Birthdate and place: 1970, Kabul.
Family: Married with five children; three sons and two daughters
Education: Master’s in Social Science.
Finland is…a society of agreements; a peaceful and good country.
When I think about Afghanistan I feel…not very safe, because of the war and violence.
Human rights are…very important – to have peace, justice and equality in society.
Kung fu is…arts, sports and action.
Immigration in Finland is…a process.

After leaving conflict-riddled Afghanistan behind 20 years ago, Hamed Shafae has gone on to embrace human rights from a Finnish perspective.

Currently working as a planning officer for the City of Helsinki’s Human Resources Centre, Immigration Division. Hamed Shafae’s passion for human rights was born while growing up in war-ravaged Kabul. Continuing his involvement for the past two decades while living in Finland, the key ingredient that facilitated a smooth integration for Shafae here was his extensive training in kung fu.

Sitting down with him on a Wednesday afternoon at Stoa in Helsinki’s Itäkeskus, conversation with the softly spoken Shafae involves many thoughtful pauses. Reflecting on his time in Finland, his passion for martial arts and his perspective on his country of birth, his well-considered answers arrive in due course.

Why did you first come to Finland?

I came to Finland about 20 years ago. I was a human rights activist in Afghanistan and my life was in danger, so I moved from Afghanistan. I was in Ukraine about nine months, and from there I went to Moscow and then to Helsinki. I sought asylum here.

What was it that initially drew you to activism in Afghanistan?

Because of the war and violations of human rights we established the first human rights organisation there. Afghanistan is a multicultural society, so there have been conflicts, injustices, racism and a lot of social problems. I thought that if we were to have human rights in Afghanistan, these kinds of problems would be solved. I still think that democracy and human rights are the only solutions for Afghanistan.

We were a small group. It was very difficult as people didn’t know about human rights. Mostly they had seen two sides: on the left, the communist party of Afghanistan; on the other, Islamic groups. They thought it was an idea from the West, and it is against Islam. It was very dangerous for human rights activists.

When you arrived in Finland 20 years ago, what was your impression?

I came in December in the heart of the winter, and it was cold and dark. For me it was difficult to be alone here and the climate was also quite different. I didn’t know the language – of course I knew English, but it was not enough to communicate with people. I didn’t know about my destiny here, whether I will stay here or not. My family was in another country. Actually I had depression and I wondered always what would happen to me.

But because I am a sportsman, a professional coach, I started to teach martial arts. This has helped me a lot because through sports I found a lot of friends, and they helped me in different activities and I got good ideas how to learn the language and study and so on. I have now been teaching martial arts in Finland for 20 years.

When did you start practicing kung fu?

I started in Afghanistan when I was 13. Before that I practiced boxing, samurai, kendo, judo and wrestling. Finally I found my style: kung fu. I moved to Iran when I was quite young, as I did not want to participate in war being a human rights activist. I started to teach kung fu there. This was very good for me because I didn’t have any other job. Iranian society also was at war with Iraq, so there were many people who were interested in learning kung fu.

Kung fu has helped me everywhere: in Iran, Russia and in Finland, because it is a sport that brings people together. When I started to teach kung fu and tai chi here, most people didn’t know English so I had to explain techniques in Finnish. This was helpful as I really started to use Finnish language. I founded the association here, Suomen Wushu Kungfu Seura, 16 years ago. We have about ten coaches and between 100-250 students, which mostly depends on the season of the year and the amount of participants in the courses and amount of our coaches.

So, the language came first and then I started to learn to use computers and other things. I studied social science at university and I got my master’s degree. Being at school and reading books is not the only way to learn. It is very important to be active in society and to see what others are doing. I believe that people learn when communicating with each other.

It was not easy as an adult to integrate: studying, working, being an activist in different organisations, sports and society, and also family. Sports have been a big part of my life. Human rights have also been very, very important for me.

Why are human rights so important to you?

I believe in human rights. As a member of society I think that it’s very important to support human rights, even in Finland where there is peace, justice and a democratic society. We should remember that Finland is a part of a global world and we have problems in other societies.

More and more foreigners are coming here to study, work, for marriage, as a refugee and so on. You can see that racism is increasing in Finland. We have activities against racism and tackling these kinds of problems. The second thing is to work with the international organisation on human rights. We have to think what’s going on in other countries.

The Human Rights Centre here was created under Finnish legislation (the Parliamentary Ombudsman Act 197/2002, amendment 20.5.2011/535), which entered into force on 1 January 2012. The Centre’s task is to promote fundamental and human rights. It is functionally autonomous and independent, but administratively part of the Office of the Parliamentary Ombudsman. Promoting information, education, training and research associated with fundamental and human rights are the main tasks of the Human Rights Centre. The Human Rights Centre has a Human Rights Delegation, which is composed of representatives of civil society, research into fundamental and human rights as well as other bodies that participate in promoting and safeguarding these rights. The Parliamentary Ombudsman appointed the Delegation on 29 March last year and designated 40 members who will serve for the term 2012-2016. I am a member of the Delegation and a representative of the Advisory Committee on Ethnic Relations.

