Welcoming Immigrants, Challenging Extremists

Students at Turku School of Economics use social media and face-to-face activities to integrate communities.
Welcoming Immigrants, Challenging Extremists

AS IMMIGRANTS FROM WAR-TORN COUNTRIES cross borders to seek asylum, other nations are struggling to find ways to take them in. For instance, in 2015, Finland-a country with only 5.5 million citizens­ received over 30,000 asylum applicants from places such as Afghanistan and Iraq. What can business schools and their students do to help these refugees feel welcome?

At the Turku School of Economics in Finland, that was only one question on the minds of professors Joni Salminen and Ulla Hakala, who were teaching a strategic brand management class with visiting professor Stuart Roper of the University of Bradford in the U.K. They also asked students to examine other questions: Can ISIS and ISIL be considered brands? If so, what can communities do to prevent those brands from gaining exposure?

They decided to participate in the Facebook Global Digital Challenge, which was dedicated to countering extremism through digital and social media, particularly in young peer-to­-peer groups. The 49 students in the class-who included mostly Finns, as well as some international exchange students-settled on creating a campaign called Choose Your Future, which would be designed to welcome refugees to the Turku area.

Says Hakala, "The year of2015 was, from many perspectives, a 'different' year, because of the huge migration of asylum seekers to Europe. Our idea was to approach them with a welcoming message and help them integrate into our society."

The campaign consisted of multiple parts: a mobile app, a series of events designed to bring residents and immigrants together, and a Facebook page that created more interactions between the two groups. Students were divided into ten teams that each took responsibility for some portion of the tasks, such as generating publicity or administering the whole campaign and making sure deadlines were met.

The app, About Turku, provided information about the city in three languages—English, Arabic, and Somali—with translations done by professionals, who were paid a small fee. The city of Turku helped fund the app.

The students launched their campaign with a one-day event called United by Football. About 40 asylum seekers, local students, and international students formed teams to play friendly soccer games in downtown Turku. While the Choose Your Future group did not organize additional games, some of the participants continued playing together afterward.

Another key event was an international restaurant day called United by Food, where refugees prepared food to be sold to the locals. "Food unites all people, and as the asylum seekers prepared food typical to their cultures, they had a chance-at least for a moment-to feel at home and appreciated," says Hakala. As part of that goal, profits were donated to the Finnish Red Cross to be used for providing leisure activities at the reception areas.

The city of Turku provided a small subsidy to support United by Food, which was held outside on the banks of the Aurajoki River. Students also negotiated with local entrepreneurs to get their support, says Susanna Lahtinen, who was a student in the class. For instance, a restaurant provided space for the cooks to work, a retailer donated kitchen utensils, and a local bus company provided transportation.

Students from the class worked with refugees to organize the entire event, from planning to execution. About 20 asylum seekers did the cooking, and another 200 attended the event, along with about 800 residents. “We were expecting 500 to 700 people, and we were prepared for sharing the remaining food with the organizers,” says Lahtinen. “In fact, we sold out of the food in just a few hours.”

Both activities were heavily promoted through social media, including Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Students used Facebook advertising to reach certain groups, and local media also offered extensive coverage. “We were lucky to attract various asylum seekers to work with us on a voluntary basis, and they translated our posts and materials to Arabic,” says Lahtinen. “We also visited reception centers to describe our campaign to residents, and they helped share our message.”

Once the campaign ended, students conducted an online survey to learn how the Finnish people felt about the refugee situation. Eighty-eight percent of respondents felt more should be done to help asylum seekers integrate into society; 67 percent were relatively or very interested in organizing events for immigrants; and 58 percent felt that an initiative such as Choose Your Future could help change negative assumptions about refugees.

The campaign has had an impact in other ways as well. It won first prize in the International Facebook Global Digital Challenge competition in February 2016. In addition, six students from the class, including Lahtinen, have turned the initial campaign into a company also called Choose Your Future.

"We expanded our target market from asylum seekers to anyone who is integrating into a new society-refugees, students, ex-pats, and domestic and international migrants," says Lahtinen, who is CEO. The app, renamed My Mobile Mentor, has been redesigned and now allows users to create and find
events, as well as send messages.

The project offered students the opportunity to make a difference in the current crisis by changing public opinion about refugees, says Hakala, and the professors hope to do similar initiatives in future iterations of the class. “Our example,” she adds, “shows that doing good can do good for you and other people.”

A video about United by Food is available at www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qx9oe3mxNNk.

For more information about the company, visit chooseyourfuture.fi.