View Post

Bringing out the asylum applications

In News by Anna Gustafsson0 Comments

2 minutes and 52 seconds. That is how long it took Deacon Anne Immonen to read one rejected asylum application in Kamppi chapel in the center of Helsinki. In the letter to the applicant, the Finnish Immigration Service admits that the applicant has every reasons to think his life is in danger in his homeland Afghanistan. But in a few minutes his destiny is sealed and according to the letter he has to face either returning back home or applying for shelter somewhere else.

In churches around Finland rejected asylum applications are being read aloud since last week. In the Kamppi chapel rejection letters are read by Deacon Anne Immonen and Priest Nanna Helaakoski.  The read-aloud started along with preparations for the Christian holiday of Easter.

Vicar Stefan Forsén from the Matteus parish emphasizes that reading aloud the rejection letters is not a demonstration against the civil servants in charge of writing them.

“As I read the asylum application decisions, I consider that the person who has written them also had great empathy towards the applicant. I shouldn’t think they have anything against asylum seekers. It is written that all the criteria to grant asylum is being met but still a residence permit cannot be given. That is because of a political decision behind the process”, says Vicar Stefan Forsén.

The church updated its refugee protection policy last autumn. According to the church policy church offers aid and assistance to asylum seekers without legal status and all others in vulnerable position, asking for help.

Coordinator of multicultural work at the Johannes parish Carre Lönnqvist thinks it is important that the church is taking a stance to support those vulnerable.

“I think it is vital that we are reminded of the absurd and unjust situation, where someone is forced to return to a place and conditions where they have just fled from”, Carre Lönnqvist says.

“It is like an open wound in our society, when many asylum seekers are being rejected”, Vicar Stefan Forsén says. “Standing behind our elected politicians it is also every one of us that admits the asylum seekers have every right to feel threatened in their own countries, but still that is not enough to grant them with shelter.”

Editor: Anna Gustafsson

View Post

It takes patience to make a difference – and passion

In News, politics by Anna Gustafsson0 Comments

Municipal elections are held in Finland this coming Sunday. Along with all Finnish citizens over the age of 18, citizens of other countries who have had residence in Finland for at least two years also have the right to vote. More information concerning voting in Finland can be found here:

We met two young candidates who are standing to be elected.

Fatim Diarra, 30 is born in Helsinki. She has worked as a teacher, and is currently studying at the University of Helsinki. Fatim has been active not only in the party politics, but also in NGOs and organizing campaigns for example to help refugees.

Tarik Ahsanullah, 24 is studying law at the University of Helsinki. Tarik is born in Turku, but moved to Helsinki to study. He has been active in student politics and wants with his campaign inspire other young people to take part in making a change in the society.

What made you want to go in to politics?

Fatim: I joined the party in my late teens. I was taking part in a student exchange program in Canada and I saw how some of my friends, who came from impoverished backgrounds, couldn’t even dream of going to university. I wanted to make sure that we would never happen in Finland. I was active in the union of upper secondary school students and in the scouts and experienced that I really could make a difference and change things. That experienced has carried me this far.

Tarik: I joined the party in the spring before taking my final exams from Senior High School. In the University I was first very active in my faculty association, but soon also started to be active in student politics. I have become more and more ambitious as I have gone along and last summer I started to think about municipality elections.

Do you come from a political family?

Fatim: I come from a politically very active family. There has always been lively discussions on politics in our home and there have been people with different views and political stands around the table. Just having an opinion was never enough, you also needed to be able to argument well.

Tarik: Also in my family background there are politically active members, but we did not talk politics at home. I was more inspired by school, as civics was my favorite subject.

There has been lot of talk about young people not voting. At the municipal elections four years ago, only one in three young people voted. How could we get more young people interested in politics?

Tarik: I think school holds the key here. They have shun away from politics in schools, but I think they should be more open to political parties. I have during my campaign met a lot of young people, and many of them just don’t have even the basic knowledge about municipal elections and their right to vote.

Fatim: There should be more lessons about democracy in schools. Democracy is not something that is taken out of the cupboard during elections, but it is our way of life. I would also argue, that if we want to get young people to vote, we need to take voting where they are. If the voting is only made available in some post offices, where older generations are used to go, it is like hiding the voting from young people. Voting should be made more available to young people, and not just think that things have been ok so why change.

Tarik: I would also say, that at least in the municipal elections the age limit to vote could be lowered. If we think of 15 year olds for example they already have many rights and responsibilities, like criminal liability and right to labor contract. Why would they not be ready to decide about things that concern their life very closely, like school and living?

The candidates and parties have turned more and more to social media when it comes to advertising, is that good way to reach young people?

Tarik: It is hard to say whether young people are really reached this way. In many cases social media is full of bubbles. For example my Facebook feed has been full of information on elections for months already, but this is not the case for all young people. Besides, social media is constantly overflowing with pictures and stories, even if there is an advertisement or two in the newsfeed, it is alone not enough to make young person get up and go find voting place on a Sunday.

Fatim: I have also been thinking whether social media really reaches young people. Social media alone is not enough to make them participate. The whole system should be made more accessible.

Helsinki is a great city, but even here there is segregation, some areas are doing better than others. What could be done to avoid inequality?

Tarik: We have to admit there is a problem and try to fix it more actively. Private and rented apartments should be spread more evenly through the city. There should be a variety of people in each area. It should also be possible, that same building could have private residences and tenements.

