Abdirahim “Husu” Hussein

Abdirahim “Husu” Hussein is intent on creating a positive relationship between Finns and immigrants.

HAVING arrived here as a teenager in the mid-‘90s from Mogadishu, the environment Abdirahim “Husu” Hussein was greeted with was vastly different to the one he lives in now. This was a Finland that had rarely opened its doors to immigrants since gaining independence from Russia in 1917. This was a Finland that had no immigration policy, no concern over their aging population; there was no fear from the fringes about losing their jobs, women or culture to a wave of newcomers.

From these beginnings, Hussein and his fellow Somalis set about settling into the vastly different way of life here, and have strived ever since to overcome persistent negative perceptions of their culture. His path to doing this has been in politics with the Centre Party, on the radio with comedian Ali Jahangiri in Ali ja Husu, and through the immigrant community as chairman of Moniheli. And, if he didn’t have enough on his plate, he and his wife have four children under the age of seven. Time is

SixDegrees sat down with him at Moniheli’s Sörnainen office to hear about the Somali community in Finland, speaking the truth in politics and being the scapegoat of jokes on the radio.

Tell me about Moniheli. How did it come about?

It is an immigrant-started organisation that commenced as a project in 2008. When it ended in 2011 the member organisations decided that it should become an NGO. The basis of the organisation is to take care of the wellbeing of immigrants. Not only physically, but mentally. Our main goal is to empower them. We try to promote integration and migrants themselves within the Finnish society.

At the moment we are the largest multicultural organisation that is run mostly by immigrants themselves. We have more than 30 different nationalities in the organisation representing more than 70 organisations. Our board is made up of 13 men and women from nine different nationalities. One of our initiatives has been ‘iCount’. It is a three-year project that aims to make immigrants more aware of their rights in this country, in order for them to participate politically, socially and economically in society.

How effective has it been?

In 2012, when the project started, we wanted to make immigrants aware that they could vote in this country. There were only three out of every ten immigrants who voted around the whole country. Seven out of ten did not know they had the right to vote, or didn’t care because they didn’t feel that they belonged here. Through the ‘iCount’ project we increased the number from three to five.

We are trying to bring together people who are working on issues regarding immigrants and immigration policy around the country in order to have more effect. We are growing rapidly. There are several ministries which are interested in this network organisation.

Why is this?

They can see that immigrants are trustworthy and are putting their energies and their minds together under one network. This network deserves to be recognised and supported. The network has been receiving steady funding by the national lottery, RAY, since last year. It is a very good sign that they see it is a working concept.

How has the landscape changed for immigrants here since you arrived in 1994?

In the ‘90s, when most of the immigrants started to come here, Finns were still getting used to the idea. Even though people say that those times were worse as an immigrant, I disagree. People didn’t know much about immigrants in the ‘90s. We were still exotic. People wanted to touch you, ask you why you have this colour, why do you look different. It was a positive way of being interested.

“For the past 20 years, 97 per cent
of the Somalis of this country
have been going to school, working,
living their everyday life, normally.”

They were not sure how to help us, what to do with us. A lot of us came and started to be part of the system that existed, in every way possible. Some of us became passive, because of many different things: the cold weather, lack of study places, work, all that kind of stuff. This mostly pacifies people.

Now it’s a different situation, if you look at the past five years, before the financial crisis, Finland was a beautiful country. Things were going well; there was work for almost everyone who wanted to work. Unemployment wasn’t nearly as high as it is today. People didn’t care so much about how you looked. Nine out of ten didn’t care who you are and where you come from. However, there’s always been that one per cent of the population that is a very loud. They get in all of the tabloids and the news.

Comparing the immigrants now with the ones that came back then, I would say that they are luckier than those that came before them. Now the Finns know how to advise you and help you better. Also, the immigrants themselves who came earlier know exactly what you need, and how to help you in the best way. There’s more awareness between people and immigrants. And the number of immigrants has increased rapidly – we are almost four per cent of the population.

With the first wave of Somali refugees coming here in the early ‘90s, how do you think their integration process has been?

