Nasima Razmyar, originally from Afghanistan, is the Deputy Mayor of Helsinki and an European Young Leader (EYL40)
In 1992, when I was eight, my family’s life changed completely. After the regime change in Afghanistan, a new bloody war broke out. At the time, our family was living in Moscow where my father served as a diplomat. We had left Afghanistan when I was five and suddenly we knew there was no going back. We were now refugees.
Finland granted us asylum, and we were sent to the city of Rovaniemi. It was cold and dark. The beginning of our life in Finland was far from easy, as we didn’t know the language and knew very little of the Finnish culture. But we quickly found a Finnish friend, an elderly woman, who was a great help to our family and taught us everything of the daily life in Finland, making our integration so much easier. Soon after, we moved to Helsinki but she still stayed in our life and came to visit us. I wish every refugee family would have the same support; I have often wondered how we could have survived without her.
They thought their lives were already lost, so they wanted to give everything to their children
Life was still a struggle for my parents, however. The language was difficult and they could not find jobs. My father had been in a very high position in Afghan politics and my mother was a journalist before I was born. They experienced something that I think is very typical to first-generation refugees: they thought their lives were already lost, so they wanted to give everything to their children. My father had taken us to Finland, because he thought it was safe and could offer his children the best possible education and future. Our parents supported us and really wanted us to succeed in our lives. For me it was crucial that my family always treated us children equally – not all Afghan girls are as lucky.
After graduating from high school, I worked at NGOs. My work with immigrant women was acknowledged in 2010, when I was named Finnish Refugee Woman of the Year. And that’s where my path to politics began: a year after this recognition, I decided to run for the Finnish Parliament. I was very close to being elected, but it wasn’t my time yet. I didn’t let this discourage me and got into politics anyway, working as a parliamentary assistant to an MP. In 2012, I was elected to the Helsinki City Council and in the 2015 parliamentary elections, I became the first Finnish MP with a refugee background.
It was a big day for my whole family: 23 years after we had arrived to a cold and strange country, the Finnish people had elected me to represent them. That was more than any of us could have ever dreamed of. In spring 2017, I decided to leave the parliament, however, as I was offered an opportunity to become the Deputy Mayor of Helsinki, in charge of the Culture and Leisure Division. Now I have more concrete ways to make people’s lives better, including the increasing number of immigrant newcomers in Helsinki, to whom, I feel, I have a big responsibility to be a good example.
That is where integration starts: in day care and schools; in parks and streets
Nevertheless, it isn’t only about being an example, but about the concrete things we do in politics to make the integration easier. So far, Helsinki has been successful in fighting segregation thanks to our progressive housing policy. To maintain social cohesion, it is very important that all the neighbourhoods are diverse and equal, so that different kinds of people can meet each other in daily life. That is where integration starts: in day care and schools; in parks and streets. After the 2015 influx of refugees, the city of Helsinki established a Skills Centre, which has been a success. The training and services provided by the centre are intended for immigrants who have been granted a residence permit or the right of asylum. Everyone completes a personal evaluation to find out what kind of training they need to get into labour markets. An impressive number of applicants have found a job or a traineeship.
Learning the language is also key when integrating into a new society. That is why it is so crucial to offer language courses and education to newcomers. I highly appreciate the Finnish school system where everyone is entitled to study in his or her own mother tongue, as it is necessary to know your own language properly to be able to learn new ones. This gave me a strong basis for studying, and I did pretty well in school after learning Finnish. The Finnish library system was also an important factor in my integration and language learning. I will never forget the feeling when I got my library card – it was my very own thing and it opened a new world to me.
Sometimes even learning the language and getting a job is not enough, however. We need to be able to change the attitudes and respond the difficult question: how can we make our societies more open to diversity? I believe public discussion is the key. We need to fight hate speech and racism with legislation, but also be open to dialogue with those who might be afraid of change.
This article is from Friends of Europe’s discussion paper ‘Real people, true stories: refugees for more inclusive societies’, in which refugees past and present share their personal stories and offer forward-looking, experience-based recommendations for improving integration around the world.
IMAGE CREDIT: City of Helsinki