Fatim: Some areas have a better reputation than others. Those areas that are worse off could be revamped to make them more livable. There should be more public services available and make people feel safer.

Immigrants and EU-citizens residing here have not been too keen to vote, even if they have the right to do so. Only one in five people with immigrant background voted in the last municipal elections. What could we do?

Fatim: Political parties should be more active in recruiting those persons that are active within the immigrant communities to take part. If we only take interest in them when there is an election coming that is just a gimmick. Politics should be more open. When people see how it works, taking part becomes easier.

Tarik: I think it has a lot to do with integrating in the society. The more successful social integration is, more likely you are to vote. Information about Finnish society should be made available for newcomers more readily.

Are you sometimes frustrated by politics?

Fatim: Yes, sometimes. Just last night I was so frustrated, as I was following this discussion thread online. When I have reached my limit, I might be very vocal about it, but after a while I just make up a plan for a way forward. You cannot give up.

Tarik: I have to say I have not been frustrated yet, and I can’t afford to be, if I want to get something done. Of course you might be disappointed if things don’t go as planned. But you have to be very motivated to look ahead and be ready to compromise from time to time.

Lately in Finland, the culture of public argumentation has changed. Even extreme opinions are said aloud. What are your thoughts on that?

Fatim: If discussion reaches an area where basic human rights are violated, or if I see that the person is not sharing my view of humanity, I find it hard to accept. I do not tolerate any kind of racism or discrimination.

Tarik: Many people have said that for example the television panel where young party leaders where presented was much more civilized. Young people can show example in this. I think in student politics the culture of argumentation is very good, we think that the issues might clash, not the people. In youth politics, there can be friendships and relationships across party lines.

What have been your finest moments in politics so far?

Fatim: United Nations Security Council adopted a resolution called Young people, peace and security 2030. The draft for the resolution was made in Finland in 2008, and after hard work it was pulled through. Another achievement is having young people now part of making climate decisions. Having been part of making these great changes is pretty awesome.

Tarik: After something big is decided, it feels good, but I think in politics best moments are those little achievements, and there are surprisingly many of those. For example if a committee has started and opinions couldn’t be further away from each other, but after having a few meetings, we can reach an agreement even without voting. Those moments restore my faith in politics.

Editor: Anna Gustafsson







View Post

”I want to share my story – this road is not worth it”

In News, police, prison by Anna Gustafsson0 Comments

Stony floor is lined with six green metal doors. It is early noon and the doors are open. On the second last door a handwritten note kindly asks visitors to remove their shoes. The room belongs to 20 year old Dimitri Hagert, who likes to keep it tidy. Cell is simply decorated with just a metal bunk bed, tiny table and a chair. Dimitri has covered the window with a yellow cloth, so that the daylight coming in seems hazy. Crammed room is half dark even during the day. There is a much used playstation and few games on the table.

I am visiting Dimitri in the Vantaa prison, which has a section for young offenders, who are under 21. In this section of the prison, along with the narrow corridor, there is a small kitchenette, few benches and a table. There are no other furniture. One of the walls is a floor to ceiling mirror, behind it a room where two guards are keeping an eye on this section of the prison and the one next to it.

The air is thick with cigarette smoke. One of the boys is crouched to swipe the floor. Others are talking, kind of hanging out or shouting comments over the metal grill wall, behind it is another section for adult prisoners. Some of them lean to the wall to comment back.

There is space for 12 young offenders, but at the moment there are eight inmates. Youngest are only 16 years old. Dimitri has been here already eight months and has nine more left. First time offenders serve one third of their punishment inside.

“In the beginning it was difficult, I was constantly thinking how long the sentence is”, Dimitri says. “It is better not think about it too much, if you start thinking, of course it feels long. In prison, you are so edgy all the time anyway.”

Days going by slowly

Cell doors are opened in the morning bit past seven. Dimitri is usually already awake by then. Breakfast comes on a trolley, brought by an adult prisoner from another section. Dimitri has no habit of eating breakfast, but when others are still sleeping, he might clean up in the kitchen or collect rubbish. Other inmates don’t mind untidiness, but Dimitri does not like it.

“Others have different standards when it comes to cleanliness. I find it hard here.”

Instead of breakfast, Dimitri usually has some coffee, listens to music from the tv and has a smoke. There is an opportunity to go outside for an hour every day, but he does not necessarily have the desire to go out. As having a walk outside is voluntary, some inmates might spend months inside. Dimitri might play with playstation for hours an end. A game called Godfather or car games are his favorites. Sports and the gym are available in the prison once a week.

The cell doors are closed already half past four in the afternoon. Many reserve something to eat inside their rooms, otherwise the evening is long. The canteen, where inmates can buy groceries, is open once a week. Today the prison lunch consisted of beans and chicken stew, but Dimitri did not feel like having it. He often cooks something by himself, like pasta and readymade meatballs, sausage, canned meat or tuna. The selection available in the canteen is not too wide.

Taking responsibility

Dimitri works couple of times a week in the prison library, which offers some variation to his days. He covers the books with plastic and shelves them. Loaned books and returns are written on a list, the information then transferred to computer. Dimitri is paid 90 cents per hour for his work. The prisoners know each other usually by surname or by prisoner number, which is marked on the borrowing list. I notice favorites seem to be detective stories and fact books.