[Big sigh] For the Somalis it has always been a challenging situation. When you have a different language, a different culture and different beliefs, there are so many differences. When you come here there’s a system that exists and nobody tells you about the system and how it was built and what it expects from you. You are just told, ‘this is the system, be part of it’. It’s expected for you to blend in, even if you have some mental problems and wouldn’t know how to deal with them. In one culture it’s okay to tell all the problems you have, while in the other one you have to hide it. You can’t help someone who is hiding his or her problem.

It’s been a challenge for both sides. Most Finns want to change you, and tell you to be different from whom you are. Then the Somalis are saying, ‘I don’t want to be different; I want to be the person I am. If you want to help me, help me for who I am, not by changing me to become something that you want.’

For the past 20 years, 97 per cent of the Somalis of this country have been going to school, working, living their everyday life, normally. But we still get mentioned a lot in the tabloids. You have to remember that within a number of 15,000 people, 52 per cent are under the age of 20. We have almost 8,000 who are children. Then from the 7,000 remaining, I would say that 60-70 per cent of them are working. Then from the other 30 per cent they are mothers taking care of their young ones, students and, of course, the unemployed. The worst thing about statistics is that you can use it the way you want. It’s kind of the half full, half empty glass. If you want to use it negatively you can, or positively. The Somalis have been easy to target because we look different, we dress different, we act different, especially the women; you can see a Somali woman when she walks down the street from the way she dresses. When you can spot the person from very far it’s very easy to blame them, and all that kind of stuff.

As a Somali I would say that we have done a lot more good than bad in this country, but we are not angels. We also have those bad guys and girls. Some of them are trying to be what they are not, and because of their identity crisis, some of them self-destruct and harm others. This destruction affects others too.

Date and place of birth: 1978, Mogadishu.
Family: Wife and four kids.
Education: Social Sciences at university.

My political inspiration is… the need of
change and update in life.

When I think of Somalia I… think of home.

Finland is… my second home.

How about the second generation of Somalis, how have they emerged as a group here?

I don’t see them as a group that exists differently from the rest of the country. The second generation, the ones that were born here, or came here when they were young, they have adapted to Finnish culture. They have also learned how to be a chameleon. When you are at home you are a different culture and acting a different way. Then when you are out in society you are a different person. Either it breaks you or makes you. I’d say it is eight out of ten who succeed. They become very rich in culture and very close to being perfect citizens. They have the same problems as the Finns, and challenges with work, apartments and school. But then you have the other two out of ten who can’t balance between the two cultures, at home and society. By trying to imitate one or the other all the time it puts them in trouble. Then they fall out of society and become harmful to themselves and the rest of the community.

I am very proud personally of the second generation Somalis as they are starting to realise that they need to study. In the last five to six years I would say that the message that you need to study to become something has really been sinking in. Now we have 30 Somali students who are going to university in Romania to become doctors. They couldn’t get into universities in Finland so they went there to study. We have two who got into medicine in Finland for the first time three years ago. We have students who study law, but because they don’t get into universities here they go around the world. Now we have students in Estonia, Russia, England and other English-speaking countries.

As I am a journalist some of them contact me and say that I need to tell the Finnish media about this: ‘Society needs to understand we are not only problems in this country.’ I’m very proud that we have six-to-ten Somali doctors working in the metropolitan area. This number will multiply many times in the next five years. The second generation Somalis are going to be the builders of this country. This will not be possible if the society wants to look at them only as a problem. They reflect the two bad ones on the rest of the eight. This is demoralising the youth and is making harder for people like myself to help, since this negative portrayal is getting to them. Some of them are really disappointed and sometimes angry about why society doesn’t talk about the eight that are good. I hear comments like ‘We are the majority, why are we not getting any coverage?’ But the bad ones are getting the coverage. It doesn’t interest many people to say that a Somali guy like me is leading an organisation working with 400,000 euro, or that a young Somali boy and girl got to study medicine in this country. It doesn’t interest many. But if a Somali young man were to stand out there and mug a grandmother, or shout at someone in the street, it will interest everyone. You can see the dilemma.

Is that frustrating?

