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"The world begins in your own home"

"The world begins in your own home"

A Somali student who fled Tajikistan when the tanks rolled in is now a well-established politician in Finland.
9 April 2003
Finland's Refugee Woman of the Year 2003, Zahra Ali Abdulla (middle), with her predecessors, Lao Ig Lang from Cambodia and Ibadet Fazliova from Macedonia.

HELSINKI, Finland (UNHCR) - When Zahra Ali Abdullah saw the tanks rolling into the streets of Tajikistan's capital Dushanbe, she decided it was time to leave. It was right after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the situation for foreign students was becoming increasingly difficult. When civil war broke out in Tajikistan, Zahra could no longer stay. She had to disrupt her medical studies at the Dushanbe university and flee the country. The problem was that she could not return to her home country either; Somalia as well was being torn apart by a vicious civil war. So Zahra joined a group of other foreign students and went to Moscow.

Now, 14 years later, Zahra is a well-established politician in Finland, a graduated midwife, a social worker, a spokesperson of the refugee community in the country and a mother of two teenage boys. Her life has been a success story, in spite of all problems that could have broken a less determined person. In March, the Finnish Refugee Council selected Zahra, 37, to be the Refugee Woman of the Year 2003 for her efforts in supporting other immigrant women in Finland and for her active participation in Finnish society in a broader sense.

Zahra has indeed gone through a remarkable career in her country of asylum. After having arrived in Finland from Moscow, she had to wait two years for the approval of her asylum application. During this time she concentrated on learning Finnish. "When I studied Russian, my teacher used to scare us with the seven grammatical cases of that language, claiming it was a very difficult language to learn. Well, then I was faced with having to learn Finnish, a language with 15 cases!" exclaims Zahra. Today, she speaks the language fluently.

In Finland, Zahra had to start her studies all over again. Although she had been studying medicine in Dushanbe, she was not able to pursue her studies at that level. In 1995, she graduated as a nurse. Then she applied to midwife school. Among 1,000 applicants, she was one of 32 selected for the course: "I was so happy, I could not believe that I was one of the few lucky ones!" To finance her studies, she supported herself and her family by interpreting for other asylum seekers and refugees, by nursing children and coaching youngsters.

When working as a refugee interpreter and tutor, Zahra assisted refugees and asylum seekers in finding their way through the bureaucratic maze of state and municipal authorities and institutions, as well as in health and other important issues. She quickly realised that there sometimes was a vast gap between the refugees and the authorities in the way they understood each other, in spite of all good intentions.

"So I decided to become a builder of bridges between these two different worlds. That is how I started with politics."

In 1997, Zahra was elected to the municipal assembly of Helsinki as a representative of the Green Party. She was re-elected in the following elections. This year, she was a candidate for the March 16 parliamentary elections, and managed to collect 2,700 votes - no small number in Finnish circumstances. However, this did not suffice for a seat in parliament, but she was in any case the most successful of all foreign-born candidates.

Zahra is a brilliant example of a refugee woman who has successfully managed to rebuild her life in a new country. Her positive spirit seems to be able to conquer all hardships and misfortunes. Today, she sees herself as somebody with a mission to work for the integration of refugees. "We are all building this society together, refugees and native Finns, we all contribute to making it a better place," she says.

She sums up her life philosophy in these words: "The world begins in your own home, society begins in your own family, the future starts today!" To her, basic values and attitudes learnt in the home and in the family are the best bases for successful integration.

And what does this remarkable woman do in her spare time, if she has any? "I love to take long walks in the evenings, especially in summer, when there is no darkness at night. I will sit down by the seaside and meditate. I cannot afford to travel abroad on holidays like other people, but I travel internally, within my own mind," says Zahra. But she has indeed travelled far in her life, settling down in a place that is very distant from her home country, both geographically and culturally.

By Mans Nyberg
UNHCR Finland