The classrooms of the adult learning centre in Pudasjärvi in Northern Ostrobothnia are chock-a-block with students from different backgrounds: Congolese, Iranian, Russian. They are attending the Suomi startti integration training, the main goal of which is to give immigrants Finnish language skills.
Rebecca Boukono, 23, arrived from Congo six months ago and can already speak some Finnish.
"The spring is good, it is not cold. The sun is shining," she says in Finnish.
Pudasjärvi has set its sights on increasing the proportion of immigrants up to ten per cent by 2018 from the current three per cent.
In the primary school in the town centre, the percentage of foreign-born pupils is approaching the 10-per cent mark.
"We are trying to achieve a situation similar to Helsinki. Why not? I'm surprised other small municipalities don't have a similar goal. It's nothing but prejudices," says Mayor Kaarina Daavittila.
Pudasjärvi wants to produce and train new employees for other areas in Finland and some of the young immigrants have already moved on to gain a vocational qualification, for example studying to become a nursing assistant in Oulu.
"We have empty flats here, and upper secondary schools and vocational colleges are struggling to have enough students for classes. Immigration can breathe new life into our community. Some of the immigrants will later move elsewhere, but that's what people have always done."
A study carried out in Vaasa University showed that small rural municipalities see immigrants as one possible solution to a dwindling population.
Eight municipalities were included in the study. All of them estimated that the proportion of immigrants in the municipality will grow in the future.
"The attitudes to growing numbers of immigrants were mainly positive. Municipalities which accepted refugees saw this as a good practice run for the future. In Lieksa, where the number of immigrants has gone up rapidly, the attitudes were the most negative," explains Anna Korsbäck, a member of the research team.
Because of its safety and peacefulness, countryside was seen as a good place for immigrants to integrate into the Finnish society. A shortage of jobs and local residents' negative attitudes were regarded as the drawbacks.
Christella Amuli, 20, came to Pudasjärvi from Congo two years ago. Dreaming of becoming an actress, she thinks she will at some point move to a bigger place.
"I believe that learning Finnish is easier in a smaller place. Here, I have to socialise with others too, and not just with my countrymen. I'd like to get to know more Finns. Maybe they would accept us more easily then."
Amuli says she has not come across discrimination but is aware that not all Finns accept immigrants. Anti-immigration movements have run campaigns also in Pudasjärvi.
Daavittila has received threats via email and does not have her name on her post box anymore.
"Residents of Finnish origin have not lost any services because of immigrants. We are not making money out of immigration but we are not out of pocket either. All decisions that concern the whole municipality have been made unanimously," Daavittila stresses.
Marjo Valtavaara – HS
Niina Woolley – HT
© HELSINGIN SANOMAT
Image: Antti J. Leinonen