of 2015. The number of asylum seekers multiplied rapidly here, as elsewhere in Europe.
The Evangelical-Lutheran parish in Vihti – a town of 30,000 inhabitants in Southern Finland – reacted swiftly and within just three weeks, opened a reception centre at its summer camp facility. From the beginning it was important for the parish to find not just a roof over the heads of the asylum seekers, but also something meaningful to do – and preferably against payment, too.
“From the very start, we wanted to help with the integration and with finding jobs,” says Mr. Pekka Valkeapää, vicar of the Vihti parish.
In line with most parishes in Finland, the Vihti parish is a major forest owner. Valkeapää had experience in forest management and he knew that they had seedling stands which were in need of clearing and thinning.
More than half of the 60 adults living at the reception centre wanted to take part in the training offered. The parish acquired the brush cutters, and Mr. Juha Harju, a logger from the local Forestry Management Association, acted as teacher. Dozens of hectares of forest were cleaned.
According to Valkeapää, one of the best achievements of the project was that both men and women participated.
“It’s great that women also have the opportunity to participate. In Finland, men and women can do the same work,” said Ms. Fatima al-Ibbi, an accountant from Yemen, in an interview with the Finnish Broadcasting Company.
Just being in a forest was a new experience
“Saw sharpening was something we gave a miss to,” notes Valkeapää, who also did some of the teaching.
“The asylum seekers were really enthusiastic. They had a good team spirit and they wanted to pull together and show that they could do this,” Valkeapää says. “The work also allowed them to charge their mental batteries.”
Many of the brand-new forestry workers were from Iraq and Afghanistan, while others came from Syria, Somalia and Yemen. It was not only the work that was new to them, but also the country with its cold, snowy winter and spruce forests.
According to Valkeapää, some participants had previously experienced forests in Hungary, where they had slept under the trees for fear of the police.
Forest projects to be continued
The reception centre operated by the parish was closed in the spring of 2016, as agreed with the Finnish Immigration Service, because the facility was needed for the confirmation schools traditionally held in the summer for teenage parishioners.
However, employment for the asylum seekers was still needed. The Finnish Red Cross still operated a reception centre in Vihti, and some of the asylum seekers stayed in the area after receiving their residence permit.
Work was again found in the forest. During the summer, the asylum seekers picked upwards of 700 kilogrammes of bilberries. The local Forestry Management Association employed them in planting spruce seedlings.
Currently, the municipality of Vihti is starting a project called At home in the forest, in which the parish is also involved and where the immigrants can learn about the forest and its recreation potential.
Valkeapää hopes that the forest projects could serve as a basis for the asylum seekers to set up a work cooperative. He knows that some of his trainee lumberjacks have found work in the forest elsewhere in Finland.
The Finnish Forest Association awarded the Vihti parish for its work to integrate asylum seekers with the help of forest and forestry.
The award was handed over during the Forest Days, an event that brought hundreds of forestry professionals and experts together in Helsinki for the 88th time in a row. The award is distributed by the Finnish Forest Association to persons and organizations who have actively contributed to the Association’s mission to provide responsible information on how we use forests. The Association also manages the forest.fi website.