Dimitri is a reader himself. He started reading more during his stay in a supported school where he lived and studied from fifth grade until half way ninth grade. Before supported school, his school success wasn’t great.

“Elementary school was not a big success for me. I just did not feel like going there. I wanted to be in so many other places. I rather not comment too much what I did instead of school but I can say that all of it I should not have done. If I had skipped them, I maybe would not be sitting here.”

After difficulties, Dimitri managed to finish school with good grades and even begin senior high school. Dimitri was a quick learner, he finished the assignments in half the time. Rest of the class was spent wishing the clock would run faster. Those teachers that understood how difficult it was for Dimitri to stay still after finishing work, let him go out after the work was done.

In the end his school went so well, that it would have been smooth sailing to graduate from senior high school. But Dimitri’s life turned the other way.

”My dream is to help others”

The prison library is small, but the shelves are stacked with lots of books. One wall is covered in thick law books, they are needed, as many prisoners have court processes going on. Waiting to be shelved is a stack of soft cover books, even love stories seem to have their fans here. Dimitri shows me a room where there are books in languages like Russian and Estonian.

Dimitri has done well working in the library, so well in fact that he has gotten lot of praise from his meticulousness and sense of responsibility from both guards and prison counselors. This Spring Dimitri has also applied to study, his dream is to work with young people as a youth worker. He has already previous experience working as a peer support in a youth house.

“I can share my story with others, and make them understand they have a choice, they can themselves decide if they want to end up where I am now. For a young person, it is easier to listen to someone who has been through the same experience, not just someone who says don’t do this or that.”

Once outside, a new beginning

Dimitri says he understand how all young people go through a phase where they want to show what they can do. He himself had heard so many stories of prison, at one point he even wanted to experience himself what it was like.

“But why I am here today, I did not want to do what I did, but in that situation it was inevitable”, Dimitri says in a quiet voice. “It was not all up to me that time. Well, now I have seen what it is like in here, and it is not a nice place.”

After a long sentence Dimitri must start a new life once he gets out. Helping him is a big family: six brothers and two sisters. Dimitri is the oldest, so his word counts. He admits keeping in touch with siblings is not easy from prison.

As well as dreams of studying, Dimitri’s dreams are small: own house and maybe a horse or two.

“I am not coming back to prison. That I do not want. I try my best not to end up here again. It is all up to me, no-one can help me with that. I am confident about the future, but let’s face it, I can’t know for sure what will happen in the future.”

Editor: Anna Gustafsson

View Post

Hate crime sends a strong message

In hate crime, hatespeech, internet, News, police, racism by Anna Gustafsson0 Comments

“Hate crime hurts the victim more than other forms of crime, as it hits against the very core of the person’s sense of self and identity.”

So describes hate crime professor Jon Garland, head of the Department of Sociology at the University of Surrey. Researcher Jon Garland focuses on hate crime from the victim’s perspective. Professor Garland says hate crime is committed to make a clear difference between “us” and those that are “different”. The victims are chosen because of their identity in the eyes of the perpetrator.

Usually the group that represents difference from the perpetrators point of view is already marginalized in the society. Hate crime aims to maintain the cultural status or benefits that the perpetrator represents, says professor Garland.

Hate crime can also be done to send a message: you and others like you are not welcome here.

Who are the perpetrators?

Professor Jon Garland says that hate crime shakes the victim’s fundamental sense of safety and even destroys it for a period of time.

Researcher Jon Garland emphasizes that even if we commonly think that the perpetrators of hate crime are usually an organized group, actually they can be anyone. At the monet Garland is worried about the crime targeting migrants across Europe. He says one of the reasons for the increase in this type of crime is the rise of populist parties, which have brought racism from the marginal to the mainstream.

On the other hand on EU-level action has been taken to tackle hate crime and hate speech. The commission has set a European Union High Level Group on combating racism, xenophobia and other forms of intolerance and to look into hate crime punishments across EU.

Who are the victims?

Victims of hate crime often have a history of being marginalized based on their ethnicity, religion or sexual orientation. There are also victim groups officially recognized by the law. For example in Finland hate crime gives grounds for a harsher punishment.

Hate crime definition is how ever not simple. Law does not unambiguously recognize all groups, for example victims of hate crime can be also sex workers or homeless, elderly or members of a sub culture. Should these groups be listed as hate crime victims so that crimes targeted towards them can be subjected to harder punishments?

For example in England The Sophie Lancaster Foundation is campaigning successfully to get Goth sub culture listed as vulnerable group to hate crime. Young Goth Sophie Lancaster died after an assault in 2007. As attackers responsible for her death received their punishment, the judge labeled the crime as hate crime. Victim had been singled out because of her appearance.

London tackles hate crime

Of all crime in UK and Wales, a quarter happen in London. In a multicultural metropolis cultural clashes are bound to happen. But hate crime goes massively unreported, says Programme Manager Natasha Plummer from London Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime.

”40 percent of hate crime happen without reporting”, says Natasha Plummer. “That means that we have thousands of hate crimes in this city that go without report to the police. And even if the victim begins the justice process, they often don’t complete it. We have to think of ways to support the victim better, so that they can commit to the often long justice and court process.”

The fastest growing type of crime in UK is online crime. Also hate crime happens over the internet. The police however in many European countries is powerless, as the amount of postings and messages is too big to thoroughly cover.

