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Studio Aleppo [Helsinki] – seeing differently

In art, Finnish, News by Anna Gustafsson0 Comments

Beautiful entrance hall at the National Museum, the high ceiling is decorated with beautiful frescos by renowned artist Akseli Gallen-Kallela with Kalevala motifs from 1920s. Under the frescos, there is a small gallery that visitors can step into. The experience is powerful, as big photograph portraits take hold of the spectator. International art concept Studio Aleppo has found home inside the National Museum in Helsinki.

Founding idea for the Studio Aleppo can be traced back to Syrian city of Aleppo, Bawabet al Qasab Street, which was badly damaged in bombing. Photographer Issa Touma found old negatives and pictures in the middle of a rubble of an old photographer’s studio. People of Aleppo, pictured from 1920s to 70s.

Now an international art collective has started to found new Studio Aleppo installations in different parts of Europe. The result will be a gallery of portraits of new and old Europeans.

In Helsinki, people taking part in the Studio Aleppo photo session paid 50 euros to have their portrait taken by a professional photographer. With the payment they also made it possible for a newcomer, an asylum seeker, immigrant or refugee to have their picture taken as well. The session filled up quickly and as a result, in the gallery hangs 23 pictures of old and 23 new citizens of Helsinki. All participants were also interviewed, the idea was to find something that connects us all, no matter what the background.

Home for the Finnish culture and heritage, National Museum chose to exhibit something so closely linked with the current general discussion on multiculturalism and immigration in Finland. For the Museum, the exhibition provided an opportunity to take part in defining what it means to be a Finn, says head of marketing and communication of the Museum, Jonna Heliskoski.

“The National Museum gives Studio Aleppo surroundings that poignantly emphasize the message of the exhibition. The exhibition gives us the opportunity to consider the role of immigrants as builders of the society. We have to define what our stance on multiculturalism is”, Heliskoski describes.

”I admit there was discussion on how this fits to the celebration of Finland’s centennial independence”, Jonna Heliskoski from national Museum says, “however, the National Museum wants to shake up the idea of Finnish cultural heritage. We will be making similar openings in the future also.”

Looking at the permanent exhibition of the National Museum, one can notice how influences from different parts of the globe have always shaped our culture. An exhibition like Studio Aleppo is also a chance to update our idea on what it means to be a Finn.

Helsinki is after Amsterdam only the second city to organize Studio Aleppo. In Helsinki, a professional photographer Juuso Westerlund took the pictures. In the Autumn Haag and Berlin will organize their respective Studio Aleppo pop up exhibitions. In the end, all photographs along with short interviews will be collected into an internet gallery.

Producer and curator of the exhibition in Helsinki Ceyda Berk-Söderblom is very satisfied with the end results.

“Photograph is a very intelligent medium to use in this purpose. When a person is being photographed and as an object of art, it does not matter where you come from and how long you might have been here. It is a very powerful experience.”

Producer Ceyda Berk-Söderblom is also reflecting her own story, moving to Helsinki less than two years ago from Turkey, she says that while it is clearly a benefit in the art world to be international, it takes time to get to know people in Helsinki and find your place. She describes Studio Aleppo as an opportunity to give voice to the new citizens of Helsinki and make them visible.

“There are many layers in the exhibition. While being photographed a person is alone, but here the resulting photos end up together and that is meaningful.”

Editor: Anna Gustafsson

Photo: Soile Tirilä, Museovirasto



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From black to rainbow of colors

In art, News, refugee by Anna Gustafsson0 Comments

There are two single stud earrings sparkling in the lobes of Al-Asmar. He puts them on only after leaving the asylum seeker reception center, where he lives. In the evening, before returning, he has to quietly take them off again, hiding them in his pocket. Life inside the reception center is hard, as Al-Asmar is afraid of the reactions from other Iraqi refugees. There is no way for him to present himself as openly gay there.

“The person you see in front of you, he is just a shell. I feel so bad inside the reception center. I lived 20 years in constant fear in Iraq. The police, the society and everyone was against me. Now I still have to be afraid. I still don’t know who I am.”

Born in the Southern part of Iraq, Al-Asmar hoped to move to a country where he could live openly as himself. But since he has to live among other Iraqis in the reception center he is still far from free.

