A UNITES story: fostering healing through creativity in Oulu

“When I met the group [of children] for the first time, I told them to draw their mood,” explains Olga Makarenko, a psychologist born in Ukraine who lives in Finland now.

When the war started, Olga volunteered in her Ukrainian city to teach antistress lessons to help children manage their emotions. This know-how evolved into creative sessions when she arrived in Oulu one and a half years ago. In those sessions, children’s drawings and games represented mostly war, so the psychologist focused on humour, dance, performances, and even shouting to release their tension.

Art therapy, singing, playing instruments, handicrafts, or games also work well with adults. “It works better than if I come there and say, ‘hello, I’m a psychologist, let’s work on your trauma’,” Olga explains. She still fights with the stigma and fears that mental health comes with. “Straight approaches do not work with Ukrainian refugees,” she says.

Our hope is that it changes Finnish society so that people are more understanding of refugees and their needs and that when people escape conflicts and war, it is not a choice.
— Priyanka Sood

To overcome that first obstacle, observation is vital to create a relaxed atmosphere in which anxiety, insomnia, stress or depression can be identified and treated, for example, through relaxation, breathing, focus exercises, and physical activity.

“There are many ways to stabilise your inner condition, and it depends very much on your age and state,” she explains. For instance, Olga says if someone is depressed or with shallow energy, they need one kind of exercise, whereas other methods may work better with those who are too agitated.

“I noticed that people are now more relaxed than they were one year ago when they came, especially after the session,” she proudly says.

Olga assisted refugees emotionally, becoming the bridge between the municipality and the Ukrainian community of Oulu, both linguistically and psychologically. For example, she translated from English to Ukrainian in municipal psychological sessions for women, something she still does.

Being fluent in a new language

Olga highlights the significant stress experienced by Ukrainian refugees who have escaped from war-torn regions and witnessed horrific scenes in their home country. Upon arriving in Finland, they encounter a peaceful and welcoming environment but still face a challenging adaptation process.

This adaptation involves adjusting to new living conditions, mindsets, people, and language. Unlike her, who could make an informed decision about which country to seek refuge in as she had friends living in Finland, she says Ukrainian refugees often do not have that opportunity. They often get on a bus at the border, unaware of the destination, and thrust into a new situation without adequate preparation, which can intensify their challenges in adapting to their new lives.

I noticed that people are now more relaxed than they were one year ago when they came.
— Olga Makarenko
Activities with Ukrainian children in Oulu

Language is one of those challenges, and it is probably the biggest obstacle to communication between government and migrant communities. Priyanka Sood, Project manager at the Immigrants’ Skill Development Centre and Coordinator of Migration Work at the City of Oulu, explains that Ukrainian mothers are provided with kindergarten, “but we have to give them language courses, and guided and skill enhancement services,” to ensure their labour market integration, she explains.

Now that we have the answers, we'll analyse them to find out where the loopholes are.
— Priyanka Sood

Oulu provides language lessons through integration schools and open courses, where unemployed people of any origin can improve their fluency in Finnish. However, Olga and Priyanka identified a lack of understanding beyond language, but triggered by it – the inexperience with Finnish political institutions and the public system.

Olga points out shortcomings in disseminating information to Ukrainian refugees, noting that individual departments often focus on their specific activities without providing a comprehensive overview. This lack of a holistic approach extends to social welfare benefits, where individuals may not fully understand how changes will impact them.

According to Priyanka, it is crucial “that training gives you language courses but also a deep understanding of how the Finnish system works, as well as the political and the welfare systems,” she explains. Therefore, the council plans to offer information “about Finnish society in many languages,” she explains.

Asking to spot needs

“Oulu is very friendly to foreigners, immigrants and refugees, and they care for them a lot. There are many different organisations taking care of many immigrants,” Olga explains. Yet, the conclusion is that language barriers and lack of information prevent the full integration of Ukrainians.

Olga and Priyanka decided to interview them to identify their pressing needs and implement solutions accordingly.

“The idea was to find out the reasons for bottlenecks and also understand what’s going on in their minds so we can address those fears,” Priyanka explains. “Now that we have the answers, we’ll analyse them to find out where the bottlenecks are.”

When I met the group [of children] for the first time, I told them to draw their mood.
— Olga Makarenko

For example, Olga highlights a significant challenge Ukrainian refugees face in Finland – navigating the healthcare system. In Ukraine, healthcare is accessed differently. Language barriers and reliance on rumours result in misunderstandings and dissatisfaction with Finns’ healthcare services.

In Ukraine, “if you have some trouble with your health, you go straight to the doctor,” Olga explains. However, in Finland, the process involves queuing and waiting, which, interviews disclosed, can cause feelings of insecurity among the newcomers.

Another problem mentioned by Olga is that, with the ongoing war in Ukraine, refugees are unsure if they will return home or when the conflict will end. This uncertainty leads to hesitancy in taking steps towards integration, as they fear investing energy in something they may not need in the future if they have to leave for Ukraine abruptly.

