Belonging, education and employment
The main challenges faced by Somalis in Helsinki.
“Yes, the foundation for life is being able to get what you want. For example, if you have studied here from elementary school until high school, but when you try to get into university, people of your age are put ahead of you without that they have better grades than you, or better wisdom, then you do feel something is missing from you.
If you are a citizen and another citizen is put ahead of you, then your citizenship is only half. For example, when there are jobs open but they tell you they will call you and never do, you feel that you don’t have much here, it affects your mind. For example, the education you have does not benefit you here in the labour market; you have to take your education to other countries.” (A 23-year-old man)
The quotation above, from a young man with Somali background, captures the main elements of the downside of daily lives of the Somalis in Helsinki, namely challenges of belonging, education and employment, and the correlation between these three elements.
According to a recently published report “Somalis in Helsinki” that aims to capture the everyday, lived experiences as well as the type and degree of engagement policymakers have initiated with the minority populations, in particular Somalis.
Somalis in Helsinki are satisfied with health services, safety, and quality of housing in the city. However, a number of challenges faced by Somalis in Helsinki are spelled out in the report. The findings of the report are based on literature review, 28 stakeholder interviews and 12 focus group interviews with 102 Somalis.
An area that deserves serious attention from policymakers, community organisations and ordinary citizens, including Somalis, is identity and belonging. Although a significant number of the focus group respondents felt that they were part of their neighbourhood and that Helsinki is their favourite city of residence, only a very small proportion of respondents felt a sense of belonging to Finland. There are various reasons for that, but the most frequently repeated one involved the experience of discrimination by mainstream Finnish society.
Previous studies have already shown that Somalis in Finland commonly face discrimination. According to a survey conducted in 27 EU-countries in 2009, Somalis in Finland were among the 10 immigrant and ethnic-minority groups that had experienced the most discrimination: 47 per cent of them reported incidents of discrimination over a period of 12 months.
According to the interviews Somalis feel that the majority population is not prepared to accept them as equal partners and as citizens. A young interviewee noted, “Even though I have Finnish citizenship, I am very shy to say that I am Finnish because I know that they do not want to see me as a Finn and that they will ask me about my origins anyway. So I start with my origin, then if they ask me do I have Finnish citizenship, I tell them ‘yes’”.
Another main concern for the community that was raised in both the stakeholder interviews and focus group discussions was the situation of youngsters and the future of Somali children in Finland. Education was at the centre of these concerns. Youth with Somali background, particularly boys, have had a hard time accessing educational opportunities and they have difficulties entering the labour market.
Many young Somalis, about 38 and 24 per cent of young Somali men and women respectively, aged 15–29 in the greater Helsinki area are neither studying nor working. Therefore, the situation of the second generation of Somalis in Finland is particularly worrying.
Somalis identified the main educational problem faced by the children to be the lack of educational opportunities after comprehensive school, particularly high school. In addition to student-specific factors, missing parental role and discrimination in educational institutions were pointed out as barriers to educational opportunities.
Somali parents often lack the tacit knowledge that Finnish parents take for granted. Most Finnish parents are able to simply answer many of the questions their children have in order for them to establish their career path, for example the educational requirements.
Most of the Somali parents face difficulties in identifying the available educational opportunities after comprehensive school that are applicable to their children’s needs and qualifications. For instance, after the child completes comprehensive or high school, Somali parents often understand very little about appropriate institutions to apply to, how to apply, when to apply, and from where to get the right information.
Discrimination against Somali students was raised as an important factor in Somali children’s failure both in school achievement and in pursuing higher education. Somali parents felt that their children were discriminated against and even mentally abused in schools. A Somali father highlighted the negative impact of this experience to the issue of belonging:
“I would say that children need help in things such as education, that children who are born here wouldn’t face so much discrimination, so that they would have sense of citizenship. We can accept that we have immigrated here but our children should have a sense of belonging in this country”.
Regarding employment, although all the factors discussed in the literature affect Somalis’ employment prospects, negative attitudes and discrimination against Somalis are the prime determinants. According to Annika Forsander, the City of Helsinki’s director of immigration affairs:
"I think that in Finland, compared to England, Canada, I don’t know about other Nordic countries, but Somalis are suffering a lot from discrimination in the labour market. If you look at the educational level, and I’ve looked at that very carefully in my previous research, there are so many Somalis who have done their secondary or even university education in Finland, excellent capabilities, lots of youngsters coming into the labour market, still their position is slow. I mean there has to be an element of xenophobia here."
Yet, at the same time integration in the labour market is seen as a key to overall integration in the Finnish society. Moreover, satisfactory employment is considered a determinant in the sense of identity and belonging to the society and the country, and it also enhances the overall wellbeing of the individual and the family. Feeling of inequality about the distribution of and access to resources is considered as a constraint on social cohesion.
Finally, the report suggests an extensive list of recommendations for improving the opportunities for full participation and inclusion of Somalis in the wider society, in particular in Helsinki.
The author is Post-Doctoral Researcher at Department of Social Research, University of Helsinki.
Illustrations: Details from Jamilah's story/Meet the Somalis
Somalis in Helsinki is the first report of a comparative research series “Somalis in European Cities” that contains seven individual city reports and an overview, sponsored by the At Home in Europe Project of the Open Society Foundations.
The study in Helsinki was conducted by researchers Marja Tiilikainen and Abdirashid Ismail at the Department of Social Research, University of Helsinki. The whole report can be read at
The project has also published a collection of 14 illustrated stories depicting the real life experiences of Somalis in the studied seven cities in Europe: Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Helsinki, Leicester, London, Malmo, and Oslo.
The stories of Jamilah and Anwar from Helsinki, among other stories, are available at