From refugee to helping refugees: an interview with Helsinki’s Deputy Mayor Nasima Razmyar

9 May 2022

Helsinki, like several other European cities, has opened its doors to welcome Ukrainians fleeing the war. Even though cities in countries neighbouring Ukraine handle most of the refugees, they have also spread across the continent.

In Finland’s capital, Ukrainian refugees can count on the support and solidarity of Deputy Mayor for Education, Nasima Razmyar who, herself, has a migrant and refugee background. Razmyar’s father was the Afghan Ambassador to the Soviet Union and, in 1993, the family moved to Finland after then-President Mohammad Najibullah was ousted from power in their home country.

So, it’s not a surprise that she’s doing everything possible to welcome and settle Ukrainian refugees in the city that adopted her many years ago.

“My background as a refugee is a part of me and will always be. It does not have a separate impact on different areas of life, but my life in general,” says Razmyar, adding that “the current crisis of course reminds me of the things I have experienced. That motivates me to keep on working to provide similar opportunities for the Ukrainian refugees, as I had when I needed support the most.”

Helsinki's Deputy Mayor Nasima Razmyar. Image by The City of Helsinki
Helsinki’s Deputy Mayor Nasima Razmyar. Image by The City of Helsinki

Eurocities spoke to Razmyar about Helsinki‘s initiatives for reception and solidarity with Ukrainian refugees.

What is the situation in terms of Ukrainian refugees that have come to Helsinki? How has the city responded to these new arrivals?

A little over 23,000 Ukrainians have registered in Finland and in our immigration services. The real numbers are higher, as the Temporary Protection Directive allows Ukrainians to stay in the EU for three months without registering and the Majority of Ukrainians, who have arrived in Finland, are mothers and children.

The tragic crisis at hand has had a variety of effects on the municipal sector: the necessary preparedness and security measures, reception of new arrivals to the city, advisory and accommodation services, the organization of social and health services, and education and training arrangements.

The City of Helsinki is working in close cooperation with the Finnish Immigration Service (Migri), and if necessary, is prepared to arrange emergency accommodation for people arriving from Ukraine

How is the city adapting public services to support Ukrainian refugees and what are the city’s greatest challenges?

We are in really close cooperation with the Ministry of the Interior and the Finnish Immigration Services. The state is responsible for reception services and the municipality mainly organises education or daycare services. The state also provides housing, social services and financial assistance.

If a person arriving from Ukraine has not applied for temporary protection or asylum, the City of Helsinki’s social and health care services will provide support and assistance.

We have also established a partnership network for voluntary and third sector community work related to the crisis in Ukraine that brings together various organizations and partners operating in the Helsinki Metropolitan Area. The main task of the network is to strengthen cooperation and channel the local residents’ desire to help. Associations and foundations operating in Helsinki can also apply for a grant for activities supporting the integration of people from Ukraine.

The City’s grants will be allocated to activities in Helsinki supporting the wellbeing and integration of people arriving in Finland from Ukraine and emphasis will be placed on activities that strengthen social relations and everyday stability.

It is a great thing the EU has been active in helping out the Ukrainian refugees by activating the Temporary Protection Directive. However, the public services we offer in Finland and in our cities, like schooling, are tied to municipal residential status, therefore, the number one priority is to help all refugees in registering into the Finnish system and then helping them reach the services they deserve.

How are you collaborating with the Finnish national government on the distribution of Ukrainian refugees? How is the cooperation with other Finnish cities, such as Espoo, Tampere and Vantaa?

The cities and the national authorities do collaborate. The City of Helsinki supports Ukrainians directly with humanitarian aid together with the major Finnish cities. Finland’s six largest cities – Helsinki, Espoo, Vantaa, Tampere, Turku and Oulu – also have decided to step up their cooperation to respond to the local effects of the war in Ukraine.

This increased cooperation will help the cities form a shared assessment of the situation and decide on key common principles. The enhanced cooperation also aims to improve communication with state-level administration. In addition to city representatives, the coordination group meetings are attended by representatives of the Finnish Immigration Services, the Ministry of the Interior, and the Police of Finland along with other organisational representatives as necessary.

What further support do you need from the EU level? Are you exchanging with other Scandinavian or other European cities on how they are supporting Ukrainian refugees?

The City of Helsinki supports the Ukrainians together with the EU and the concern about the situation in Ukraine is shared by all. International cooperation is of paramount importance in coordinating and delivering aid.

It is important to share information and best practices in Europe – gathering data and discussing the phenomenon together is vital. The Nordic and Baltic capitals have discussed preparedness with respect to the war in Ukraine, for example during the meeting of the mayors on 7 April 2022. With the changed security situation in the Baltic Sea, it is important for the region’s capitals to work closely together.

In terms of education, what are the main measures put in place for refugee children in Helsinki?

Basic education, or school, starts in the August of the year the child turns seven. All school-aged children permanently living in Helsinki have the right to go to school. The best option for a school-aged child who does not know any Finnish or Swedish is our preparatory education, which aims to prepare the child for school in a Finnish-speaking or Swedish-speaking classroom.

The emphasis is on gaining sufficient language skills, but other school subjects are taught too. Upper secondary education in Finland is for young people aged 16-19, but there are options for adult students, too. Education for children and young people is offered free of charge in Finland.

All under-school aged children have the right to attend early childhood education (in daycare or similar). Pre-primary education starts in August of the year the child turns six. It lasts for one year and it prepares the child for school. Daycare and childcare services are subject to a fee based on the family’s income. Low-income families do not necessarily have to pay anything.

Other kinds of education support offered by the city at no cost are:

  • Four hours of early childhood education for 5-year-olds
  • Pre-primary education (trial expanding the service to two years is in progress)
  • Multilingual counsellors are available to support students
  • Language-conscious pedagogy methods
  • Three tiers of learning support
  • Finnish as a second language instruction
  • Mother tongue instruction (47 languages taught this school year)

Between 11-13 May, the City of Barcelona is hosting the Eurocities Social Affairs Forum where over 170 mayors, deputy mayors and city officials from a network of over 200 cities will be discussing the Ukrainian refugee crisis, the need for further funding to support the welcoming of these refugees, the effects of Covid-19 pandemic on the social welfare system, among other topics.


Raphael Garcia Eurocities Writer