“In Iraq even animals are respected more than homosexual men”, Al-Asmar says quietly.

26 year old Al-Asmar arrived in Finland November 2015. His first application for a permanent residence in Finland was declined. He appealed, and second verdict has not arrived yet. He has been waiting for more than eight months. All the time he has lived in Finland, he has been in a sort of limbo, living in the reception center, without possibility to plan his future.

“The LGBT peer support group here in Helsinki has saved me. From the group I have found people like myself, they understand what I am going through, even without words.”

New experiences with art

At the Harju Youth Center in Helsinki, an art exhibition presents art created by young LGBT asylum seekers. HeSeta Community art project group has met weekly since last autumn and results are abundance: paintings, drawings, clay work, jointly created installation and colorful masks. Member of the group, Imma from Baghdad, describes the experience as therapeutic.

Funded by The Finnish Cultural Foundation, the group has been guided by artist Mimosa Puumalainen. Through the art project approximately 50 asylum seekers have been given the opportunity to create. Members came from very varied art backgrounds, says Mimosa Puumalainen.

“Most of them had not done art before”, Puumalainen describes. “There were some members who had not had the opportunity to do art in school, and had not done a lot of drawing for example. For some, they did not know what to do with glue.”

One of the fbeginners was 21 year old Imma. He reminds, that art and artists don’t have the same status in Iraq than in Finland.

”In Iraq the artist is not respected like here. For me this is all new, I see a piece of art but I do not always understand what the artist is trying to tell me.”

Through his own creative process Imma has developed his thinking. He now can understand that a piece of art can be seen as a message from the artist, wanting to express his ideas. He has also used his own art in expressing his feelings.

“Life inside the reception center is really not easy at all”, Imma says. “There are many days when I feel I cannot even breathe there. But this art group has relaxed me a lot, and helped me sort things out in my head.”

Little help from my friends

Imma has been in Finland for almost two years. Like Al-Asmar, Imma has also already received one rejection for his asylum application. He appealed, and has been waiting for a new verdict since autumn last year. Talking about the application process, it has been mentally extremely difficult for him, so he has to take long breaks while talking about it.

“When I told the officer at the Immigration office that I am gay, the interview took completely another direction. They started to ask very detailed questions concerning my boyfriend, what kind of sex we had, where and at what time. The interrogation took over five hours, and I gradually became so nervous that even the interpreter was worried.”

Because of his sexuality Imma’s family has turned their backs on him. Apart from one phone call with his mother last year, he has not heard from any of them for over four years. In Finland he arrived alone. After he got the first negative result for the residence application Imma was told he could move to Arbil, city only three hours away from Baghdad.

“How could I return there? My family has said that anyone is free to kill me. If someone kills me, for sure they will not spend even one day in prison. In Iraq the society is unable to protect people like me.”

HeSeta group has become like a family to Imma. Creating art and spending time with friends has been a welcome distraction. He will continue to do art in the future as well.

Editor: Anna Gustafsson

Al-Asmar and Imma asked not to use their real names in this article to protect their safety.

The Masks We Wore exhibition at Harju Youth Center open until Friday 30th June from noon until 6 pm.

More information concerning the HeSeta group for LGBT asylum seekers:



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How can we help?

In News by Anna Gustafsson0 Comments

Inside Puhos shopping center a new information center has just been opened. Information center can be found on the ground floor of the shopping center, opposite side of the Alanya super market. Closest metro station is Itäkeskus.

Help center offers advice on finding work or a place to study, filling forms or applying for a citizenship. You can also just stop by to meet others and have a chat. The help center works in a walk in basis, you do not need to make an appointment.

Advice and help is available in many languages, mainly in Somalian, Dari, Pashtu, Arabic, French or English. Other languages might also be available, if requested beforehand.

Puhos information center is open from Monday to Friday 10 a.m. until 6 pm and on Saturdays from 2 pm to 6 pm.

In the picture some of the people working at the help center: Marko Kivikoski, Ahmed Said, Ahmed Ensan and Naley Isse. They all wish You warmly



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Despite setbacks, dare to dream big

In News, racism, refugee, war by Anna Gustafsson0 Comments

Hermina Jakupović has a short break. Working for the University of Eastern Finland, Hermina, 26 is a researcher at a brain cancer research project. She began working at the university already while finishing her Master degree in biomedical studies. The open atmosphere and international community of the university receives nothing but praise from Hermina. University as a work place felt right from the beginning.

