16 January 2023
The Ukrainian refugees in
Helsinki cannot walk away
from problems caused by war
Amber Jackson from the diocese communications team in the Diocese in Europe and Patrick Comerford from USPG have been visiting Anglican chaplaincies in Hungary and Finland to see how they are supporting Ukrainian refugees with funding from the joint Ukraine appeal.
In Helsinki, Patrick Comerford visited the Vallila Help Centre, to see its work with Ukrainian refugees supported by Anglicans in the Finnish capital
Saint Nicholas’s Anglican Church in Helsinki is responding to the conflict in Ukraine in a practical way through its active support for the Vallila Help Centre in a busy commercial and industrial area 4 km from the city centre.
The Revd Tuomas Mäkipää, the Chaplain at Saint Nicholas’s, brought us to visit the Vallila Help Centre and introduced us to Eeva and the volunteers and workers she co-ordinates as they respond to the urgent and daily needs of Ukrainian refugees.
Eeva has perfected a well-organised and co-ordinated operation at the Vallila Help Centre. One morning last week, she invited four of us – myself, Charlotte Hunter and Rebecca Boardman of USPG and Amber Jackson from the Diocese in Europe – to join her team of highly-motivated volunteers in a three-hour operation, packing bags of essential food items for distribution later in the day to 100 Ukrainian families.
The Vallila Help Centre is a unique service that has grown out of the work of the Ukrainian Association in Finland. The centre was up and running a week after the Russian invasion of Ukraine and has become a shared space for several relief organisations and an information and assistance point for people who fled the war in Ukraine.
Vassili Goutsoul of the Ukrainian Association in Finland admits that the expectations are greater than the resources. In the first few months of the crisis, everyone involved expected that the situation would have stabilised by now. Instead, the number of refugees continues to grow, and he believes Finland needs to prepare to receive 20,000 more refugees.
The centre is working from the Sturenportti building in Vallila, provided by YIT Oyj, the largest construction company in Finland, with headquarters in Helsinki. YIT develops and builds apartments and business premises in Finland and in the neighbouring Scandinavian and Baltic states. In the past, the company has also worked in Russia.
The building has about 1,300 sq metres of space. Since the Vallila Help Centre opened, 30 or more regular people volunteer at the centre, offering three principle areas of support:
• humanitarian aid, including clothes, food and hygiene items;
• emotional, psychological and psychosocial support;
• informational support and practical guidance on accommodation, employment, education and living in Finland.
Since it opened, the centre has worked with over 20,000 visitors. It began by providing food for at least 140 families and over six months this number has reached more than 3,360 families.
Natalia (42) tells us how she has been in Finland since the war in Ukraine began almost a year ago. She first came to the Vallila Centre as a visitor, but is now part of Eeva’s team of volunteers at the centre.
When she fled, her civilian husband stayed behind to look after the elderly people in the apartment block where they lived. He was not involved in the fighting, but still was killed by Russian troops after they occupied the empty apartments in the block.
Natalia has been back to Ukraine for her husband’s funeral. But now she does not know whether she can ever return home again.
Most Ukrainian refugees in Helsinki still hope to return home in the future, despite their fears. But Natalia’s husband is dead, her children have been left without a father, and their home has been destroyed. Instead, the centre has become a second home for her.
The Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) and the Diocese in Europe through the Bishop’s Lent Appeal donated £22,855 to the Vallila Help Centre last August to fund Eeva’s work as the Humanitarian Aid co-ordinator.
The Vallila Help Centre offers a safe space for Ukrainian refugees, rooms where they can receive counselling, psychological support and therapy, a welcome area where clothes and shoes are offered in an environment that reflects a pleasant shopping environment, and a play area for children who can also receive psychological assistance.
A lounge area offers space for communication and relaxation, other non-governmental organisations (NGOs) provide advice in a consultation area, and other facilities include a computer zone and employment assistance point.
The centre had up to 20-30 refugee volunteers for many months. But public transportation stopped being free for refuges in October, and today that number has dropped to about ten who can come regularly only because the centre can meet their travel costs.
Eeva’s work ensures the centre can meet the basic needs of Ukrainians in Helsinki. The centre offers a safe place where people who fled the conflict can receive appropriate support. Her work includes:
• securing donations of items to the centre;
• contact with other bodies to secure donations to the centre;
• organising food and hygiene packages;
• supporting and co-ordinating volunteers;
• providing integration support for visitors.
The Ukrainian Association in Finland was founded in Helsinki in 1998, but its founders never expected to turn their focus to work like this. Now Vassili Goutsoul sees the need for team building and he identifies the need to keep 30 or more volunteers motivated.
The support from USPG and the Diocese in Europe was timely as the centre moved from being an entirely volunteer-run project to consolidating its work. The majority of people the volunteers work with are women and children. Local businesses have donated furniture and consumer goods, ordinary Finns have donated clothes, shoes and children’s toys.
Many refugees see Finland as a getaway before they move on to another, third country. It was tragic to hear how some of them were already victims of an earlier tragedy, living close to Chernobyl at the time of the nuclear disaster in 1986.
After packing bags for 100 families and helping to unload donated goods from a tightly-packed van, we came down stairs lined with children, babies and pregnant women. We could walk away knowing we had homes to go to. The immediate future looks bleak for the families who need the support of the Vallila Help Centre.