Azaldeen and his young daughter are starting over on a small island in south-west Finland, after family tragedy forced them to flee Baghdad.
© Max-Michel Kolijn
Azaldeen, 34, says Iraq was not a safe place for him to bring up a child. “We were always afraid,” he recalls. “There’s no peace for Diana in Iraq.”
They were among 100 refugees who found a new home on the small island community of Nagu in Finland’s south-west archipelago.
There, 80-year-old resident Mona Hemmer took the pair under her wing, becoming a grandmother figure to Diana and helping to bring stability into her new life.
Now aged three, Diana has blossomed. “She has grown incredibly fast and transformed from a very anxious child to a girl that communicates and relaxes,” says Mona. “She will have a very bright future.”
Her new home of Nagu is located in a Swedish-speaking region of Finland, a peaceful haven for several thousand holidaymakers during the summer. Out of season it has a permanent population of 1,500.
Mona retired to the island 17 years ago and lives there with her partner Kaj. From the start, when the community found out that it was going to receive 100 refugees, she wanted to help refugees feel at home.
“She will have a very bright future.”
Mona works with a cultural association to bring concerts and the arts to the island, and is an active and respected member of the community. When residents learned about the planned arrival of the refugees, they quickly started preparing.
“Some people were worried about how the refugees would affect our small community,” she says. “But most of all, we were curious. The Nagu people used to be voyagers, fishermen – they are curious about the unknown and different cultures. Instead of closing up with fear, we decided to welcome the families and children as our guests.”
“Welcoming refugees isn’t about organizing a lot of strange separate activities for them. It is about making sure they feel welcome to be part of what the local community is already doing.”
A group of people started making sure that refugees would be included and invited to take part in community activities.
They spoke to the organizers of existing courses and clubs, adjusting classes in the arts to fit families with children, inviting refugees to join fitness and knitting classes and soccer teams, and bringing young adults along to parties and spending time with them. The refugees soon started building their own network of friends on Nagu.
“Soon, they knew some of our neighbours better than we did,” Mona says. “In the end, we were learning from them and it pulled the Nagu community closer together.”
Azaldeen immediately bonded with Mona and started calling her “mother”. When he began attending Finnish language classes in the nearby city of Åbo once a week, Mona offered to take care of Diana and the child soon adopted her as a surrogate grandmother. In Finnish society, children often spend a day a week with their grandparents.
“It pulled the Nagu community closer together.”
Diana was given a calm space in Mona’s home where she could relax, play with the dog, visit the horse in the neighbour’s stable and feel like a loved grandchild.
“My own grandchildren have grown up, so I was very happy to meet Diana,” says Mona. “We have developed our own routines and Diana feels safe here.”
Azaldeen and Diana have now received refugee status and residence permits, and Azaldeen has decided to stay in Nagu and study Finnish, while many of the other refugees have chosen to move to bigger cities.
“I don’t want to move Diana again now that we finally have found a big family here,” he says. “My family is Mona and Kaj and the others on Nagu.”
“Nagu is a good and loving place. This is our home now.”