Being a Refugee in Finland

The last couple of days I’ve been in Seinäjoki, a city about 3 hours’ train trip away from Helsinki. Seinäjoki is the capital of the province of Southern Ostrobothnia, and with a population of 58 000 it’s one of the fastest growing urban centres in Finland. Even if you wouldn’t believe it.

It was my first visit to this town, which seems very small and, sorry to say, ugly. Well, this is nothing “personal” as it happens with most Finnish towns. During the fast urbanization in about 1970s, most of the old pretty houses were torn down and replaced by boring concrete blocks. This destruction is a tragedy for our cultural history.

Anyway, to compensate there is some fine Alvar Aalto architecture. Lakeuden Risti is the symbol of the city.

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The church by Alvar Aalto is the proud of Seinäjoki – with some other building designed by Aalto. Credit: Yle.

It was my first time in Seinäjoki. Sometimes traveling inside your own country is a lot more exotic than going far away. You think you know what you’ll get, but nope: people act different, they speak another dialect etc. Very eye-opening!

Why was I there? At my work we organise events called Markets of Possibilities, which take place around Finland in about 20 cities each year. So we travel to see how they go.

In these events Finnish NGOs tell about their work and offer “exotic” food and program. The aim of is to bring out the multicultural side of Finland and tell the locals what they can do “for a better world”.

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Markets of Possibilites are fun events. Here’s the Choir War in process. Don’t know about the technical quality of the signing, but these ladies were devoted.

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Flashmob by local students. They had also danced in supermarkets etc. Go Seinäjoki!

There, I met there The Refugee Woman of the Year, Malalai Rahim from Afghanistan, as she participated in a panel about refugees’ replacement in Finnish cities. Finland has agreed to receive 750 so called “quota refugees” every year, but the problem is that some municipalities don’t want to have them.

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Malalai Rahim, this amazingly active lady, seems to know everyone in Seinäjoki.

This year, Seinäjoki has promised to receive a group of 20-30 people from Congo, but the neighbouring towns have said “no”. It’s a sad thing, especially as we talk of so small numbers. I think Finland, being a wealthy country, could receive more people. But our country is still very homogenous and people are a bit afraid of “opening the borders”. Even if we’ll definitely need more foreign work force in the future.

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Panel discussion held in Seinäjoki about quota refugees and their replacement. Speakers included a representative of UNHC, vice mayor of Seinäjoki, immigration officer and Malalai Rahim.

Malalai Rahim made a big impression on me. She spoke very good Finnish and her story is amazing. The talebans threatened her life, as she was a woman working as a doctor in Afghanistan, so she had to leave. In Finland, she studied the language and went to the university to get another degree, to be a gynecologist. Now she works in a hospital in Seinäjoki, has 5 children and is actively involved in local politics trying to help newcomers. Me and my colleague, who were just about to complain how tired and stressed we felt, fast shut up.

Malalai made good points about refugees’ integration in Finland. We need to make our social integration program a lot more efficient! It’s not enough to give people a bit of food and money; everyone needs to feel meaningful and get to work, too. Otherwise you stay at home, get isolated with your problems and soon you are not even able to raise your children. I really hope this idea has some impact, coming from the mouth of someone who truly knows what suffering and life as a refugee are about.

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There is already one Congolese family living in Seinäjoki, and in the fall there should be some more quota refugees from Congo arriving. Getting ready for the Finnish winter… Credit: Yle

As a refugee, one should never lose faith and become bitter for what you have to go through. You MUST raise your head and go on. But a little help is needed, and it’s our responsibility to offer it.

Everyone should remember that things can change fast. What if one day we need to leave our country? How would you like to be treated? We have experience about this in Finland, as during The Second World War almost 80 000 children were sent to other Nordic countries as refugees. They were called The Finnish War Children.

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Finnish war Children in Turku. Credit: Wikipedia.

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What is a quota refugee? Within its refugee quota, Finland accepts for resettlement persons defined as refugees by the UNHCR (Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) and others who are in need of international protection. The refugee quota is verified in the state budget for each year.

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