Espoo and Ukraine united through education

26 June 2023

“To have a meeting with people who tell us, ‘There’s a drone flying over our building right now…’ Well, we understand our privilege,” says Annika Forsten, Acting Head of International Affairs for the City of Espoo. The meetings she is describing are monthly calls with the Ukrainian city of Kryvyi Rih, part of the long-term collaboration that is shifting the perspectives in both places.

In Espoo, residents still remember their own battle against Russian aggression many decades ago. “When President Zelensky visited Finland, you could immediately see the streets filling up with people,” Forsten recalls. Thanks to the resonance between Finnish history and the current situation in Ukraine, residents are very eager to support the cause, which underscores their local government’s duty to get involved.

Cities are also necessarily involved in this struggle, Forsten says, because “cities are where the people live.” When Ukrainians look for refuge from the fighting abroad, it is in cities that they settle down. “How we are able to welcome and integrate people who have suffered so much is the key question,” Forsten explains.

Learning together

Espoo’s bond with Ukraine, particularly the city of Kryvyi Rih, goes beyond mere international politics. The partnership, according to Annika Forsten, started with a shared dedication to education, an area that both cities prioritise. “It started at the Eurocities Annual Conference in Espoo last summer,” where, Forsten says, “Eurocities’ non-Ukrainian cities made a commitment to support their Ukrainian counterparts.”

After that gathering, Olga Dibrova, Ukrainian Ambassador to Finland, suggested the partnership between Espoo and Kryvyi Rih, the birthplace of Dibrova and of President Zelensky. Trusting in her judgement, Forsten explains, the two cities began their collaboration with a focus on education. “She was absolutely right that learning would be a place where we find each other, and we can see it on a very concrete level already,” says Forsten.

Having started to cooperate last autumn, Espoo already has eight schools collaborating with schools in Kryvyi Rih. This month, educators from Kryvyi Rih visit one of Espoo’s educational partners, Metropolia, to gain a deeper understanding of the EU approach to education, in line with the countries ambitions for membership of the bloc.

The collaboration is not just an institutional initiative, but a grassroots one as well. Forsten praises the efforts of local students who organised donation campaigns, emphasising, “And that’s the heart of it all, that the people, the students are engaged.” The city has also organised the donation of 200 computers, and will follow up with donations of 300 additional computers and furniture for schools in the Ukrainian city.

That's the heart of it all, that the people, the students are engaged
— Annika Forsten

All pitching in

The nature of this collaboration is intended to be long-term. However, given the urgency of the current crisis, short-term measures are essential too. One such is Espoo’s participation in the ‘Generators of Hope’ campaign, in collaboration with Eurocities and the European Parliament.

Together with Helsinki and Vantaa, Espoo has sent 120 generators to Ukraine, largely sourced from local companies and residents. “We gave too, of course, but without the companies and residents, we wouldn’t have been able to come up with such a big amount,” Forsten notes.

Thanks to strong pre-existing connections between the City of Espoo and its civil society sector, it was possible to launch a rapid emergency response through aid centres that received huge donations from companies and local people. “The city community, NGOs, and so on set up these activities and aid centres,” Forsten explains, “with the city playing a strong supporting role.”

The collaboration between Espoo and Kryvyi Rih has also expanded to include cultural exchanges and social connections. Forsten highlights the importance of fostering dialogue between the students of the two cities. “It’s a way of giving hope and giving some sense of normality into the day of our partners,” she explains.

It's a way of giving hope and giving some sense of normality into the day of our partners
— Annika Forsten

A welcoming city

The city administration has made efforts to provide more services and information in Ukrainian, and they’ve even employed Ukrainians in key positions, like a communication expert and a music teacher. Forsten believes these initiatives are vital for providing a sense of belonging to the Ukrainians in Espoo.

The city also provides weekly information events about services for adults and children, preparatory education for pupils from Ukraine, and outreach work for youth. Espoo sees access to culture as being just as important as access to education.

The city provides cultural services such as art clubs and extra-curricular activities for Ukrainian children and youth, and free tickets to cultural venues. Three Ukrainians have been hired to work in Espoo City Library’s children and youth services.

Another important step in helping Ukrainians integrate locally is to empower them to find and create work. Espoo has engaged an expert in an initiative to assist Ukrainian startups that may want to launch in the metropolitan region.

“We did a pilot project with this company, the cities of Espoo, Helsinki, Vantaa,” Forsten recalls. “The expert helped us to explain the local start-up ecosystem to Ukrainians, and we got to help a few companies too to settle and set up their business here,” she elaborates.

Espoo’s existing connections with businesses and civil society have been instrumental in their support for Ukraine. “These connections are a big part of our city vision,” Forsten asserts.

The existing framework for dialogue and collaboration between city government, NGOs, and businesses has allowed Espoo to respond quickly and effectively to the needs of Ukrainians, both in their city and abroad. “The mayor has been a big driver in this,” Forsten explains. “He always says, we succeed in everything we do together with the residents, the companies, and the communities.”

Protecting democracy

The mayors of Espoo and Kryvyi Rih took the opportunity of Europe Day, on 9 May, to sign a Memorandum of Understanding, formalising their commitment to collaboration. Espoo Mayor Jukka Mäkelä declared, “The city of Espoo’s message for all Ukrainians is solidarity. We all should work to protect peace and democracy.”

The city of Espoo's message for all Ukrainians is solidarity
— Jukka Mäkelä

Collaboration with other cities is also central to Espoo’s approach to supporting Ukraine in the long term. The city has joined the Eurocities Sustainable Reconstruction of Ukrainian Cities project, which seeks to bring expertise from non-Ukrainian cities that is tailored to building Ukraine back more resilient than ever.

“We take an approach in collaboration with other Finnish and European cities,” Forsten says, “because the essential message is not just that we support Ukraine, but that we seem them as part of the unity of Europe.”


Anthony Colclough Eurocities Writer