Determined and ambitious Hermina arrived in Finland as a toddler. Regarding her refugee background she has chosen to be vocal about it.

“It’s more important to talk than to be silent. Being quiet only fuels racist atmosphere. If nobody interferes, wrong attitudes will be considered normal. ”

Courage also has its price. By giving her own face and name to the refugee debate, Hermina has also received some nasty messages, for example through Facebook. Still she is not afraid. Social media has made racist commenting much more brutal and easier, Hermina describes the comments. From the decision-makers she calls for more intervention.

“I feel not everyone shares the common set of morals and values.”

Long shadow of war

Hermina arrived in Finland with her parents and little sister through Karlovac refugee camp from the former Yugoslavia. Hermina’s parents took on Finnish lessons and entered work life quite soon. Beginning new life in Finland was not easy, but it helped that Hermina’s parents were educated and well-traveled.

Repairing the mental wounds of war took longer. Parents are still mourning the years they lost in war. Hermina describes her parents as survivors, who have not given up despite hardships.
Hermina has no personal memories from the war, but as a small child she was afraid of loud noises.

Despite having a refugee background Hermina says she did not go through an identity crises. She sees her background as an asset.

“I feel at home where ever I am. I identify myself as European and a scientist. Differences between people have more to do with education and things like hobbies and climate, than the country of origin.”

Calling for more compassion

The refugee situation is much talked subject within the Jakupović family. They all follow keenly the developments in Syria. Hermina feels strongly that people must be assisted when they need help. She emphasizes that Finland also received help during and after the war. Even Syria received refugees from Europe after the Second World War.

“I would not be alive if there would have been a “close the borders” mentality in Finland when we arrived.”

Hermina reminds that no one leaves their home lightly. Decision is made only after there is no other choice.

“No one gives up their relatives, memories, degrees, dreams and life just to live somewhere else.”

Considering her own future Hermina keeps options open, in future she sees herself also living outside Finland. Having a career in the academic world it is important to study, learn and collect influence from many sources. With her studies Hermina has boldly challenged herself and she recommends that to others as well.

“Even if you have had huge setbacks in life, it does not mean that you are sidetracked permanently. You still have all the options open. It is important to move forward, not to be stuck in only dreaming about the future.”

Editor: Anna Gustafsson

United Nation’s facts about refugees:

– There are more refugees in the world today than ever, around 22.5 million. Half of them are children.

– More than half of the world’s refugees come from three countries: Syria, Afghanistan and South Sudan.

– Most of the world’s refugees are in Turkey, almost three million.

– The fastest growing refugee group is fleeing from South Sudan.

–  Every minute 20 people worldwide have to leave their homes.


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From Swahili to Singhalese – Multilingual library covers all

In News by Anna Gustafsson0 Comments


In the mood for some romantic literature written in Thai, or a Moomin book in Latvian? Or how about couple of most recent Chinese publications or classic Finnish literature in Arabic? These and thousands of other books can be found in multilingual collection at the Pasila Library in Helsinki. All together Multilingual library covers over 80 different languages in its shelves.

Information specialist Riitta Hämäläinen walks through the Multilingual library section at the Pasila library. There is an interesting display of Chinese literature, with beautiful cover art. Some readers are busy leafing through the Japanese book section. There is a hefty book by John Irving in Czech, waiting to be shelved there is a pile of books in Somali.

Riitta Hämäläinen has been working as an information specialist at the Multilingual library already for 17 years. The language selection in the collection has gotten wider and keeps changing with times.

“We keep a close eye on the changes in our society. For example in 2015 the rise in the number of asylum seekers arriving in Finland increased the demand for books is Arabic. At the moment Arabic is the biggest language group in our selection”, Hämäläinen explains.

Service available to anyone

Multilingual library was founded in 1995. It serves not only people residing in Helsinki, but the whole country. Anyone, anywhere in Finland can walk into the nearest library and ask for books in their native language. if that language is not found in the Multilingual library selection, it will be purchased.

“Most recent hunt was for books written in Malayalam. It is one of the official languages in India and there are 36 million speakers world wide”, Hämäläinen explains.

