A resident of Finland for nearly 20 years, Mohamed believes that all children born here should always be recognised as being Finnish, regardless of their ethnic roots.

Saido Mohamed’s inspiring human rights advocacy has earned her the title of Finland’s Refugee Woman of the Year. SixDegrees caught up with her this month to hear more about her life, work and thoughts on her new title.

Somali-born special nurse Saido Mohamed has been nominated Refugee Woman of the Year for 2011 by the Finnish Refugee Council.

The 36-year-old, who was awarded the title in recognition of her extensive voluntary work with the Somali community and Finnish health professionals, came to Finland in 1992, training as a nurse and later working with a host of NGOs including the Finnish Somali Association.

A tireless campaigner for human rights and health education, particularly focusing on women and young people, Saido is perhaps best known for her work for the Finnish League for Human Rights on a preventative initiative against female genital mutilation. She now serves as deputy chairwoman of the Finnish Somalia Network – the only woman to serve on the Network’s board – and this year became chairwoman of Sahed, a Finnish NGO that coordinates healthcare projects in Somalia.

Can you tell us about your early life in Somalia, and how you came to Finland?

I’ve been living here for almost twenty years now. I was born in Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia. I came as a refugee because of the civil war, which started in 1991. Mogadishu was the worst place to be at the time. My family wanted me to continue my education, and I didn’t know where I was going to study. I had aunts and uncles in the UK and Switzerland, but my big sister was in Finland. The situation in Somalia was getting worse. So I stayed, studied the language, and went to school here.

I wanted to help
immigrants to understand
Finnish culture and values,
and to find a place in
society here.

How was it adjusting to life in Finland?

It was not easy. Sometimes I wondered: Should I be here? But when you are young, you can adapt, although it’s a big responsibility for a young person to make decisions alone. Everything was new, and even everyday things, like going shopping alone, were new experiences. I had been living with my family who took care of me, and when I came, I felt empty. The language, the culture, the weather, even the way people look – everything was strange. But I started school, and because I could speak English, it was easy for me to communicate with the teacher and with classmates. So I count myself lucky.

What led to your decision to become a nurse and then a human rights worker?

Medicine always interested me. Originally I wanted to be a doctor, but I thought nursing was a good way to start. After working in a hospital for a few years I realised I wanted to do something different with my life, something where my cultural background was useful. I always felt very strongly about the rights of women and children. Among the Finnish NGOs, there were few people who could contribute as both a health professional and someone with an immigrant background. I wanted to help immigrants to understand Finnish culture and values, and to find a place in society here.

Date and place of birth: 1974, Mogadishu, Somalia

Place of residence: Helsinki

Education: Bachelor’s degree in nursing from Mikkeli

PolytechnicFamily: Very international nowadays – my brothers and sisters live all over Europe. It’s great when we meet, because there are so many languages being spoken – English, French, German, Finnish and Somali, all mixed together.

As a child I wanted to be… a doctor or a journalist. Journalism runs in the family – four of my uncles and my grandfather were journalists, and some of them used to broadcast on national radio and TV.

I admire... strong older women who have experienced life but who have built up very influential careers. President Tarja Halonen is a good example.

I’m afraid of... war.

In the future I hope... to have good health, and to have my own family.

What does your work involve?

I train immigrants of African origin about healthcare, particularly female health. I also train health professionals to understand better about different religious and cultural backgrounds. Health is a human rights issue, and an equality issue. As a professional, you need to give good care but you don’t have to accept every aspect of someone’s culture if it is unethical. Female genital mutilation is unacceptable, for instance. That’s something I’ve been working on with the African community.

It’s very rewarding work, as you can see change happening. It helps to be a professional who is also within that community – you can focus on facts, not culture. If someone of Finnish background says “You can’t do that, it’s the law!” people may see this as very negative. But as a member of the community, you know what you’re talking about, and you are listened to more easily.

Have you encountered any challenges in working with the Somali community?

It’s mostly men working in the NGOs I’m involved with. I feel even more responsibility to work with them because of that, and now I actually work more with Somali men than Somali women. In the beginning it was difficult, but now they’ve accepted me. They say, ‘You’re not a woman, you’re one of us!’ but I say, ‘No, I’m a woman, and I have the right to say what I think!’ It’s very important to also work with men on women’s and children’s rights. In any community, when men and women work together, then you can make change happen.

