Hirundo Mobile brings services to Europe’s traveller population in Helsinki


The Hirundo Mobile vehicle of the Deaconess Foundation brings services to where there are people in need. Three days a week, the car travels throughout Helsinki, providing advice, food, hot drinks and confidential discussions.

Punatakkinen nainen seisoo auton vieressä. Hän keskustelee miehen kanssa.

“I’m happy that Hirundo Mobile comes here and that Bobie is helping us. He explains things I don’t understand because I don’t speak Finnish,” says Dochka, a member of the Bulgarian Roma minority.

Borislav Borisov packs thermos flasks into a camper van in the backyard of the Hirundo day centre in the Helsinki district of Vallila. One flask holds coffee, two others hold hot water for making tea and instant noodles.

On the side of the car is the motto of the Deaconess Foundation: ‘Boldly working for human dignity’.

Known as Hirundo Mobile, the camper van takes its name from the Hirundo day centre, which provides advice, support and dignity-affirming encounters for members of Europe’s traveller population. The van takes these same services to the places where Hirundo’s clients are to be found earning their living.

On Mondays, Borisov drives to Kamppi in the city centre, on Wednesdays to the eastern suburb of Itäkeskus and on Fridays to the Helsinki Railway Square.

“We serve a hot meal every day at Hirundo in Vallila, where you can also warm up and meet other people. But it’s difficult to get to Vallila from, say, the city centre if you have to make a living by begging or selling the Big Issue. Then you don’t have extra money for a tram ticket,” says Borisov.

“At Hirundo Mobile you can have a coffee, noodles and talk to us in confidence. For example, we help people look for plane tickets to their home country, check social security decisions and help them find work, which is difficult for travellers because of the language barrier. Their situation in Finland is really difficult.”

A mobile office where you can get things done

Today is Monday, so Borisov drives Hirundo Mobile to Narinkka Square in Kamppi. Turning from Mannerheimintie to Salomonkatu, he sees a familiar face at the foot of a traffic sign, one of the clients of the emergency shelter attached to Hirundo.

“Come for at a coffee at Narinkkatori!” Borisov calls out of the camper window. The client smiles back at him and waves.

After parking the camper, Borisov sets out the thermos flasks, tea bags and paper mugs, switches  the seats of the driver and co-driver around and opens his laptop on a small table.

“Now this is an office where you can come to talk and do business,” he says.

“If we need, we can make another office in the back of the van. It’s needed in summer, when there are some 200-300 travellers in Finland. Now, during winter, there are about 40 of them here.”

Teekuppi, johon laitetaan sokeria.

Hirundo Mobile provides hot drinks for travellers who spend their days outdoors.

A morning’s earnings: two euros

A familiar figure approaches the car: Dochka, who knows Borisov well, has decided to take a short break and drop by to catch up. Borisov, known to friends as Bobie, pours her a cup of tea.

“I’m happy that Hirundo Mobile comes here and that Bobie is helping us. He explains things I don’t understand because I don’t speak Finnish. Bobie has a good heart,” says Dochka.
Dochka is originally from Varna, Bulgaria, from where she first came to Finland ten years ago. She has now spent two months in the country, earning her living by begging and collecting bottles. After warming her hands on the side of a teacup, Dochka takes a couple of euros worth of coins from her pocket.

“Here’s my earnings for this morning, and I’ve also found these,” Dochka says, pulling out an empty bottle and a soda can from her bag.
“This is what I rely on to survive.”

Helping to clear up misunderstandings

Dochka is grateful to be able to sleep in an emergency shelter and meet other people in similar situations. But her days are spent in the city centre, where she has the best chance of getting money from passers-by.

“Of course it’s a difficult life, and I don’t always have enough money for food. But here I am better off than in my country, where we Roma are a discriminated minority. There, I had no chance of getting a job and earning a living. Finns are good people, because most of them want to help us.”

After finishing her  tea, Dochka thanks Borisov and heads for the Kamppi shopping centre.

Mies seisoo pakettiiautossa ja kaataa kahvia kuppiin.

Borislav Borisov had the idea for Hirundo Mobile five years ago, and since autumn 2022, the camper has been taking services to the traveller population throughout Helsinki.

“There have sometimes been situations in that shopping centre where misunderstandings have arisen between the security guards and our clients. When we go there from the van and help with the language, things usually work out,” says Borisov, who speaks eight languages, including Bulgarian and Romanian.

Confidential conversations in an private setting

Borisov got the idea for Hirundo’s mobile unit five years ago. In autumn 2022, the idea became a reality and Hirundo Mobile appeared on the streets of Helsinki.

“Although the service is initially aimed for European traveller folk, I think of Hirundo Mobile as a ‘diagnosis-free’ space. I don’t ask about background or country of origin, but offer hot drink if someone comes asking for one.”

Also today, a homeless man of Finnish background, who is staying in the emergency shelter linked to the Hirundo, stops by for coffee and to say hi to Borisov.

“I’ve noticed that Hirundo Mobile is a really important service for Roma people, as Bobie helps them to overcome the language barrier. It’s also a place where you can talk about your own things in peace and quiet. There are always a lot of people around.”

Borisov says that the intimacy of the space is one of the most important features of the car. It’s easier for clients to talk about personal and sensitive issues in the car than in the office at Hirundo. And Borisov always listens.

“This kind of service should be extended to a much wider clientele, to anyone who needs help. Everyone should be listened to and treated as themselves in the same way as in Hirundo Mobile,” says the Finnish man, before continuing on his way.

Again Borisov sees a familiar face approaching the camper.

“Here comes a client, who has a very difficult life situation.”

Borisov greets the client in a friendly manner, lets him into the camper and closes the door. They are now in a quiet, confidential space in the midst of the bustle of the city.

Text Anu Räsänen
Photos Samuli Skantsi
Translation Mark Waller

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