Some of the speakers of Malayalam can be found in Espoo, Finland and have requested books in their native language. Finding books in Malayalam in Finland was impossible, but in the end some could be found through a specialized book store in London. In a few weeks books in Malayalam reached enthusiastic readers in Espoo.

The role of language

Multilingual library collection does not only consist of books, but also movies, magazines and music. Important emphasis are material for children and young adults. Multilingual library does not store books written in main European languages, nor Nordic languages, as they can be found elsewhere in Helsinki City library collections. Multilingual library does not specifically search for translations of work by Finnish authors, but they can be found in the collection as well.

Riitta Hämäläinen explains, that strengthening the language skills in native language is part of integration process.

“There is research, that when Finnish language and native language are being supported at the same time, it is the best way to help integration to a new culture.”

Multilanguage library does not shun away from material forbidden elsewhere. This results in feedback as sometimes the material in the collection does not match the outlook of the reader. Hämäläinen emphasizes that library is a place where all views can be present.

“Only illegal or racist material is not accepted.”

Cultures coming together

Pasila library is a multicultural meeting point. Few times a week a Finnish language café meets there to chat in Finnish and enjoy a cup of coffee or tea. The topics vary from etymology of words to travel tips. Participants are divided in different groups depending on their language ability.

In the beginner group sisters Phuong And, 20 and Hoang Anh, 25 take part in lively discussion. Originally from Vietnam, they keep up their native language by following news from the region. Books are another interests, but reading in Vietnamese is not so popular, sisters explain.

Hoang Anh is studying at the Hanken School of Economics says that she is particularly interested in history, but does most of her reading in English.

“Vietnamese is not one of the big main languages in the world, that’s why it is important to study other languages as well. But Vietnamese is important to me as well, how else would I talk with my sister”, Hoang laughs.

Editor and photos: Anna Gustafsson


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Destination Europe?

In News, refugee, war by Anna Gustafsson0 Comments

Thousands of people fleeing their homeland will be crossing the Mediterranean again this month with unmanned dinghies, arriving in Italy or Greece. Earlier this year communications delegate Caroline Haga from the International Red Cross described the dinghies not only unseaworthy but also lacking required amount of petrol to even reach shore. Almost a thousand asylum seekers have drowned in the Mediterranean already this year during this extremely dangerous journey.

Europe with still attract people escaping war, violence, extreme poverty and the inability of collapsing states to provide young people with any kind of future. The Syrian conflict does not show any signs of ease, Afghanistan is still largely without basic security and Isis dominates large areas in Iraq.

Dr. Vicki Squire from the the University of Warwick has done research on asylum seekers arriving in Europe in 2015 and 2016. She has together with a team of researchers conducted deep interviews with 257 asylum seekers on the shores of Mediterranean, in Greece, Turkey, Italy and Malta. Some asylum seekers have also been interviews once they have reached Germany. The results paint a fascinating picture of the variety of reasons people have embarked on the journey and how they have eventually ended where they are now. Often coincidence and luck play a large role.

Treat us like humans

The research conducted by Dr. Vicki Squire is unique as it is the first time such a large scale deep interviews have been done on asylum seekers as they just arrive. Dr. Vicki Squire calls for alsylum seekers own voice to be more dominant in the debate. That might dispel some of the prejudices and assumptions that are often associated with the entrants, according to Dr. Squire.

“We often assume that that people are coming to Europe already waiting to receive asylum in the EU. That is not the case”, explaind Dr Squire, citing research results.

“What people have, is an image of Europe as a safe place, where people are treated with respect. However we did not find any indication in our research that people would be arriving with extensive knowledge of the asylum procedure.”

Many of the asylum seekers have been appalled by the way they have been treated at different borders. One of the interviewees summarizes the thoughts of many by asking for a more human treatment, demanding not to be treated like animals.

Europe not the main destination

Many especially of the asylum seekers arriving from different parts of Africa are mainly trying to reach work market in Libya or other North African countries. Their main goal is not to reach EU. However the security in Libya is almost nonexistent and  many international organizations have described the job market in Libya to represent slave market. This drives many to seek safety in Europe. The idea of Europe as every single asylum seekers number one goal is a myth, says researcher Vicki Squire.