Use your mobile to report hate crime

Programme Manager James Tate from London Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime tells that in London easier ways to report hate crime have been developed. The reasons why hate crime goes in so many cases unreported are many, James Tate describes. Most commonly the victim does not trust the police. They think the report does not lead to anything actually happening.

At the Mayor’s Office this was seen as a serious problem. Result was an app, where hate crime can be reported immediately, as soon as it happens or as soon as the victims feels safe to do so.

“The app is free and widely available”, James Tate describes it. “You can report to the police, record a statement, record evidence and contact victim support”, James Tate explains.

As the app reports hate crime to the police, the gps of the mobile lets police know where the crime happened and a unit can be immediately sent if needed. So far the app has been quite widely downloaded, but used just to report 200 cases in its first year. Of the hate crime actually happening, that is just a fraction.

Editor: Anna Gustafsson




View Post

Not your average cop

In News by Anna Gustafsson0 Comments

”Patrol car 312, direction Kontula, departing now.”

Senior constable Susanna Mara calls the police information center trough radio. The patrol car is just driving out from Malmi police department’s parking hall. Patrol consisting of three senior constables, is just taking the streets, as part of their 12 hour shift of Friday night. There is a rough plan for the evening, some targets in Eastern part of Helsinki, where they plan to go for check outs. They don’t intend to take assignments for urgent accidents, but instead want to see who is out tonight, speak with youth they meet and intervene in case of any incidents.

Senior constables Susanna Mara, Niklas Kråknäs and Kristian Paavilainen are part of the crime prevention team of the Helsinki Police department. Kristian and Susanna are also present in the social media. Susanna has been working in the prevention team for two years and is already so well known among the youth that she is regularly stopped on the street, even when not working. “You are not like those other cops”, is a sentence one hears often about her. Her colleagues find it amazing, how well she know the youth in her area, down to their nicknames, boyfriends and girlfriends, including exes.

Mara aims not only to talk and offer advice, but also to listen the youth. With some youngsters, she talks several times a week, face to face or online. After gaining the trust, the youth can provide the police with invaluable information concerning the safety of the area and possible crime. Part of the job is handling crime done by under 15 year olds.

Friday night is turning dark. In the beginning the patrol car drives to meet a young man, who has contacted Susanna directly, telling he wants to exchange a few words. Susanna steps aside to talk with him. Prevention team does not work like a regular police patrol, explains constable Niklas Kråknäs.

“Compared with the regular patrolling, they don’t have the time to ask how everyone is feeling today”, he says. “It’s more like who did what, writing tickets or locking the bad persons up. Then it’s off to take on another case. We have time and the tools to take broader look into the situation.”

Police car is parked outside a youth center Kallahti. There are a lot of young boys and girls playing basketball together. The mood is happy, everyone is eager to greet the police they know, asking them to join the game.

The crime prevention team gathers a lot of information from youth centers in the area, from schools and NGOs. It is important that the co-operation is open and works.

“For the youth, it is important to show you are available. Only then they will contact you in case there is a problem”, says Susanna Mara. She goes around the basketball court greeting everyone.

It is a relatively cold Friday night, but lots of people are hanging out around the Kontula shopping center and metro station. Youth, children, drunken people, aggressive behavior, people partying or those who just wander the streets aimlessly, all are mix in the plaza. Outside the liquor store, a man has lost his temper, after being denied access to the shop. After seeing the police coming closer, he calms down quickly.

Walkers bus run by volunteers is parked outside the entrance of the Kontula metro station. Inside is warm and tea and coffee is being served. It is crowded with lots of young people inside. On an average night, about 50 young people visit the bus. Some are acting quite rough, some are just watching over what others do. There is a card game under way on one of the tables. When constable Mara enters the bus, there is a buzz. Everyone is eager to sit next to her, there is some shoving and pushing.

Mara takes time to talk with everyone and answer questions.

When can you fire the gun? Have you ever shot anyone? Does the police aim to the legs first? Can I try the taser? Mara says the questions are often the same. Many have also seen police series or reality-tv, and want to know if the situations are real.

“Why do you want to be a gangsta, Kontula is no ghetto, right”, laughs Mara. A group of young are eager to try being locked inside back of the patrol car. Mara opens the doors, but after closing them, the knocks out start almost immediately.

“There is no way I want to be in there”, says one of the young locked inside once he is out.

After breaking up a small fight, outside the shopping center few old friends come and greet. Mara talks about one boy starting a family and increased responsibility coming with it. There should be no more fooling around now. Even if many of the youth she meets have committed crime and been in serious situations with police, they usually take it in their stride, says Susanna Mara.

“It often amazes be, when we for example catch runways and return them to institutions in the middle of their partying, still they might send a message the following weekend saying it would be nice to see you again”, says Susanna Mara.

In preventative police work there is an opportunity to make a permanent change in a young person’s life, says senior constable Kristian Paavilainen. “Of course it takes many players to really make a difference, but police can play a crucial part, for example catching the young in the right moment and preventing a more serious series of crimes from happening. Compared with regular police work, I would say we have a better chance of really helping.”

The help takes many forms, the police can sit down with the parents for a chat concerning the situation. With some parents, it has been agreed, that if a particular young person is seen outside after the curfew, police will call parents immediately.

The parking hall inside the shopping center is cold and damp. A group of youngsters like to hang out there anyway. The police go and check what they are doing. The young are just smoking and chatting. One of the young men there has previously been involved in crime, but has since reformed. Susanna asks him about school and encourages him to finish comprehensive. Online, they have been also chatting about the future, and Susanna has even sent links on summer job opportunities.

