18 February 2000                                                           

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Somalis find home in Finland

"My children have had no problems here. I am so proud of this. It makes me feel good."

This comment comes from Leila Omar, one of the almost 1,500 Somali refugees who arrived in Finland in 1990. Early on, many of them suffered from racism and xenophobia shown by citizens of their new country. Now, a decade later, even if problems remain, many Somalis feel at home in Finland.

After exploring different career options, Leila Omar now works in the Helsinki cultural centre, Caisa, and is studying to become a youth adviser. As she explains in an interview with the national daily, Helsingin Sanomat, (6 February 2000), for her integration into Finnish society means finding a balance between two cultures. Her children do not eat pork but they are free to participate in physical education at school and go swimming with their class.

"Changes are occurring inside the Somali community. Somalis are integrating all the time in a way that Finns expect, for instance through education. Many Somalis realise that this is in their interest, too", says Anne Alitolppa-Niitamo who has studied the role of education has to play in the integration of Somali youths.

Since 1990 many more Somalis have arrived in Finland. They number about six thousand, now constituting the largest group of refugees in the country. The article in Helsingin Sanomat concentrated on Somali women because all the publicity - often negative - has tended to concentrate on men's problems. At the same time the media created an image of Somali women oppressed by men.

Some Somali women have only started to wear a veil in Finland. According to Marja Tiilikainen, who is doing research on Somali women and the health service, says that the veil can be a sign of religious awakening but it can also be a way to maintain one's own culture and protest against a too liberal society. It is Finnish "freedom" which creates the biggest rows in Somali families.

The Somalian women, interviewed over the years by Tiilikainen, suffer from stress. They were often depressed, frustrated, tired and lonely. Often Islamic faith provided strength to cope in a new country.

In spite of the problems, the women interviewed by Tiilikainen felt they had succeeded in creating a home faraway from their original home.

Anab Ismail Abdullahi, 31, now the mother of a six-year-old son, arrived in Finland in 1992. Having had to move around a lot, she finally has a regular job as an interpreter. The veil she is wearing has never caused any comments. She says that many Somalis think about returning to their country of origin. In reality, very few will return. Their children have grown up in Finland.

Fahmo Aadan is studying to become a nurse, has a hotel cleaning job and plays in an African band. In her student flat, the reporter saw fashionable shoes with high heels. If she wants, she wears a mini-skirt. In her experience, finding Finnish friends, however, is hard. It is difficult to be accepted as a Finn even if she speaks Finnish. People tend to speak English to her or speak Finnish very slowly.

Alitolppa-Niitamo says that when two cultures meet, they both change, but the pressure to change is stronger on the minority.

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