How have things changed since you came to Finland? Do you think things are easier for newcomers than they were when you arrived?

Of course a lot of things have changed, and now that Finland is in the European Union, there’s a greater variety of backgrounds, and you can hear different languages on the street. But for people of immigrant backgrounds, I’d say we are in the same situation as in the 1990s. If you watch TV debates, it’s the same politics, the same issues that come up. If anything, race has become more of an issue, especially after the last election. Finland is now a multicultural country, and the world is not so big anymore. But Finland is still not ready to accept multiculturalism. Now children born in Finland to immigrant parents in the 1990s are in their twenties – so who is an immigrant now? Of course I was not born here, and I came here with my culture and religion. But I also have a culture I grew here over the last twenty years. That culture is very rich. It’s important that young people understand there doesn’t have to be this conflict between cultures. After all, cultures change and evolve all the time, and every generation is different.

So how do you feel about being called ‘Refugee Woman of the Year’?

I remember talking with my family about it. My twelve-year-old niece, who is from Switzerland, asked me, ‘Are you still a refugee then?’ Of course I came here as a refugee, but I’m not a refugee now. For me, my background is not something to be ashamed of. I’m really proud of where I came from. I’ve seen a war, I’ve had to leave my family and my home – these are the things that any refugee from any country experiences. But the title does make me think, who is foreign? Who is Finnish? This is something that worries me. When we talk about immigrants, we need to define the term more clearly. For me it is unacceptable to say that children born here are Somali or Afghan or Russian or whatever – that’s where racism starts. It means we want to see people differently.

In some ways, when someone has a dark or brown skin colour, the media puts that person into a category of religion or culture, and makes that individual representative of a group of people. That’s something we don’t see on TV – individuals. Children don’t represent the culture of their parents. Young people say to me, ‘I don’t feel Finnish, but I don’t feel Somali either’. People see the way you look, and think of you as an outsider. Even children with one Finnish parent are perceived as immigrants. And if children don’t feel accepted, what about adults? How do you get a sense of belonging, how do you become a member of the Finnish community, if you don’t get a chance?

How do you think negative stereotypes about immigrants should be tackled?

In the media, people need to talk in an honest and positive way about immigration. We always seem to focus on the negative aspects. We need to recognise that Somalis are not all the same, Africans are not all the same – and Finns are not all the same. I think also in education, from kindergarten onwards, we should talk about multiculturalism as something good. The more we stereotype, the more the immigrant becomes like the stereotype. But every family has a different culture.

Has your new title helped you in dealing with the media or in your work more generally?

I’ve been working in this field for over ten years, and the media already knew me, so I don’t see much difference. There can be a negative side to getting a title like this, as it’s easy to forget the point behind it. But on the positive side, I can use it as a tool for my work – it’s been a great opportunity to develop the projects I’m working on, to meet different people and to raise awareness about important issues. The title also gives inspiration for young people, particularly girls – they think if this person has done well, then I can do well too.

Now that you’ve received this public recognition for your work, what are your aspirations for the future?

I like to keep my feet on the ground, as we say in Finland! But I like change, and new challenges; I like to work with people. I’d also like to work on a more international level in future.

You’re already involved in some international projects in Somalia and elsewhere. Do you have any comments on the famine and human rights situation in Somalia right now?

It’s very important that we don’t close our eyes to what’s happening in Somalia. Right now there are Finnish charities and health workers in Somalia, like Sahed ry, which is running a tuberculosis inoculation, mother and child care centre project  in central Somalia. We have to help those who are most in need – women and children are particularly in danger.

You’ve spoken before about the importance of listening to voices that aren’t being heard in Finland. Can you tell us more about that?

In this country, there are a lot of professionals with an immigrant background that we don’t see in the media or in public life – people working for international companies, doctors, academics and so on. There are also lots of immigrant women who are leading successful lives as students and professionals, and Finland is their country. These are not the kind of immigrants that get featured on TV, but we should talk about them too. I don’t want to talk on behalf of every Somali. I want to talk about my opinions and experiences, and I also want to hear different voices.

Louisa Gairn
Photos Tomas Whitehouse