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Red Cross friendship programme connects people

The Finnish Red Cross’ friendship programme matches companions willing to volunteer their time with solitary senior citizens, immigrants and young people in need of support. Northwest Kemi resident and friendship volunteer Saija Rauhala is grateful that she found people she can call friends right away.

Saija Rauhala ja ystäväperheen lapset
Red Cross friendship volunteer Saija Rauhala holds 4-year-old Rami in her lap, while Rami’s sister Ranja looks on. Image: Saija Rauhalan kotialbumi

Saija Rauhala’s four-member family recently moved from the Lapland city of Rovaniemi to Kemi. She laughs when she thinks that her family is in somewhat the same position as her new Iraqi family friends: adjusting to their new surroundings.

Rauhala signed up for a Finnish Red Cross friendship programme course upon moving to Kemi, and before long, she was matched with new acquaintances: an asylum seeker family from Iraq.

“It all transpired quite naturally. Although it was my idea originally, my whole family pretty much jumped on board. The first time I came to meet the family, I was accompanied by a Red Cross worker, but already on my next visit, my entire family came with,” she says.

The asylum seeker reception centre in Kemi says it emphasizes compatibility when it suggests people for the friendship programme. If the chemistry isn’t right, there is no sense in forcing a friendship.

“I was surprised myself how well everything has worked. My friendship family’s little boy ran into my arms the minute the door was open and we’ve been best friends ever since,” explains Rauhala.

New friends and new flavours

Rauhala says her family enjoys spending time with the five-member Iraqi family she was matched with because the children are all roughly the same age.

“Most of the time we come here to their place and spend the evening visiting. We often enjoy a meal that the family has prepared,” she said.

Rauhala says her new friendship has provided her with a better understanding of the flavours of the world, as they have tasted many traditional Arabic and Iraqi dishes during their stay.

“We always leave with full stomachs,” she says.

Irakilaista ruokaa
Image: Saija Rauhalan kotialbumi

Language lessons every time

During their shared meals, the families naturally discuss daily issues, but sometimes they talk about other topics, like cultural differences.

The Iraqi family has requested that their meetings also include a Finnish language element, even though most of their communication takes place in English.

“We have even gone to the grocery store together. We walked from shelf to shelf and I explained what all the products were,” says Rauhala.

There are no rules in the Red Cross friendship programme about how often the new-found friends should meet. The Red Cross website stresses that the most important characteristic for a volunteer is the ability to just listen and be there.

Rauhala says she makes arrangements to meet with the Iraqi family just as she would with any of her other friends.

“The only difference is we end up seeing them more often than we do our other friends.”

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