Roma people as a target group in the brain health promotion project ETNIMU in Finland

By Siiri Jaakson, Finland.

The Society for Memory Disorders Expertise in Finland has run a project called ETNIMU since 2015. The aim of the project has been to promote the brain health of the elderly from different ethnic backgrounds in Finland. Besides the Roma people, the target groups were chosen to be the Russian, Estonian and Somali speakers.

The total number of the Roma people in Finland is about 10 000 – 15 000. The Roma people are Christians and very religious. Still, for long the Roma people were not welcomed to the Finnish Christian communities, not until 1975. Moreover, the government has been discriminating the minority in the history. Before 1975 the Roma people were not allowed to get an apartment from the state. They lived mobile life “on wheels”. Because of their homelessness, they could not get health care services or participate in schooling. That is why most of the nonworking elderly Roma people remain poorly educated, they have only basic education, if any. About 60% of the elderly Roma people are illiterate. The fact that they don’t have education causes shame in the society and has led to marginalization.

The Roma people in ETNIMU project

There were approximately 20 Roma people participating in our project, and the average age was 80-90 years. The group members had many different diseases and many of them had memory problems. Their physical health was also poor and they were not used to visit a doctor. Furthermore, the traditional dresses of the Roma women affect their health. These dresses were influenced by the old Finnish peasant clothes, and velvet was chosen as the material because of Finnish cold climate. Therefore, the dresses are heavy and they have left traces on women’s hips and internal organs. The Roma women have also used high heels all their life, which has caused damage. However, the skirts are a big part of the identity for the Roma women in Finland.

The Roma culture and its place in the Finnish society

In general, the Finnish Roma people are very proud of their background. The elderly are, nevertheless, concerned about the future of their culture, as they are afraid that their language may disappear. They also have the experience that the young do not respect the traditions anymore.

Even today the Roma background connects to a stigma and negative impression in the Finnish society. The Roma participants of the ETNIMU project told that the original population of the Finns tend to talk behind their backs, which appeared insulting for them. Regarding the terminology and speech, the group instructors clarified that there is no difference if we refer to the ‘Roma people’ or ‘gipsy people’, but the tone of the voice is what matters. In other words, the way we talk about and to this minority is what should be considered. Like all people, the Roma people need someone who listens to them and takes their needs into account.

Cultural challenges in ETNIMU project

Proper understanding of culture is crucial in the work with ethnic minorities. Luckily, in our project we got help and background information from the Finnish Romani Association. Still, despite this we encountered several challenges relating to the cultural differences. For example, in the beginning we were not allowed to take photos in our activities. It took time to achieve the group’s trust, which later enabled the photographing. Secondly, the type of drawings we could use in our materials had to be considered carefully. Originally the project brochure included a picture, in which a Roma couple was holding hands. We got feedback from the group that it was improper, and therefore, we replaced the photo. Also, a drawing of a small girl playing with sand on the beach had to be replaced. Sexuality and a child’s naked body were told to be taboos in the Roma culture. In general, the talk about human body includes several unwritten rules in the community. It is insulting for the Roma people to refer to the body parts remaining below the neck. It is possible to talk about these things, but only on a one-on-one basis and with a person who does not belong to their ethnic group.

In addition, the Roma people respect their elderly to a great extent. This caused challenges in our group activities as the oldest participant played a role of a great authority. The others were quiet and nervous because of her presence. The youngest group members expressed their shame by avoiding eye contact. Furthermore, it became clear in our project that this Roma group did not accept things dictated from above. The message would have not got fully across, if we had not succeeded in creating real interest.

Conclusions about the culturally sensitive work in ETNIMU project

From the beginning, cultural sensitivity was a cornerstone of our work in the project. By ‘doing together’ we slowly increased the trust between the group and the ETNIMU staff. By asking silly questions and being open-minded we succeeded in this. For example, as a great sign of trust the Roma women showed their ankles while playing with balloons during our activities, although this is usually forbidden. Unfortunately, this connection can be easily broken – one small external change in the group or wrong sentence could cut this connection very quickly. Still at the end, our poor knowledge was forgiven, which has encouraged us to try even more new things.

Hereby, we can say that despite the challenges we have got good results. Of course, we have made mistakes and broken the cultural codes of conduct, as it is impossible to know the customs from the outside. However, by respecting the different habits we have learned a lot about the Roma culture in Finland.

Siiri Jaakson Project manager of the ETNIMU project

The Society for Memory Disorders Expertise in Finland