Very, very much. Especially for the youth.

How do you work through that, on a day-to-day level?

If it doesn’t kill you it makes you stronger. When you get frustrated five or six days of the week, then you talk to someone who cares for you, who knows something to say about it. Then you start to use it in a positive way. Once again nine out of ten are coping with this in a positive way. Then you have that one who gets angry and wants to share their bad feelings with others and this sometimes causes problems. Then they go to jail become another one who the system has made angry. Of course, there are also those bad individuals also.

I would not say it is the system’s fault. I would say that we all have to hold ourselves accountable and we all need to be supporting each other and telling each other that violence is never an answer to anything. It’s the same with the Finnish youth; there is no ethnic group that is perfect. Everyone has its own share of problems and success stories. We are one of the many.

Let’s talk a little about your YLE radio programme, Ali ja Husu.

Ali ja Husu is a national radio talk show. It has been on air since January 2013 and has been received very well. We have more than 100,000 listeners each week. I am our biggest critic, because I see it as two immigrant guys talking about what’s happening in Finland through their own perspective. But, this is a perspective that Finns have never heard before. Now they get to hear it, feel it and almost touch it. In the beginning they expected us to talk about immigration issues, but we talk about everything that is happening in Finland. There’s nothing to compare with it. It’s the first and only programme so far run by immigrants speaking in Finnish.

Everyone who’s interested in integration and immigration listens to the programme. They send us feedback, asking about this and that. Lately we’ve been getting a lot of invitations to speak about these issues in different parts of Finland. Ali is a stand-up comedian so he’s already promoting his message around the country. Some of his punchlines are me, so it’s good for him to have a Somali guy there. [laughs] We have mutual understanding and respect, but we disagree on everything in life. That’s why our producer likes us. Even if I am close to the truth, Ali disagrees, just because he can’t agree with anything I say. We are both very stubborn people.

You are also involved with the Centre Party since 2005 as a vice counsellor in Helsinki. Why the Centre Party?

In the beginning when I started it follow Finnish politics, there were two types of political affiliation. Firstly were those against people like me, immigration and integration; and on the other side there are the ones who want to speak on my behalf, like I am a small child. When I looked at the Centre Party, it didn’t fit into any of these two. No words. Not for or against. I was very interested to know why there is a political party in this country that wasn’t interested in this issue. Such a significant number of immigrants are coming here; Finns are getting older and not having as many children. Demographically this is a country that is going to have much less people in the next 100 years.

I went to the Centre Party and told about my visions and ideas on immigration and integrations issues. I was surprised to see most of what I said was recorded and put in the party statue on this issue. The party representatives were listening to what people like myself were saying, and were willing to use the information that we had. So, why not work with this party! I spoke to one of the Centre Party veterans in 2009, who told me he didn’t know anything about immigration, integration and immigrants. He was a 60 year-old man and had never worked with immigrants here. But he said, ‘I know you, you are a great guy, I believe you and trust you. Why don’t you work with these issues and we will support you.’ This is exactly what I was looking for all my life: acceptance and that I am part of this society. ‘You are part of this country, you can contribute and your contribution is appreciated.’ It gave me this sense of belonging for the first time.

That’s why I decided I was going to be a member of this party. Even though in 2011 the party lost like it has never lost before, I decided that I’m not going to turn my back. This is my time to make history in this country. I’m going to do everything possible, not only to bring the party back to its glory days, but take it to the top – and be one of its effective members.

I keep on hearing from different ministerial levels that Finland is now not only for Finns, and we have the new Finns. I’m asked my opinions about how things should be on many different levels of society. I then keep finding my points on their statues, how best to run things. My belief is that we should solve immigration and integration problems together, immigrants and Finns. People shouldn’t go and do for others what they don’t know about. They should do it together, by involving immigrants on the process of issues concerning them. This is the fundamental thing with the Centre Party on this issue.

With politicians people always say one thing and do another, but it’s my one priority to make sure that we, the Centre Party politicians, do more and talk less. If this is not done, then I’m going to hold them accountable

James O’Sullivan
Images: Tomas Whitehouse