“If someone who has previously broken the law, is now advising others that it is not clever, I really feel I have succeeded in my work”, Mara says.

These are the good cops, says the smallest young boy in the group gathered with others in the dark corner of the parking hall. One of the young boys wants to feel what it is like to be handcuffed. Mara does if so swiftly that everyone laughs.

Many times Susanna Mara will continue talks with the young online after meeting them during the night. Still she sometimes wonders if she has done enough.

“The people I meet on the street stay on my mind. I wonder if I have missed something. I wonder if they would have liked to tell something more. You have to be really sensitive when listening to the young, you have to put out the right questions. Many times I wonder whether I said the right thing.”

The Friday night in the East Helsinki continues. Patrol unit receives information that the Walkers bus has been forced to close after fighting. On top of that, the security at the Kontula shopping center has been forced to throw out all young people from the shopping center. The police get a tip that some of the young people involved in the fight might have be in Itäkeskus shopping center. After arriving there, the police reach those involved quickly. Mara tells them firmly to straighten their act and sends them home. In these cases the parents are always contacted and the child welfare is informed.

A group of young people in Kontula are drunk and posses alcohol. The liquor is discharged and police informs the child welfare about their alcohol abuse. Their behavior is otherwise good, so they don’t receive a ticket this time.

Rest of the night the patrol tries to find a 17 year old with a warrant. Constables Mara, Kråknäs and Paavilainen walk around the Malmintori shopping center. There is a group of young people hanging out. They are sent home, as it is close to 1 am.

“Even if we aim to help these young people, we are not only nice. For myself, I am especially concerned about the 13 year olds, hanging out with drunkards and drug users even when it is 11 pm”, Mara adds.

The shift ends. The police goes through the events and plan the following shift. The incidents with the very young teenagers stay on constable Mara’s mind.

The patrol car is washed and the group heads home.

Editor: Anna Gustafsson


View Post

”To learn feels great”

In News by Anna Gustafsson0 Comments

Have a nice weekend! Moikka! Bye!

Happy greetings are exchanged, as students are spreading each to their directions to enjoy the weekend. Some students from the pre-comprehensive studies class continue to learn computer skills in the classroom opposite. Ahmed Karimali, 18 stays behind to have a short talk with his teacher.

Ahmed has been in Finland for a year and three months. He arrived in Finland alone, under aged asylum seeker entering through the Northern route. His parents didn’t continue the journey with him, but stayed behind in Turkey. Ahmed has not been able to contact them since.

“I don’t know where they are.”

Ahmed is living independently in Mellunmäki in East part of Helsinki. He travels every morning to take the class at the Helsinki Deaconess Institute. His teacher Taina Cederström praises Ahmed for always being one of the first students to arrive. There is a reason for Ahmed wanting to be early, he feels lonely in Mellunmäki, as his friends from school and from refugee center live elsewhere.

“Every single day after school I go to the gym for a few hours. I want to be as tired as possible before going home. I have nothing there. I just eat and go to bed. In the morning I do the same all over again.”

No school today

Ahmed was born and raised in Khanaqin, Iraq. Khanaqin is located in the Eastern part of the country close to the Iranian border. Ahmed is a Kurd, and his mother tongue is Kurdish language called Sorani. There are about six million Sorani speakers in Iraq. It is written using the Persian alphabet. For Ahmed, he struggles to read and write his mother tongue, as he has in Iraq never spent a day in school.

“In Khanaqin, some children did attend school, but many like me, just went to work. Our family was not rich. I started working on construction sites when I was ten years old. My day’s salary was 3, 5 euros.”

In Iraq children often work on construction sites doing many menial work, including electricity jobs. There were no books in Ahmed’s home, and he did not receive encouragement to learn how to read or write. As an only child Ahmed was given a lot of freedom. He describes playing with other boys after work, but ending up in fights.

“So I stayed at home instead.”

Ahmed says he was frustrated, as those children who had the opportunity to go to school did learn to read and write. But without school, learning was difficult.

Smooth learning

First time Ahmed sat behind a desk in a classroom was in Finland. Studying began from Roman letters and numbers. In the beginning, studying was hard. Even the first words were a challenge. Now Ahmed is one of the best pupils in the class. He has learned to read and write Finnish in a year and speaks well. He has learned mathematics and is a talented drawer, using color creatively, his teacher tells.

As Ahmed describes the last months in Iraq, he speaks quietly, occasionally glancing the window. Last moments were difficult, as there was no money and it became increasingly clear that they would have to flee. Isis was only 20 minutes away from the city, and Peshmerga army could not guarantee the safety of the citizens. After fleeing, departing from his Mother and Father in Turkey was heartbreaking. Ahmed crossed the Mediterranean in a small boat.

“I don’t know with European countries I have crossed. There were times I was in a forest. I slept for a month in a forest, somewhere in Europe.”

The silent country

Despite going to the gym, Ahmed likes to play football occasionally. In Finland he appreciates the safety, and doesn’t mind the silence. But he misses the sense of community from Iraq a lot.

“In Finland, boys and men don’t say anything. Even the neighbor does not greet you.”

Ahmed describes, how in Iraq friends and neighbors visit each other often. When someone gets sick, people go and see if they can help. Also, if you don’t hear from someone for a few days, friends visit to see if everything is all right.