Dr. Squire calls for more research on the cause that actually drive people on the move. The EU has concluded agreements with few African countries, so that they receive development aid in return for their cooperation in preventing more people from leaving. People who live in danger, are however not aware of what is happening at the top level of politics, knowledge simply does not reach the grassroots level.

The correct information on asylum policy is also not given to asylum seekers coming to Europe, even if they have the right to be receiving it, says researcher Dr. Vicki Squire.

More information required

Dr. Squire describes the circumstances in which the asylum seekers are kept waiting for deportation or asylum often awful and inhumane, with little information available.

“During the interviews with people many described that on the initial arrival they were not given any information on their rights to apply for asylum, instead they were handed with an immediate demand to leave”, says Squire.

Researcher Squire along with many NGOs have called for safe routes to be opened to Europe. The current situation only benefits smugglers and criminals who put people’s lives in danger. The harder the entry to Europe, the more dangerous the journey will be.

Researcher Vicki Squire spent long periods of time talking and meeting asylum seekers. Initially she anticipated the work to be extremely hard mentally. However there was also hope to be found in the stories.

“I was surprised how inspiring it was to hear stories about people’s generosity, the stories of families coming together after long journeys and how people in difficult situations support each other.”

Editor: Anna Gustafsson

Photo: Dr. Vicki Squire, Lampedusa

The study can be found through this link:

An interactive map describing the journey:

Link to a photo essay by Dr. Vicki Squire:





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The art of limbo

In News by Anna Gustafsson0 Comments

“Everyone loves their country, let’s be honest. You leave your country only if you have no other choice”, says Zaher from Afghanistan with a cool casual voice. In Konnunsuo detaining center Loufi waiting to be deported back to Algeria talks about missing his daughter. Nima from Iran describes frustration over lack of work in a refugee center. Mobilediaspora, joint artwork by three accomplished Finnish artists gives voice and space to asylum seekers in Finland.

Artists Amir Jan, Anna Knappe and Pekka Niskanen have created an installation consisting of 10 media-artworks, currently on display at Helsinki city art museum. The installation gives voice to the group of asylum seekers that have in public received most backlash, young asylum seeker men. The decision is made deliberately to shake presumptions general public might have. The videos convey an atmosphere of limbo, waiting, fear. Men describe their thoughts, story and journey, but don’t yet dare to dream about the future.

Artwork is based on the long term consistent work done by Amir Jan and Anna Knappe in reception centers in Finland. They have been visiting for years, getting to know especially Afghan refugees, had discussions, drank tea together.

Also Pekka Niskanen has addressed the issue in his former work, in his PhD thesis and a movie on Chechenia. Personally biggest influence was however experiencing the terror attack in Paris. The attack at Bataclan- concert hall, which claimed 90 lives took place on Niskanen’s home street and filled familiar surroundings with bullet holes and blood.

”In Paris I personally saw what Isis is, and it has nothing to do with Islam”, Niskanen emphasizes.

Doing a piece of art with traumatized, vulnerable people requires especial sensibility and responsibility from the artist, says artist Anna Knappe.

”Basis of all trust is mutual respect”, Knappe says. Third member of the team Amir Jan has been able to speak to the interviewees in their own language, which has been helpful in getting their story right.

Asylum policy is in Finland widely discussed, but in art the matter has not been addressed much.

“I don’t consider the art work particularly brave”, Pekka Niskanen says. “I am not all too happy about how the art institutions face this issue that is fundamentally changing our society. The museums have been very quiet and shy away from political content.”

Also Anna Knappe welcomes more work by Finnish artists, where the asylum seekers themselves take part in the creative process.

“It would be wonderful to see artists taking on long term projects, together with the people they want their work to comment. All too often artists in their work project their personal feelings in the so called migrant crises. I hope to see more work with people personally affected.”

Mobilediaspora is constantly changing form. New videos are being added and stories change. In Helsinki, Mobilediaspora is open until 11th June. From Helsinki, the work is moving to Turku.

Editor: Anna Gustafsson

Photos: Anna Knappe

Mobilediaspora, 2017

HAM-kulma 1.6.–11.6.2017

Tennispalatsi, Eteläinen Rautatiekatu 8, 00100 Helsinki.

More about the work (in Finnish):




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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

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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







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”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