Through my lens: a warm Finnish welcome

Photographer Ilvy Njiokiktjien describes what it was like to capture images of refugees in a Finnish sauna

I was covering a story at a refugee centre in Helsinki, waiting for a journalist colleague, when I saw a group of Iraqi and Syrian men carrying towels. They told me they were going to a traditional Finnish sauna. Jokingly, they invited me to join them. They looked rather surprised when I answered: “Yes, please!”

Unlike the almost naked men, I was still wearing all my outdoor gear. Sweating in my heavy winter layers, I started shooting. It was interesting to see how the group brought their own traditions to the experience. They laughed and sang throughout, and even added in a traditional washing ceremony – Turkish hammam-style.

Afterwards, I found out that the sauna owner lets refugees use his facilities free of charge. “I’m happy they can experience the brotherhood and friendship that is created during a sauna ritual,” he told me.

HELSINKI, FINLAND: Iraqi refugees enjoy the warmth at Sauna Arla, a traditional Finnish sauna. The refugees stay in the reception centre at Kaarlenkatu, Helsinki, which is close to the sauna. The owner of the sauna, Kimmo Helisto, lets the refugees take showers and use the sauna facilities for free. It is organised by The Red Cross. Finland has been welcoming refugees for several years. In recent months rules have become more strict, because of the influx of refugees entering the country.

Ilvy Njiokiktjien is a documentary photographer based in the Netherlands whose work has won numerous prizes, including a World Press Photo award.