“What makes a good neighbour?” asks Jenni Juvonen.
“Someone who is considerate of their neighbours,” a voice in the audience answers.
“It depends on the person. Some people want to be left to themselves, while others enjoy having contact with others,” says another audience member.
It is a resident event at a Lumo building in Vantaa’s Koivukylä district. A cold November wind is blowing outside, but the club room is kept warm by about twenty of the building’s residents chatting with each other. The topic of the evening is being a good neighbour and, in particular, what it means in a multicultural apartment house. Jenni Juvonen, who has been in charge of the Finnish Refugee Council’s neighbourhood counselling activities since the start of the year, was invited to the event to provide an introduction for the discussion.
“For many people who come from other cultures, it is very difficult to figure out how to get acquainted with Finns. The community in an apartment building plays a big role in this,” Juvonen explains.
A multicultural Lumo building in Vantaa
Property Manager Milla-Roosa Pentikäinen and Lumo homes Housing Advisor Riikka Pasanen invited Juvonen to the resident event after attending a training event she had organised.
“I immediately thought of a couple of large multicultural Lumo buildings that could benefit from these kinds of discussions,” Pentikäinen says.
The residents of the Lumo building in Koivukylä represent well over a dozen different cultures, says Tuomas Kimpari, chair of the building’s Lumo team and someone who has been actively involved in resident affairs for a long time. He moved in back in the 1970s when the buildings on Sauvatie were brand new.
“The first residents with refugee backgrounds came from Vietnam in the 1980s. The first Africans came around the same time. In the late 1990s, a woman named Annie from Chicago organised English language classes in the club room,” Kimpari recalls.
The coming together of different cultures can occasionally cause friction among the residents. Life in a Finnish apartment building may be difficult for someone who is not accustomed to it. Immigrants with limited language skills may not understand the house regulations, not to mention the countless unwritten rules and customs.
According to Pentikäinen, disputes in the building have arisen on issues such as the rules of the shared laundry facilities, which not all residents have understood. She adds that every building faces largely the same challenges. Noise is the most common reason for complaints.
“That comes from people having different lifestyles and different ways of managing their day-to-day chores. They sometimes fail to consider how their actions might affect the building’s other residents,” Pentikäinen explains.
Misunderstandings are the biggest cause of problems
The participants at the resident event have various personal experiences of multicultural encounters – both good and bad. They mention things such as smoking, scarves and dirty dogs. Some are bothered by representatives of foreign cultures calling them racist when all they want to do is remind them about the common rules that everyone is expected to follow.
“Immigrants come from a wide range of backgrounds and the problems usually don’t stem from culture,” Juvonen explains.
“Someone might be a middle-class cosmopolitan in their own country, while someone else might be an illiterate person who is below the poverty line. For some, it may even come as a surprise that a Finnish parquet floor can’t be cleaned like a stone floor by pouring bucketloads of water on it.
Juvonen also emphasises that there is no such thing as a housing culture that is completely characteristic of a given country.
“There are tremendous differences between countries and the level of understanding varies between individuals.”
Kimpari points out that the newcomers to Koivukylä in the 1970s included native Finns migrating to the city from rural areas who had an equally elementary understanding of life in an apartment building.
“There was a lady who put firewood inside an electric oven and lit a fire. But even that situation was ultimately sorted out,” Kimpari says.
For people with limited language skills, getting used to life in a Finnish apartment building is even more difficult. But these challenges have not gone unaddressed. For example, the property managers of Lumo buildings have access to interpreting assistance when necessary.
“The Finnish Refugee Council and the Finnish Blue Ribbon (in Finnish) among others, also provide information on daily life and housing in Finland in the form of videos and comic strips, which eliminates the language barrier,” Pentikäinen explains.
A good neighbour is worth their weight in gold
In spite of the assistance available, you sometimes need a good neighbour who does not lose their temper when conflicts arise and have the ability to communicate openly.
“We can all think about ourselves and what kind of neighbour we want to be. How would you like others to respond if you were in the same situation? If you were to move to an Arabic-speaking country, how lost would you feel with the culture and rules? Where would you look for information?” Juvonen asks.
One sign of the difficulty of establishing connections is the fact that the residents attending the event are mostly native Finns, even though information about the event was posted in English and Arabic as well. Juvonen emphasises the role of low-threshold events and activities, such as yard parties and volunteer work campaigns, that are easy for everyone to join.
A good example is the volunteer yard work day organised at the building on Sauvatie the weekend following the resident event. The residents had decided to clean the yard after a renovation project that took over a year. As many as 60 volunteers of all ages and backgrounds attended the event to work together on tidying up the yard.
Children are especially good at adapting to new situations. Those who have migrated to Finland at a young age, as well as second-generation immigrants, tend to learn the language more easily and often serve as interpreters for their parents and help them take care of errands and day-to-day affairs. They are also more likely to make friends with the other children in the building.
“What happens quite often is that the children pull the adults in,” Juvonen says.
In Koivukylä, Tuomas Kimpari’s wife Pirkko has led club activities for the apartment house’s children for more than 20 years. Birthdays and children’s parties have been organised in the club room.
“We have quite a unique atmosphere here,” concludes Property Manager Milla-Roosa Pentikäinen.