May 4 2016

Crossing Europe alone: Teen refugees find a home in Finland

After difficult journeys to Europe, young asylum seekers start new lives with the help of SOS Finland

When a new SOS Children’s Villages group home was founded in Jyväskylä, Finland, last November, to accommodate some of the young asylum seekers arriving in the country, no one had a very clear picture of what was going to happen in the next few months. In the beginning, pantomime was the most common method of communication. The fifteen boys aged 14–17 who were the first to move into the new home came from Afghanistan and Iraq. They spoke Persian and Arabic, and an interpreter was not always available.

Long journey to Europe                                   

The boys all share terrifying experiences, as their journeys to Finland were long and dangerous. Babur*, 16, from Afghanistan, travelled through Europe with smugglers. He earned money for the journey by working hard in Iran, where he and his sister were undocumented, staying with their uncle after their parents died.

His route ran from Afghanistan to Iran and then to Turkey, Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Hungary, Austria, Germany, Sweden and, finally, Finland. He had to stop for several days in some countries as there were queues of up to five days at the borders.

Babur knew basically nothing about Finland before he arrived.

“They told me that there’s a good and peaceful country called Finland far away in the north. This is a good place to live and I would like to stay if they let me. Sadly, I haven’t been able to get in touch with my sister since the journey.”

Also Rashidi*, 17, from Afghanistan, had to leave his family and came to Finland alone. He was supposed to leave Kabul together with his father, mother and little brother, but things did not work out as planned. When the smugglers were changing lorries, Rashidi got into the lorry which continued the journey, but the other family members did not.

For Rashidi, the scariest part of the journey was crossing the sea at night with 45 other people, in a rubber boat which they had to inflate themselves.

“They told us that we’d be travelling in a big ship. When the truth came out, it was too late to go back. We were forced into the boat at gunpoint,” Rashidi explains.

Rashidi’s situation is slightly better than that of Babur. Rashidi’s sister had already moved to Finland and has a residence permit there. Rashidi has been able to connect with his parents.  He calls them often and sends them WhatsApp messages.

“It’s hard to talk to mum on the phone because she can’t stop crying. I think about my family a lot and miss them, but I don’t miss Afghanistan. Luckily, I know that my family is all right.”

Still, when Rashidi arrived in Finland, it felt strange at first.

“I used to think: ‘What am I doing here?’ Luckily everything has gone well. I’ve made new friends and learned the language. I can relax here and I feel safe.”

Young people at risk

Unaccompanied or separated minors are a particularly vulnerable group. In 2015, almost 90,000 asylum applicants in the 28 EU countries were considered to be unaccompanied minors, according to Eurostat. More than 2,500 of them were registered in Finland. In response to the rising number of refugees, SOS Children’s Villages in 10 countries are providing family-based care, education, and other supports for nearly 1,000 unaccompanied or separated children and young people.
Young refugees in Macedonia, 2015. Photo: Katerina Ilievska

In Finland, SOS Children’s Villages has set up several small group homes for young asylum seekers without parental care. In their new homes, boys like Babur and Rashidi receive the care and support they needed. They make friends, build trust, and can adjust to their new environment.

After just two weeks in Finland, the boys started going to the nearby school in Vaajakoski, Jyväskylä, attending preparatory education classes. Four months later, they are already speaking Finnish, the common language in discussions at the group home.

“What I like most is the boys’ attitude”, educator Sami Paltamaa says. “They are really motivated to learn the language and genuinely want to be a part of this society. They are also extremely well-behaved, friendly and hard-working. Other kids could learn a lot from them.”

The boys will inevitably go their separate ways, at some point, when the Immigration Service has processed their asylum applications. A young person who is granted asylum in Finland is placed in a family, group home, supported or independent living, or private accommodation. Ideally, they will be able to stay where they have begun to settle in, and not have to move yet again.
*The name has been changed for privacy.