Survey results indicate that a sizable portion of Ukrainians are unsure about their plans. Some are considering returning to Ukraine, but the majority express a desire to stay in Finland. However, even those who wish to remain are uncertain about their ability to do so due to the undetermined length of the implementation of the Temporary Protection Directive.

Despite these challenges, Ukrainians strongly favour volunteering and engaging in meaningful activities. Olga explains that many find fulfilment in volunteering efforts, such as packaging boxes for orphanages in Ukraine. The psychologist observed that these activities evoke positive emotions among Ukrainians and foster a sense of purpose. Such activities could also benefit individuals from other backgrounds, emphasising their potential to promote community engagement and integration.

Oulu is very friendly to foreigners, immigrants and refugees, and they care for them a lot.
— Olga Makarenko

Managing the interviews and getting the Ukrainians’ trust allowed Olga to suggest recommendations to the city council. For example, interpreters should be involved in helping refugees in their job search and disseminating information in their native language.

In her recommendations, the psychologist suggested creating collaborative projects involving Ukrainian refugees, locals, and immigrants from other backgrounds. She drew inspiration from initiatives in different countries, such as communal gardening projects in Belgium, as examples of meaningful activities that foster community engagement regardless of language barriers and create volunteer opportunities to support Ukraine.

Finding somebody like you

Olga also initiated activities in the Ukrainian to foster a sense of community and familiarity among newcomers. “During the first half of the year, kids still did not know Finnish, so it was imperative to make friends and create community,” she states.

For example, she launched a choir and started hobby clubs for children and teenagers. Olga invites Finnish people, local musicians, and singers to join the choir performances “to create the feeling that we are all equal and everything is alright, but the language barrier is still a big problem.”

Choir of Ukrainians in Oulu

Social life becomes essential when far from home, but apart from the language barrier, those escaping conflict face another challenge – the lack of trust in others. “When you are in this extreme situation, you lose the trust of people in general, and it does not matter who these people are. So the goal was to connect them to create a community of children, teenagers, and adults – people could communicate, share information, and support each other,” Olga explains. She also thinks it could be good to apply it to other migrants and refugees.

However, integrating migrants also means giving them an active role rather than organising activities and creating policies for their inclusion. For example, Ukrainians work with locals volunteering in the help centre set up by Oulu’s city council, where people bring anything useful for Ukrainian refugees, from household goods to clothes.

When you are in this extreme situation, you lose the trust of people in general and it does not matter who these people are.
— Olga Makarenko

Everything started with local volunteers getting together to collect things to send to Ukraine, “but then the refugees started coming here, and we realised that, even though the reception centres are providing basic needs material, there is a gap before they register [at the reception centre],” Priyanka adds.

Then, a local businessman provided a free space to store daily needs and resources that people were giving away, such as food, clothes, and utensils. Olga explains that each Ukrainian can visit the place once per week and pick up on demand based on their needs.

“It’s a big help for Ukrainians because, of course, most of them don’t work at the moment,” she explains. The initiative was extended to all foreigners in the city. “They started helping Ukrainians but realised that other refugees may need help, so they opened up the services to any refugee,” Priyanka says.

It all comes down to people

Olga only has good words for Finnish people. “Sometimes I’m so touched because people are so kind,” she says. She was pleasantly surprised by the city’s policies and approach towards immigrants, noting the abundance of opportunities for newcomers to develop businesses, pursue ideas, and enjoy meaningful leisure activities.

“There are many opportunities here. Some are hidden a bit, and Ukrainians cannot see them. But I think that the goal of this survey and my work was to help reveal what is missing and how we can help Ukrainians notice their opportunities in this city because it’s really a city of opportunities,” she concludes.

“Our hope,” Priyanka says, “is that it changes Finnish society so that people are more understanding of refugees and their needs and that when people escape conflicts and war, it is not a choice.”

The situation of Ukrainians arriving in Oulu has already impacted how the city will manage similar situations in the future. “In the future, if we have a similar situation that needs the support from the citizens, we realise that we have to coordinate the aid work and the volunteers. Talk directly with the people helping on the ground level and give a direct message to the community working with them. So that’s something that we started doing immediately,” Priyanka concludes.

They started helping Ukrainians but realised that other refugees may need help, so they opened up the services to any refugees.
— Priyanka Sood


This story is part of a series of articles that presents the experiences of migrants, organisations and municipalities working under the UNITES project in Europe, co-funded by the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF).

UNITES (UrbaN InTEgration Strategies through co-design) trains and accompanies local authorities to co-design integration strategies with other stakeholders and migrants.

UNITES works with eight cities to help them develop local integration strategies through co-design with stakeholders and migrants. In planning and implementing their actions, they will receive guidance from colleagues from other cities and migrant organisations in peer workshops and peer visits to each city.

Marta Buces Eurocities Writer