Sunday, 11 October 2015

Why I Love the Refugee Hospitality Club

There is a Facebook group, Helsinki based, that I’ve been a member of for a number of years. It formed when a couple of central Helsinki neighbourhoods were about to receive refugee reception centres (meaning that the asylum seekers live there too), and the expected NIMBY reaction ensued. The YIMBY counter reaction in turn meant that people began to do spontaneous things for and with the new residents. Pauliina Seppälä was one of the founders of the Facebook group and started it because she noticed asylum seeker kids on the football ground wanting to play. She got her son and other neighbourhood kids to play with them - the whole idea of the group was to initiate similar small actions that were kind and engaging. Some did art projects or film showings. Several of us started to collect clothing for the folks there as needed, especially as the weather changed. It was completely low key, contingent, peer-to-peer. Pauliina and others (sorry, I don’t know everyone’s names but they are no less competent and sensitive) were and are amazingly proficient at letting this action go while gently steering or prodding or nudging action where and when it is deemed useful. She later went on to found the crowdfunding cultural platform Mesenaatti with Tanja Jänicke. (And I in turn have funded a couple of things there.) 

A couple of years ago I was with some expat friends, mainly mothers, and the topic turned to volunteerism. One friend wanted to start volunteering with her pre-teen daughter to stimulate thoughts of societal responsibility and open up her world a little more. She was asking for advice. Some of the women were active in organized charities that were helping families in need, for example, families with very sick children. I think I brought up the example of another friend I knew who was visiting the refugee centres with the Red Cross and performing some needed tasks. That made me think of the Refugee Hospitality Club, which I brought up enthusiastically. It didn’t really get taken up though, by the women… too complicated, maybe, too time-consuming to start creating your own volunteer programme. 

Later I came to think of this conversation when I was watching some mindless American TV show where some character was volunteering in a soup kitchen. It started to really bother me, this nice, neat packaging, and branding, of altruism. It is something I see as *very* American - not European really at all. (Well, unless perhaps by the upper middle class in Europe.) Well-meaning, of course, yes, and generative of positive impacts too, surely, but doesn’t much of this volunteer packaging just legitimize the inequality that leads to the need for volunteerism in the first place? If my friend and her daughter go and do their regular Tuesday night volunteering, they can assuage their middle class guilt, go on and live in their middle class bubble the rest of the week, never truly engage with the problem as it is - nor truly with the people that remain behind the label of ‘needy’. What if, instead, they would put their heads together, maybe with a few of the daughter’s friends, and come up with a couple of fun events at the reception centre? A baking session with all the women, or a sewing circle? Maybe they would need to enlist the help of a translator, maybe not. The activities could be the same over time - or they could redesign their interventions every time, and the planning of them would entail part of the work. I would find that much more ‘authentic’ and fulfilling - even while I do very much recognize the extra time this may take and that we are *all* very time pressed, especially working mothers with school children.

At least I see design students jumping into this kind of activity with ease and enthusiasm - and rarely with hesitation. They grab a mentor when needed to ensure some responsibility and governance; sometimes they get study credits for their interventions - sometimes they just do it for the experience. It’s a pity we have compartmentalized our lives so strictly that everything we do needs to be branded, commodified, packaged for easy comprehension and easy use, every layer of which removes us from the experience itself - the meaning of what we are doing. 

The p2p world is not easy access. The thresholds are not necessarily low even while the door is always unlocked by default. Some of the grassroots cultural organizations in Helsinki stage very interesting events and festivals - and they are usually run in a rather organic way. Seminars are always Bar Camp or Unconference style; festivals are built up in etherpads by many individuals contributing in many different ways. It sometimes makes attending challenging. When should I show up? And where?? I even tried to invite some of the suburban mothers to some of these events - which went over like a lead balloon, as I knew it would.

Earlier this year, the water that had been simmering in the pot for so very long finally boiled over and thousands and thousands of people began to show up on European shores (if they were lucky) in boats and rafts. I have trouble imagining the numbers or how authorities are managing to cope further south. Hundreds have made their way this far north, many entering through Lapland, something I find simply astounding. Temporary reception centres have been popping up all over the city; the Refugee Hospitality Club more than doubled its members in just a couple of weeks. I was following it sometimes in the evenings - people posting the wish to help, others posting the needs for clothing in a certain centre, yet another announcing the training times for volunteers. RHC noticeably stuck to their idea of doing small measures like playing football with the kids, but the moderators were busy grouping posts and sorting information (difficult to do on a Facebook timeline) to make it easy for people to find what they needed. To me, Pauliina and her colleagues really showed their skills as they gently guided this p2p outpouring of support, moderating the group, keeping all members’ focus on what RHC was and what it wasn’t, and directing people to the right channels for action. 

It became apparent that p2p was not the thing to do first now. Reception centres became clear about what they needed and from whom, and the Red Cross became the best route for people who wanted to do *something*. It didn’t become packaged per se, but the sheer numbers of migrants (and the need to protect traumatized people from mobs of well-meaning Finns) just necessitated some top-down action. It has been extremely interesting even while distressing to think we have come to this. 

As soon as RHC started to heat up and the group’s membership began to explode, I began to fear that this enthusiasm would be too short lived. An outpouring of support and then, as soon as the culture shock really begins to kick in, the winter sets in, the limbo of the asylum seekers’ situation stretches into an increasingly uncertain future… the supporters are no longer there. They have returned to their middle class warm homes and well clothed and well educated children. I think, in fact, that *that* is when we will see the strength of grassroots initiatives like RHC: the people who have been there for a while are still there. When the masses have disappeared, the small initiatives and tiny acts of kindness can begin again - maintaining a sense of continuity and enduring support and recognition of the incomers’ plight. Discussions are still going on; clothes are still being collected especially as the temps have dropped to below zero. People from the reception centres themselves have actually found the group and have posted notes of hello, wanting to make friends. It is heart warming. 

I guess I have lived in welfare states for too long to ever be a libertarian or a true anarchist. P2P movements and the ‘social services’ they provide should never allow governments to corrode their basic responsibilities to citizens, in my view. But as we seem to be drifting into some bizarre jobless future, where we will have to design our own lives and jobs afresh as often as needed, the need for skills in social networking appears inevitable - and directly related to sustainability. As crisis replaces stability, only p2p movements will be able to move quickly enough to respond. This will be the unpackaged, unbranded, de-commodified, pre-designed life. Are you ready?

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