“In Finland, you can die at home alone and no one would notice.”

The best friends for Ahmed are also Kurds. They speak about learning Finnish, plan life and dream. Ahmed uses a lot of time to do his homework and reads Finnish books with the help of a dictionary in the evenings.

“My only goal now is to learn Finnish. Anything I want to study, I need the language. In the future I would love to be a police or a nurse. In Finland it is possible.”

For this story, Ahmed wanted to be photographed in front of the blackboard in the classroom. On the board he wanted to write a word in Kurdish Sorani. Under the word, he wrote the same word in Finnish. It means “beautiful”.

Editor: Anna Gustafsson


View Post

Freedom to be myself

In News, refugee, therapy, torture by Anna Gustafsson0 Comments

Nosa Ajani, 25 sits peacefully curled up on the sofa. Crunched in her palm is a piece of tissue, needed from time to time, as talking about her life brings back unwanted memories. But actually, Nosa has turned a new leaf in her story, one that lets her be more and more her true self. A woman she was always meant to be. Also part of her new life is a new home country Finland, a new name, new friends. A new beginning and lots of newfound hope.

Nosa was born as a boy in the city of Nasiriyya in southeast Iraq. When she reached puberty, she found herself thinking increasingly, that deep inside she is something else. Someone else. Surrounded by deeply religious community, these emotions were however not accepted. When Nosa started to dress differently, setting herself apart from men in her community, she was openly hated and despised.

“For myself, it became bit by bit more clear who I am. But as I was getting to know myself, I was often in very dangerous situations. I was raped more than once. But I did find a boyfriend. Unfortunately once when we were together, police caught us and I was imprisoned.”

Keys to her own apartment are important for Nosa.

Hard time inside prison walls

Nosa takes a break. Talking about the time in prison is hard, memories vague. Inside the prison walls, Nosa was tortured violently.

“Things were out of my hands, I had no power. Everyone in Iraq was against me. Everyone, even the people closest to me, my own family.”

Nosa’s father found out that Nosa was in prison and came to get her out. Pressure from the community was hard, Nosa and her identity were not accepted. The police informed Nosa’s father that she had been caught having sex with a man. This infuriated Nosa’s father and things turned violent.

“He burned my legs with fire, I still carry the scars. The hurting did not end there. Finally I had to run away. I was hiding for three days and didn’t return home until I knew my father was not in. I collected some of my things and left.”

Looking for safety

Once the decision to flee was made, emotions run wild. Nosa was struggling between hope and despair.

“I was aimlessly walking on the streets. I just kept thinking that there must be a place where I can be myself. A safe place to live free as I want. Nothing else was on my mind. Just a safe place, I kept repeating myself.”

Not knowing anything about the journey, no set destination, Nosa was scared. She also kept thinking about her family, even if she had received so much hatred, leaving was still difficult. What pushed her forward was a strong will to live.

“If I would have stayed in Iraq, within a month I would have died, that is for sure. I heard that the blue car of the secret police came every day looking for me around our house.”

Hopes and fears

It took Nosa almost a month to arrive in Finland. Crossing the Mediterranean from Turkey to Greece she took a boat. After Greece, Serbia, Hungary and Germany Nosa ended up in Finland, reception center in Kemijärvi, northern part of the country. The beginning was hard. Again Nosa had to face hate and violence. In the reception center, she was raped. Daily she kept thinking weather the positive residence permit will come or not.

“All the time I was so afraid that I will not get the permission to stay and I will be sent back to Iraq. That would have meant death for me.”

In the reception center, Nosa received great support from a nurse working there. Talking helped. In her office there was no pressure to hold back the tears.

“The nurse understood how dangerous it was for me to be there, because of my sexuality. She helped me to get transferred to Helsinki.”

Nosa took a tattoo to her right hand to celebrate the positive residence permit. Name of the boat strongly going forward is Life. 

Support from friends

In Helsinki, Nosa was placed in the Ruskeasuo reception center. Everything changed there. There were other sexual minority asylum seekers, gay and transgender. Finally Nosa could feel that she can talk with someone and be understood. These new friends even gave Nosa her new name.

“I think LGBT –people should have their own floor in the reception center. That is the only way we can be safe. Now I have received so much support from my friends in similar situation. I have also found it very helpful to go to meetings with support groups like HeSeta (*). Through Helsinki Deaconess Institute I have found a mentor, who is like a mother to me.”

In June 2016 Nosa received the news, that she has been granted a residence permit in Finland. Now she lives in her own apartment and is studying Finnish language. When asked when she feels most happy, the answer comes quickly. For Nosa, biggest moment of happiness is putting on makeup, doing her hair, dress up nicely and walk outside, being herself.

In the future Nosa would like to offer her support to other young people going through similar experiences. Doctor has promised Nosa that she can soon start the process to physically transfer to a female through hormone treatment and operation. Biggest dream however is simply to find love, Nosa says, and her eyes light up.

“I want to be 100 percent woman. I want to be married, go to work and live a normal and stable life. The same as everyone else. Safe and happy life.”

Story, photos: Anna Gustafsson



* HeSeta Together group, group support for LGBTQI asylum seekers and refugees.


