16 January 2023

The Ukrainian refugees in
Helsinki cannot walk away
from problems caused by war

Eeva has perfected a well-organised operation at the Vallila Help Centre (Photograph: Charlotte Hunter, 2023)

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

Patrick Comerford

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 has been in Finland since the war in Ukraine began almost a year ago (Photograph: Charlotte Hunter, 2023)

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.

The Vallila Help Centre offers a safe space for Ukrainian refugees (Photograph: Charlotte Hunter, 2023)

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.

Eeva’s work ensures the centre can meet the basic needs of Ukrainian families in Helsinki (Photograph: Charlotte Hunter, 2023)

Praying through poems and
with USPG: 16 January 2023

A Christmas tree in the Vallila Centre for Ukrainians in Helsinki last week (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

Christmas is not a season of 12 days, despite the popular Christmas song. Christmas is a 40-day season that lasts from Christmas Day (25 December) to Candlemas or the Feast of the Presentation (2 February).

Throughout the 40 days of this Christmas Season, I am reflecting in these ways:

1, Reflecting on a seasonal or appropriate poem;

2, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary, ‘Pray with the World Church.’

I am continuing to work on reports on our recent visits to Budapest and Helsinki, when Charlotte and I visited church-based projects supported by the Anglican mission agency (USPG) and the Diocese in Europe, working with Ukrainian refugees in Hungary and Finland.

The Finnish capital was covered in snow throughout our visit to Helsinkilast week. My choice of a seasonal poem this morning, is ‘Sylvia’s Christmas Song’ (Sylvian joululaulu) by the Finnish poet Zacharis Topelius (1818-1898), and translated by Anniina Jokinen.

‘Sylvia’s Christmas Song’ is regarded by many as the most beautiful Finnish Christmas song and poem. Topelius was in Italy at Christmas-time, and missed his homeland when he wrote this poem. The original is in Topelius’s mother tongue, Finland’s dialect of Swedish, but it has since been translated into Finnish.

Zachris Topelius was a 19th century Finnish author, poet, journalist, historian, and Rector of the University of Helsinki, who also wrote historical novels set in Finland.

The original name of the Topelius family was the Finnish Toppila, but this was Latinised to Toppelius by the writer’s great-great-grandfather and later changed to Topelius.

Topelius was born at Kuddnäs, near Nykarleby in Ostrobothnia, the son of a physician, Dr Zacharias Topelius, who was distinguished as the earliest collector of Finnish folksongs.

As a child he heard his mother, Katarina Sofia Calamnius, sing the songs of the Finnish-Swedish poet Franzén. At the age of 11, he was sent to school in Oulu and boarded with family relatives who had a lending library.

He moved to Helsingfors or Helsinki in 1831, and became a member of the circle of young nationalist men surrounding Johan Ludvig Runeberg, Finland’s national poet and the author of the Finnish national anthem. Topelius studied history, theology and medicine at the Imperial Alexander University of Finland, and received his PhD in 1847 after completing his dissertation on ‘the custom of marriage among the ancient Finns.’

He was secretary of Societas pro Fauna et Flora Fennica (1842-1846), worked at the university library (1846-1861), and taught history, statistics and Swedish as a school teacher during those years.

Topelius was appointed a professor of the History of Finland at the university in 1854. He was made first ordinary professor of Finnish, Russian and Nordic history in 1863, and became professor of general history in 1876.

He was the Rector of the university from 1875 until 1878, when he retired as Emeritus Professor and received the title of verkligt statsråd or ‘state councillor’, a Russian honorary title.

At an early stage in his career, Topelius became known as a lyric poet, publishing three successive volumes of his Heather Blossoms (1845-1854). His earliest historical romance, The Duchess of Finland, published in 1850. He was also editor-in-chief of the Helsingfors Tidningar (1841-1860).

His Tales of a Barber-Surgeon, historical fiction from the days of Gustavus II Adolphus to those of Gustavus III, can be compared to the writings of Sir Walter Scott, and were published in five volumes (1853-1867). He also wrote a tragic drama Regina von Emmeritz (1854).

Topelius was an advocate of Finnish patriotism, and his political poem ‘Islossningen i Uleå älv’ was set to music by Jean Sibelius. With the composer Friedrich Pacius, Topelius wrote the libretto for the first Finnish opera, Kaarle-kuninkaan metsästys (Kung Karls jakt). Topelius wrote the libretto in Swedish, but its subject is emphatically Finnish.

According to tradition, the modern flag of Finland was based on a design by Topelius in about 1860. He died in 1898 in his manor house in Koivuniemi, Sipoo, where he wrote his greatest works. He is buried in the Hietaniemi Cemetery in Helsinki.

Zachris Topelius was the Rector of the University of Helsinki in (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Sylvia’s Christmas Song, by the Finnish poet Zachris Topelius, translated by Anniina Jokinen

And now it is Christmas in my lovèd north,
Is it Christmas as well, in the heart?
And bright Christmas candles do spread their light forth,
To each little cabin and hearth.
But up in the rafters there hangs high above,
The cage that imprisons my soul’s turtledove;
And quiet are now all the prisoners’ groans,
But oh, who pays heed to a prisoner's moans?

Oh shine you, the brightest of stars in the sky,
On my Finland so far, far from here;
When finally your light in the darkness doth die,
Oh, bless you that land, oh so dear!
I never will find one of equal worth,
My dearest will always be my land of birth;
My country to praise, I sing Sylvia’s song;
It e’er will remain as a song pure and strong.

The Government Palace in Senate Square, Helsinki … Zachris Topelius was an advocate of Finnish patriotism (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

USPG Prayer Diary:

The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity begins on Wednesday (18 January), and the theme in the USPG Prayer Diary this week is the ‘Week of Prayer For Christian Unity.’ This theme was introduced yesterday with a reflection from the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Commission on Faith and Order of the World Council of Churches.

The USPG Prayer Diary invites us to pray today in these words:

Let us pray to be good listeners. May we learn to pay attention and hear what is being said, and so seek to understand.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued Tomorrow

A Christmas tree outside the Kappeli restaurant in Esplanada Park, Helsinki … regular customers in the 19th century included the writer Zachris Topelius and the composer Jan Sibelius (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)