Peer-support groups and digital workshops for stay-at-home parents

The peer-support groups of the Applying talents project provide Somali- and Arabic-speaking immigrant parents who take care of their children at home with information, guidance and peer support in education and employment in their own language. The groups also practise using digital services in digital workshops. The groups’ instructors provide the participants with personal career and service counselling.

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The groups are led by an Arabic- or Somali-speaking instructor, who invites in experts to talk about weekly themes as necessary. Throughout the Applying talents project, the Arabic groups are instructed by Mariam Bahafid, while the Somali groups are instructed by Hamdi Moalim. The groups’ participants are provided with free-of-charge child care for children under three years of age. In the child care groups, the participants’ children have the opportunity to practise child care situations that will facilitate their transition to early childhood education.

Each group convenes once a week for a period of four to five months. During this period, the project maintains six groups in total, three in each language. The groups’ participants are provided with a digital workshop in both languages once a week.

The peer-support groups’ themes are tailored to each group’s needs: the themes discussed by the groups include local services, housing, civic skills and influencing, child rearing, support for parents and child welfare, working life in Finland, job seeking and employment, and physical activity and health, among other things. Students are also provided with teaching of Finnish as a second language, physical exercise sessions and goal-oriented trips. These have been very popular among the participants, and they attract new participants to the groups. The digital workshops teach the participants how to use services relevant to running everyday errands, such as e-mail, online banking services and the student management system Wilma.

In terms of location, the groups are held in easily accessible areas that are home to many representatives of the target group: Itäkeskus, Vuosaari, Kontula, Myllypuro, Kalasatama, Malmi, Malminkartano, Pitäjänmäki, Pikku-Huopalahti.

Number of group participants

In total, the groups reached more than 300 people. The number of participants in the groups varies a great deal. The marketing efforts launched in the KYKY project are visible in the Somali groups: the message about the groups has already reached the community, the groups are well-known, and they consistently attract participants from period to period.

Attracting participants has been more challenging for the Arabic groups. The service is new, and the Arabic-speaking community of Helsinki is less coherent, as it includes many cultures and nationalities. It has sometimes been necessary to combine Arabic groups due to the small number of participants.

The profiles of the group participants vary greatly, both between and within language groups. The most significant unifying factor is gender: all regular participants of the groups were women. The target group of the Applying talents project includes both Somali- and Arabic-speaking parents who take care of their children at home, supported by child home care allowance, and the long-term unemployed. Most participants have one to ten children.

The great diversity of the target group is reflected by the fact that besides the actual group participants, the group instructors also instructed dozens of people outside the groups. These individuals attended a group a few times or contacted the instructor by phone. They usually needed information about education, employment or a particular service. The great variation in the need for services within the groups was also visible in other ways: in every period, some of the participants only required ‘light’ career counselling, while others had a greater need for personal support and counselling.

Further counselling in the groups

While participating in the groups, the participants clearly set their own employment and participation in Finnish society as their goal. The charts below show the variation between language groups in further counselling. The Finnish proficiency level was lower in the Arabic groups, as further counselling determined that 42% of the participants required Finnish language training. The Somali groups demonstrated a better level of Finnish proficiency, with 15% of the participants being directed to language training. The need for language training is affected by the fact that the participants in the Arabic groups had lived in Finland for a shorter period of time than the participants in the Somali groups.

The better level of Finnish proficiency among the Somali-speakers is also demonstrated by the fact that 14% of them continued on to vocational education, while the corresponding percentage among the Arabic groups was only 2%. On the other hand, the charts show that the level of education was lower in the Somali groups: 12% of the Somali-speaking participants were directed to adult basic education, while the corresponding percentage among the Arabic-speaking participants was 7%.

The most popular lines of vocational training within the Somali groups were practical nurse, the Vocational Qualification in Cleaning and Property Services and the Vocational Qualification in Education and Instruction. Within the Arabic groups, popular lines of training included the Vocational Qualification in Business and Administration and the Further Vocational Qualification in Special Needs Education.