View Post

A plate full of African flavors

In Food, News by Anna Gustafsson0 Comments

The hustle and bustle of the street stays out when stepping inside a small African restaurant in Helsinki. The smell of spices in the air is tempting, soft beats of African music linger invitingly. In a corner table, a small family is concentrated in enjoying the day’s lunch: fried plantain, Ethiopian chicken stew, Nigerian lentil sauce and yellow pan fried rice. Soon a regular enters, wanting to taste a new dish on the menu: chili paste with tamarind. A big dollop of it is dropped in the middle of a hot bowl of coconut sweet potato soup.

African food in Finland is somewhat a rarity. There are not many African restaurants, especially outside Helsinki area. African Pots –restaurant is unique, as it serves real fusion of food: dishes from the whole African continent. The menu changes weekly, and includes tastes from over ten different countries. Regulars praise especially fried plantains and the house tomato sauce, which are cornerstones of the menu and always stay on the list.

For the African community in Helsinki, the restaurant is important. Familiar smells and tastes provoke deep emotions. Even if many cook African food at home, the food culture from a neighboring African country can be something new. For example peanut sauce is cooked and served differently in many African countries. When cooking authentic African food, real spices are needed. Unfortunately not all of them are easily available in Finland. African Pots –restaurant imports some for their own need. One of their principles is to cook everything on the spot, from scratch.

Afrobeat sounds

Atmosphere is big part of African Pots. In charge of it is Richmond Ghansah, 26. The restaurant is run by Afaes multicultural organization, where Ghansah works as a marketing and sales executive.

Richmond puts the soundtrack together weekly. On the playlist you can find anything from West African afrobeat to rumba from Congo. Richmond says, that he aims to make everyone feel at ease.

“The music in a restaurant should fit all, the playlist should include upbeat sounds and something to chill to. I have seen people coming here with lots on their mind and ending up swinging to the music. Main goal is that people leave with their bellies full and with a good feeling.”

Richmond Ghansah, 26.

Serving rarities

As Richmond puts it, African Pots wants to take the customers on a “journey through Africa”. For many African living in Helsinki, the restaurant is the only chance to taste food that is not common here. These might include Nigerian MoyMoy –pudding, Chapati bread from Kenya or Semolina based Fufu served along with stew made with Egusi seeds.

For Finns African Pots wants to make the rich African food culture better known. Many have prejudice that African food is always spicy. In African Pots the customers can customize the level of spiciness by adding homemade chili pastes. Many also think that African food is always meaty, instead at African Pots vegetarian and vegan food is always available.

In addition to serving great food, the restaurants wants to promote African food culture in Finland. They also want to support and train Africans to work in restaurants, so that African cuisine could be more readily available here. African Pots has taken young interns to work in the restaurant, with good results. With one young person, the work experience with lead to a whole new chapter in life. The feedback from teachers and parents was very positive.

The lunch time is nearly over and the restaurant goes slowly quiet. For rest of the day catering and cooking schools keep the staff busy. I leave with a lovely coconut and mango chili taste in my mouth. (in Finnish) Some English on restaurant Facebook page

Editor, Photos: Anna Gustafsson


View Post

Living in shadows

In News by Anna Gustafsson0 Comments

Hiding from officials, living in fear day in day out, unknown future, little options of getting out. Life as an undocumented migrant is not easy in Finland.

Support network in Finnish welfare society is comprehensive, but in order to get help a person has to be able to identify him/herself with documents. In order to get an apartment, take up work or receive healthcare, the papers have to be in order. A person without documents is in a very vulnerable position and easily becomes a victim of abuse of many kind.

There is no single reason a person ends up as an undocumented migrant. Some might be students, whose visas run out during their stay. Others might be from another EU-country and have legal right to be here, but don’t have insurance covering healthcare.

It is difficult to estimate the exact amount of undocumented migrants in Finland. Few years ago the police reported meeting approximately 3 000 people yearly without necessary documents. The number is expected to be on the rise.

Victims vulnerable

During the past few years 37 000 asylum seekers and refugees have arrived in Finland. Last year little bit over half of the applications for permanent residency were rejected. Part of the rejected asylum seekers remain in a limbo, without clear route ahead. They cannot stay, nor go back.

End of last year 4 000 people in Finland were lost from the refugee center system records. Some have undoubtedly carried on their journey to another European country. Some have returned where they once left. But some are living underground in Finland. There are about thousand people waiting to be returned to their respective countries by officials.

Leena-Kaisa Åberg is Executive Director of Victim Support Finland. She started in her current position three years ago, having previously worked with migrant issues for many years. Åberg is increasingly worried about the situation undocumented migrants face when they become victims of crime. Undocumented persons are very prone to abuse, theft, fraud, hate crime, violence or they end up working in inhuman and illegal conditions. Their eagerness to contact police is however extremely low, as they don’t have high level of trust in the institutions.

For an undocumented migrant it is not so simple to report a crime, because there is always the fear of expulsion. The process in court takes a long time, and there is uncertainty not only of the outcome, but also about the person’s status during the process. As victims of crime undocumented migrants don’t receive any special treatment, only victims of human trafficking have a possibility for a temporary residence permit during the court proceedings.

Leena-Kaisa Åberg, Executive director of Victim Support Finland.

Motivation to report low

For undocumented migrants the motivation to report crime might be low. For example, the residence permit of victims of labor exploitation can be linked to the employment relationship. If they start a process against the employer they are in direct danger of losing their job and therefore their only chance of remaining in the country. The employer might be also be a relative, which makes reporting even harder.

In cases of domestic abuse, the victim’s residence permit might be dependent on being married with the partner who has committed violent acts. In that case reporting is difficult, and fear of losing child custody might be imminent.

