HELSINKI, Finland, May 25 (UNHCR) – The UN refugee agency has completed a unique and moving series of regional dialogues with women that began in India last November and wrapped up in Finland this week.
The seven dialogue meetings brought together hundreds of women in Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East and the Americas and were aimed at giving refugee women a voice and an opportunity to influence change during UNHCR’s landmark 60th year.
The final dialogue was held from last Friday to Monday in the Finnish capital Helsinki, where the experience of refugee women is strikingly different from those living in the other countries that hosted meetings of women and men – India, Colombia, Jordan, Uganda, Thailand and Zambia.
Yet despite the freedoms and security that refugee women and girls enjoy in Finland, participants at the gathering told of the challenges and difficulties that they face in what is an alien environment for most of them.
“Imagine a woman who has suffered trauma and rape, who is separated from her family and still worries about her children or husband in a camp, who does not speak a word of Finnish and has no idea about the local culture and society,” asked one of the 25 women taking part. “She is lost beyond words when she arrives here,” the Sri Lankan lady added.
Another participant, Ivanka, who arrived in Finland in 1992 after fleeing her home in the Balkans, said it was hardest at the beginning when refugees had to wait in reception centres for months or even years for their papers and the right to reside in the Nordic country. She said she had found it difficult to integrate.
She referred to the isolation and loneliness she felt “trying to learn the language, to understand the society, to be accepted. To deal with the hope of ever returning home, and then the sadness that this might never be the case.”
But she overcame the hurdles and is a stronger person for it. She talked of “the healing” and added that, “Now, after so many years, I feel grounded and well equipped to help others who are only starting.”
Ivanka now speaks Finnish, Swedish and English on top of her mother tongue. For the past four years she has worked for the Adult Education Centre, which provides orientation courses for newly arrived asylum-seekers and refugees. “I felt that with my background and experience, I could help and really guide people who arrive here and feel lost.”
Finland, a country of 5 million inhabitants, gives residential status to 750 refugees or asylum-seekers a year. But they have to pass a tough citizenship exam. And refugees face difficulties being placed in some municipalities that worry about extra costs. Racism is also a problem.
“The negative attitudes of some people in society are a worry to many Finns, but especially to immigrants,” Mina from Iran told participants. “We need to fight hard to prove that we can offer added value and not be a burden to this society.”
The other dialogues have been equally lively, thoughtful and pertinent. Each meeting has had its own unique flavour, but all have helped to highlight the problems and challenges that women and girls face after being forced from their homes by violence or persecution.
Recommendations from the dialogues will feed into a ministerial-level meeting to be held in Geneva in December 2011.