After the end of their peer-support group, 13% of the Somali-speaking participants and 7% of the Arabic-speaking participants took care of their children at home. The challenges in commitment to the group are demonstrated by the fact that 13% of the participants were not reached in the follow-up to the further counselling.

From the perspective of further counselling, the peer-support groups of the Applying talents project were a success. When looking at all groups as a whole, 57% of the participants were guided to language and other training and working life. A follow-up plan was prepared for each participant, regardless of when it would be possible for the participant to implement it – in case the participant intended to take parental leave first, for example.

The participants’ need for training became apparent in further counselling, as 49% of the participants were guided to language or other training. A small number of the groups’ participants (8%) were immediately ready for working life. However, the groups succeeded in strengthening the participants’ capability to continue on to their own path towards working life. The participants’ faith in their employment prospects became stronger. Even if finding employment was not a current issue for some participants, they became more motivated and considered it to be a realistic goal in the future. Additionally, the themes discussed in the groups increased the participants’ understanding of different aspects of Finnish working life, such as the rights and obligations of employees, which will promote their employment in the future.

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Marketing the groups

Some of the most challenging areas in the organisation of the peer-support groups include reaching participants and marketing the groups. Outreach work among the target group is necessary. The Applying talents project produced brochures for the peer-support groups in the target group’s own languages and distributed them in residential areas and ‘ethnic shops’, among other places. Contacts and networks in language communities are an efficient marketing method: many people hear about a group from a friend or acquaintance or come with them to a group.

As part of the marketing efforts for the Applying talents project, the project started holding well-being parties that are also open to the participants’ friends and relatives.

The process of reaching out to participants is very time-consuming. In the Somali-speaking community, the peer-support groups have taken off after four years of work, and new participants are found for the groups quickly. When the activities become established, their ability to reach people improves.

Outcome and conclusions

The peer-support groups piloted in the KYKY project were developed further by organising Arabic-speaking groups. The range of services offered to the peer-support groups was increased by adding need-based and practical digital workshops that instruct the participants in the basic use of computers and mobile phones and introduce them to the most important tools and services that they need in their everyday life.

Through the peer-support groups, the target group received information about services and Finnish society, even if the participants’ integration process was incomplete. The participants in the peer-support groups received information on training and career options, Finnish language courses, parenting in Finland and key public services and services provided by public organisations from the perspective of immigrant parents. The digital workshops improved the participants’ IT skills, and the participants became able to run errands online.

The participants were provided with personal career and service counselling that clarified the clients’ aims and the direction of their studies, mapped their skills and coached them in ways to reach their goals despite their poor Finnish skills and education history.

The peer-support groups reached over 300 participants, of whom 50–70% continued on towards education and working life during the different periods. Overall, 57% of the groups’ participants were guided to education and working life.

Multilingual services are needed

The participants in the Applying talents project’s peer-support groups receive information, support and guidance in their own language. This has been one of the groups’ greatest strengths. Having a common language inspires trust between the participants and the instructors. The threshold for sharing experiences and asking questions to experts is lower when you can do so in your own language. This also prevents misunderstandings and keeps incorrect information from spreading when the participants’ understanding of presentations given by visiting experts does not depend on their Finnish language proficiency.

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Assistance is easy to ask for when everyone speaks a common language. On the other hand, the participants’ dissatisfaction with their own situation or their frustration with society is easily taken out on the instructor in different ways to on the authorities in general. For many people, the group is the only place where they can talk about their experiences and the problems they face, for example, which takes away time and room from the matters intended to be discussed in the groups.

In the Arabic groups, different Arabic dialects also posed challenges, as the participants did not always understand each other’s dialects. In such cases, the instructor had to spend time interpreting between different dialects.

A successful peer-support group is based on trust

Gaining the participants’ trust is the basis of successful group instruction. Having a common language improves trust. After trust has been established, the participants become bolder in telling their stories and asking for help. The trust between the participants and the instructor also allows the participants’ prejudices towards government agencies to be gradually dismantled.

Friendships formed within the groups are another sign of the peer-support groups’ success. Through the groups, the participants have gained a support network formed of friends in a similar situation in life. Friendships provide the participants with resources and courage. Their preparedness to try out new things is higher if they have another person beside them.