It is not easy to motivate the victim to report. For example in cases of human trafficking the authentication of the crime is not straightforward. During the process, the classification of the crime might change, for example from human trafficking to extortionate work discrimination, and in consequence the victim’s status deteriorates and there are no grounds for a residence permit.

Leena-Kaisa Åberg from Victim Support Finland.

Executive Director Leena-Kaisa Åberg from Victim Support explains the way things are handled for example in Holland. There undocumented migrants as a victims of crime can report to the police without fear of detention. There is a protecting barrier between the police and immigration officials. In addition, a temporary residence permit could be granted, if the victim is co-operates with the officials in solving the case. During the court process, also shelter and subsistence support should be offered.

Each one of us can help undocumented migrants by keeping eyes open. For example in hospitality or construction businesses one might come across people working in poor conditions, long hours. These cases are best reported to the police immediately.

Undocumented migrants have the right for some forms of help and support. They can be placed in immediate shelter and receive acute healthcare should they need it. The support and advice from Victim Support Finland is also open and free for everyone, regardless of status in Finland.

Editor: Anna Gustafsson

Photo: Minna Manninen

Help for undocumented migrants:


Undocumented migrants can receive free healthcare in five cities. Global Clinic is run by volunteer professional healthcare workers. The location is kept discreet and the personnel are bound by confidentiality obligation.

Contact information:

Helsinki:, call: +358 44 9774547

Turku:, call: +358 46 6251412

Joensuu: call: +358 46 5900186



Legal advice:

The lawyer of the Project for Undocumented Migrants is on call between 2 pm and 4 pm Mondays and Thursdays. Free of charge. Call: +358 45 237 71 04. You can also email to

Support and advice for victims of crime:

Victim Support Finland has open line from Monday to Tuesday from 1 pm to 9 pm and from Wednesday to Friday from 5 pm to 9 pm. Call 116006. The lawyer is on call from Monday to Thursday from 5 pm to 7 pm call 0800 161 177. Advice is free and open to anyone.


View Post

Anybody speak Finnish?

In children, Finnish, Language, News, School by Anna Gustafsson1 Comment

If I speak Finnish at school and with friends, but use another language at home with my parents, can I still call myself a Finnish speaker? And what about a person, who has maybe just arrived in Finland, and does not yet speak Finnish, but has the ability to speak four, five other languages, is it justified to label that person lacking language skills? Does only Finnish language ability count? These are questions many young people with multicultural or immigrant background have to go through.

Dr. Heini Lehtonen spent over a year in observing and studying students in schools in east part of Helsinki. She has done research on the language young people use. Another research project has just commenced in University of Helsinki. The researchers want to shake our ideas of language and language skills.

Multilingual lessons learned

Dr. Heini Lehtonen and her colleagues have visited a classroom in a school in Helsinki, where among 22 students, there are 15 different first languages. The students have tried out each other’s languages, learned some words in a new language, and for example done an art project with Cyrillic alphabet. A new boy in class, who had recently arrived in Finland, had the chance to feel important and special, when teaching others Arabic. All youth need to have the experience that their own language is important. This comes from example others wanting to learn that language.

In a multicultural classroom, the students will be better equipped for the future, says researcher Heini Lehtonen.

“In the future, being able to succeed at work means being able to work together with people from various backgrounds. A person used to different cultures is not afraid of being surrounded by unfamiliar language.” Also, another great ability is to know how to deal with a situation where there is no common language.

Arabic influences in Finnish

As a linguistic, Heini Lehtonen reminds us, that language is constantly changing. Finnish language is full of words from another countries, influences have arrived from Baltics, sometimes from Sweden or Russia. New expressions and words are integrated in to a language with people to people interaction. Heini Lehtonen describes, how in history for example vocabulary for animal rearing spread, when animal husbandry was adopted from another culture. From Russia came a lot of words for church vocabulary.

Heini Lehtonen has done research on an Arabic expression which has spread among youth in European cities. Arabic word wallahi can be roughly translated as “promise in God’s name”. In consequence, youth have started to use words swear and promise in a new way, to express their stance or attitude to something they said.

Some of the more recent examples show, how English words have been integrated into Finnish through IT branch. Already can be seen, how words and expressions have been adopted from Somalian, especially in the language used by young people. Researcher Heini Lehtonen compares modern youth language to Helsinki slang from 1940s and 50s: the old slang is respected and protected. Could the Somalian influences have the same respected position in 200 years?

More acceptance needed

Finnish skills are still in many ways the key to be included in the Finnish society. Language should not however be used to lock people out. Dr. Heini Lehtonen hopes, that we learn to be more accepting when it comes to different ways of speaking Finnish.

“Learning to listen to different Finnish is a matter of getting used to it. Too often we think, that if someone speaks with a different accent or in otherwise different way, that person cannot speak Finnish. It would be good to broaden our idea of what Finnish skills actually are. Finnish can be used in many ways.”

Multilingual youth have to in many cases defend their right to be a Finn.

“A person, who has spent their entire life immersed in just one language has really hard time understanding how difficult it is having all the time prove your language skills”, Heini Lehtonen says. “This happens however a lot for example for Somali youth. In Finland, we still have a stereotype that a Finn can only look a certain way, if you look different, you don’t speak Finnish.”

Editor: Anna Gustafsson

Photo: Elisa Seppänen