I also was the chairman of the Finnish Afghan Association for eight years and the chairman of Aghans’ Association in Helsinki for four years. I have been helping Afghan people integrate into Finnish society.

How successfully have Afghan people integrated here?

As we know most Afghans are refugees here, and refugees generally have more problems than other groups of foreigners, because of war and other problems in their own countries. But Afghan people have integrated quite well into Finnish society, they are active with learning the language and many have a job here. Comparing them to other groups of refugees in Finland, they have been very active. One problem in Finland is that everything is exact: you have to be on time and you have to complete your responsibilities on time. In Afghan culture things are more flexible. This is a challenge at first for Afghans.

How do you see Afghanistan nowadays?

There has been change, especially in education, healthcare and also in communications. There is the Internet and also mobile phones and so on. Many Afghans are actively using social media; they have thousands of webpages and blogs. Many Afghans are on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter exchanging information, cultural productions, feelings, news and so on. Afghanistan is not a deprived society anymore nor a nation under the Taliban regime. Now, millions of children are studying and the situation of women, children and minorities are much better than before. However, there are still plenty of risks. In 2014 ISAF forces will leave Afghanistan. There is a risk that terrorist groups will come back to Afghanistan. Also because it is a multicultural society there will be also conflicts between different ethnic groups. We do not know what will happen after 2014. No one knows. Let’s see what will happen. The international community should not leave Afghan people alone in the fight against terrorism and fundamentalism; if it does, there will be a big catastrophe not only in Afghanistan, but also in the region.

Could you see yourself living in Afghanistan doing what you do now?

No actually. Of course, I was born there and I also think about Afghanistan because my relatives and friends and childhood memories are from there. But I am living in Finland; I am a Finnish citizen. When I live here, I am here in Finland, physically, mentally and also working here, my activities are here. Of course, if I can help people in Afghanistan from here I do, but I am not thinking anymore about going back there to live. It’s been almost half of my life that I have lived in Finland.

When did you start working for the City of Helsinki?

I started in the beginning of 2000 in the Department of Culture as a culture advisor for four years. Then I went to university and studied, I came back to work in the social office for one year and then on to City Hall for two years. Now I have been in the Human Resources Centre for almost two years in the Immigration Division. Soon I will go back to my permanent job at City Hall as an advisor of city services under the Communications Office.

Is Finland welcoming to immigrants?

I think when we look at the policy of the Government and municipalities, then yes. Officials want to welcome immigrants to Finland, but the process is not very fast. Every year almost 20,000 foreigners get residence permits for different reasons such as international students, employed persons, self-employed persons, family reunification and refugees.

Authorities do not force people to integrate into Finnish society. It mostly depends on the individuals themselves, how he or she wants to study or work in Finnish society. It is voluntary. I think that Finland needs immigrants, because of the rapidly aging population.

Almost 30 per cent of those coming to Finland are international students. Most of them study in English. Some of them also study a little bit of Finnish, but it is not enough to find work with. If they don’t get a job here they will leave Finland. If you want to work, it is very important to know Finnish. Students come to Finland, they study here, they graduate and finally they leave – even when Finland needs them here.

Why would the taxpayer pay for these foreigners’ education, only to see them take their skills elsewhere?

The foreign policy of Finland is based on the democracy and human rights and they want to help people on that basis. Now probably it will change. Discussion is going on about this issue. Many people ask why we should pay for people to study in future. Finnish society is not ready to give a job to them. Many companies need staff that speak English. Some people get jobs, some do not. Employment of the international students in Finland is like when a river with clean water passes through the city, residents of the city are thirsty, but do not use it.

You have raised a family here, how has the experience been with your cultural background?

I have an Afghan wife and five children. Because my children have learned Finnish quickly, I have tried to teach them Afghan culture; to teach them what it is, who I am and who they are. My children speak my own language, Dari. Also at the same time I have tried that they integrate well into society here. Most of them have joined me in sports, and they have got many medals in kung fu and other sports. We have dozens of medals at home. My wife is the only one in the family who doesn’t practise kung fu, but she likes walking and has some other hobbies.

With so many of the family doing kung fu, what happens if there is an argument?

No, no [laughs]. I explain to them it’s not for fighting it’s discipline. Those who are good at kung fu never fight. The Chinese say that a great soldier never fights. They solve problems in other ways; they find other solutions than fighting. Violence is contrary to the philosophy of kung fu and tai chi. Myself, I have not had to use my kung fu skills in 20 years.

Not even to enforce human rights?

No [laughs]. I have also had some problems; when you are active in society not everyone is healthy, so some people want trouble. When you drive a car in the street, even if you are a good driver, maybe the other is not. You are not always safe on the road. But I have practiced martial arts for a long time so I know if I use my skill, someone could get hurt easily.

I always avoid using my kung fu techniques. I solve problems peacefully with other methods such as dialogue and talks, and even some people think that I am a loser and weak. When you practice tai chi and kung fu, at the same time you learn about Buddhism and Taoism. It is a peaceful thing.

Text James O’Sullivan,
photos Tomas Whitehouse