In addition to having an instructor who speaks the participants’ language, the feeling of equality within the groups comes from the participants themselves. The participants, who each have a different background, increase each other’s understanding and knowledge of different vocational options and training opportunities.

For many, the path to working life is long – but participating in a peer-support group shortens it

Only a small number (8%) of the groups’ participants were ready to continue directly on to working life after the group. For most of them, the path to working life was still very long. However, the groups provided the participants with important skills for entering working life. At the start of their attendance of a peer-support group, many of the participants had no faith in their employment prospects and considered employment to be something far off in the distance, blocked by many obstacles.

In the groups, the participants learned to contemplate their own interests and strengths and, through them, plan their own path towards education and working life. As the groups progressed, the participants became more independent and bolder in voicing their own opinions. Working life became a part of their future. After the group, many of the participants had a positive outlook on their future and considered their goal of finding employment to be realistic. Their perspective on employment was ‘when I find work’ rather than ‘if I find work’. At the end of the period, almost everyone had made employment their goal and dream. Above all, they also wanted new substance in their lives besides motherhood and household work.

The information gained through the groups further contributes to the participant’s ability to find their own education and career path. Increased awareness of services makes it easier to run everyday errands and opens up room to consider options beyond the home and motherhood. The participants’ awareness of the Finnish service system was poor, even though they had lived in Finland for many years. The participants had not previously had the opportunity to participate in activities that would teach them about services and their rights to services proactively: they would usually look for information only when faced with a problem and even then, they would turn to their spouse or an acquaintance. This is an easy way for incorrect information to spread. Because of a language barrier, information provided directly by government agencies is not easily available to the participants.

Similarly, the skills learned at digital workshops are of utmost importance and strengthen social inclusion by facilitating the running of everyday errands and information seeking.

Need for multidisciplinary support

The needs for services varied greatly among the groups’ participants. Some moved on after single counselling sessions, while others found weekly participation in the group and personal counselling sessions with the instructor to be important.

Early on in the project, it became clear that it was not enough for the groups to only provide career or education counselling, as the participants require extensive social counselling and introduction to Finnish government agencies and the Finnish service system. For example: how can participants be guided to register as an unemployed job seeker if they are unable to understand the TE Office, which provides employment services, as a concept – let alone the obligations related to it?

Some of the clients have a hard time coping, or they may be undergoing an acute crisis in their life. If a participant requires support in coping in their everyday life, their capability to consider a career or education is poor. This demonstrates the scope of the qualities and expertise required of the groups’ instructors. The needs of the participants sometimes exceed the limits of the instructor’s role, which places a burden on the instructors. In the future, it would be important to provide the groups’ participants with an opportunity to receive multidisciplinary support as well as further enhance the cooperation and communication between different services and professionals.

Fathers should also contribute

The empowerment of the participants, their new goals in life and the needs related to these goals in areas such as the division of responsibilities at home often change the dynamics in the participants’ families and homes. These changes sometimes cause tensions between the parents, which may manifest as reluctance to encourage the spouse who participates in the group to pursue their new goals and hopes.

Unfortunately, many of the participants had to try and find a balance between running their home and family life and their educational goals without support. Many participants bore the sole responsibility for their children and taking care of their home. A more balanced division of responsibilities at home and in the family helps mothers access education and employment and ensures that the children have the best conditions for life and better opportunities to become equal members of Finnish society. The services developed to support stay-at-home parents with an immigrant background must not be intended only for mothers – fathers must also be included.

Future outlook of the peer-support groups

The peer-support group activities developed in the KYKY projects will continue at the City of Helsinki Adult Education Centre in autumn 2019. The funding for the activities has been secured with a separate appropriation set by the City Executive Office.

The City of Helsinki Education Division is also committed to supporting the social inclusion of immigrant parents who have been excluded from education and employment by organising peer-support group activities in the long term. Establishing peer-support groups and Finnish Courses for Stay-at-home Parents (KOTIVA courses) as permanent activities is included as a measure in the division’s development plan for the education of immigrants.