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International ski school offers free lessons to immigrant children

The International Cross Country Ski School is a volunteer collective whose goal is to help children new to Finland integrate better into Finnish society through sports and shared experiences. The lessons are free of charge.

hiihtokoululaisia paloheinässä
Slicks and slides: Axa Sorjanen teaches children in Paloheinä. Image: Jouni Immonen / Yle

Eight-year-old Fahmo from Somalia put on ski boots for the first time a year ago. She was hesitant when she started out on the ski track, but she soon discovered a fondness for one of Finland's national pastimes at her International Cross Country Ski School of Finland lessons.

Now Fahmo is not merely undaunted, but positively beams at the prospect of gliding down slopes and playing ski-tag with her fellow students. Cross-country skiing, she says, is now her favourite sport.

"It's fun to fall down, because I always get up again," the young skier says.

Daunting winter wonderland

Founded in September 2015, the ski school started operations by taking 14 children out skiing 25 times around the greater Helsinki area. Participants were provided with state of the art equipment and taken on 2 ski retreats in Häme and Lapland.

A majority of the young participants in the skiing lessons had only been in the country for a year or two. The aim was to help children from abroad integrate in Finnish society. Not only do they pick up a new and quintessentially Nordic sport, but they also acquire the Finnish language, new friends and experiences of success.

Next year the school means to bring Finnish youth into the fold, especially those at risk of social exclusion and alienation. But the skiers decided to begin with the demographic who are most likely to find the frigid northern winter season a completely foreign concept.

"Winter might feel scary to people who haven't experienced the season this far north," says executive director Axa Sorjanen. "But I believe that anyone can learn to cope with and even befriend the ice and snow."

What's more, the instruction is completely free of charge and supported by donations and volunteers. For example, former Olympian skiers Aino-Kaisa Saarinen, Marjo Matikainen-Kalltröm and Martti Jylhä have been active in the programme.

Fahmo's initial trepidation, too, was finally dispelled when a world-class skier visited the International Cross Country Ski School – and helped her start out on a track that she has since come to love.

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