Bear next door

Since Russian society began to open upin the 1990s, parents of
children with learning difficulties have foundvaluable assistance
in cross-border projects with Norway, writes Gunn Strand

Since the end of the cold war in the late 1980s contact between
the north of Norway and the north of Russia has increased. People
meet in different contexts. The department of social sciences at
Bodo Regional University where I work has co-operated for a number
of years with Pomor University in the Russian town of Arkhangelsk
in its development of social work education.

Visiting Arkhangelsk, a port on the White Sea with a population of
about 410,000, I was contacted by a mother who had heard that I had
a son with Down’s syndrome and that in my home county of Nordland I
was a member of Norsk forbund for utviklingshemmede (NFU) – an
organisation for people with learning difficulties and their
families. She wanted to get in touch with other parents and start
an organisation, and she wanted contact with a similar organisation
in Norway.

She started working towards these aims in 1995 when she brought
together a number of parents to discuss their situation. The common
experience was that if they were unwilling to send their children
away to an institution they would have to stay at home without the
possibilities of going to kindergarten or school. The same year
they formed an organisation named Zabota which means care in
Russian. The organisation in Arkhangelsk now has 54 families as
members. They have been contacted by families from other parts of
the region and are now trying to build an organisation with local
groups at a regional level.

The cross-border contact remained informal for some years. Last
year NFU Nordland obtained state funding for support in the
building of the organisation in Russia.

Three of the leaders came to Bodo for a week last spring. We shared
information about our organisations and living conditions for
people with learning difficulties and their families, discussed our
cooperation and made plans for the project. They also took part in
the annual meeting of Nordland NFU.

Zabota arranged a conference this September in Arkhangelsk where
families from seven districts took part with representatives from
the county administration, politicians and heads of schools and
kindergartens. The aim was to focus attention on living conditions,
to promote Zabota and to start discussing the further development
of the organisation. I took part with two other representatives
from NFU. It was a great experience to hear the stories and
discussions about strategies. The people who participated will now
be discussing the further development of their organisation in
preparation for a new conference in May where more formal decisions
will be taken about the organisation’s development. This conference
will also have one day devoted to professional themes.

NFU Nordland’s role is to share our experiences of working to
promote the interests of people with learning difficulties and to
make available financial support for arranging conferences and
equipping an office. Incidentally, our support gives Zabota the
status that accrues from participating in an international project.
This is helpful for their relationship with the authorities in
regard to their efforts to improve the living conditions for people
with learning difficulties.

The project is called Odab (Organisational Development Across the
Borders). Zabota is building its organisation from the bottom up.
How the organisation will develop is an open question. It has
already meant a lot to those involved and managed to effect some

Gunn Strand Hutchinson is a representative of NFU and
associate professor, department of social science, Bodo Regional


  • Norway covers 325,000 sq km (slightly more than 1.3 times the
    UK) and has a population of nearly 4.5 m.
  • Norsk forbund for utviklingshemmede is an organisation for
    people with learning difficulties and their families.
  • Established in 1967, it has 7,300 members, including 2,000
    officers, in 19 county and 240 local organisations.
  • In Nordland county a little over 1,000 people are classified as
    having learning difficulties.
  • Of the 45 municipalities in Nordland, 23 have a local branch of
    the NFU.


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