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From child refugee to politician: Finland’s first Somali-born MP

By Moulid Hujale
Wednesday July 7, 2021

Said Ahmed, the first Somali-born Finnish MP and two-time Helsinki city councillor, arrived in the country as a child refugee [Courtesy: Tiina Palm]

In 2008, Said Ahmed was 15 when his family arrived in Finland having fled the civil war in Somalia.

His childhood memory is filled with haunting acts of violence and displacement.

“I saw a dead person being driven in a wheelbarrow,” he told Al Jazeera, recalling the horrific scenes that dominate his last memories of Mogadishu.

The fighting in the Somali capital, where Ahmed was born, was so intense that his relatives escaped to neighbouring Ethiopia, before travelling to the Nordic nation through family reunification.

They first settled in Kontiolahti in the northern Karelia region, looking forward to starting a new peaceful life.

But the initial sense of relief wore off quickly and was replaced with hostility and fear.

There was only a handful of Black families in their neighbourhood, surrounded by a “sea of white people”, said Ahmed, many of whom were fiercely opposed to refugees and foreigners.

Physical and verbal attacks, including death threats, became “part of our daily life”, he said.

When his friend’s father was stabbed in broad daylight after leaving Friday prayer, they fled again in search of safety.

At first, Ahmed’s mother considered moving to the United Kingdom but they later decided to live in Helsinki, where he began his activism and successful political career.

“I saw a future in Finland despite the challenges and I wanted to do something about it,” he said.

Thirteen years later, at 28, he became the first Somali-born Finnish member of parliament and two-time Helsinki city councillor.

Al Jazeera spoke to Ahmed, who will assume office in September, about his remarkable story.

Al Jazeera: What do you remember about the war in Somalia that uprooted your family?

Said Ahmed: I remember we used to take cover in our neighbour’s house which was made of concrete and saved us from mortar rockets and shelling. I remember seeing a dead person being driven in a wheelbarrow, it was the first time I saw a dead body, the image of the body’s feet tied together is still printed in my mind.

When we finally decided to leave the city, we were attacked by militia men along the way. They robbed us of everything, including my favourite Brazil jersey that I loved to wear when playing football.

Al Jazeera: How would you characterise your experience arriving in Finland as a child?

Ahmed: We arrived during the financial crisis, the country was tense and xenophobia was on the rise. The level of hate and racism was shocking. I remember when I went to the market during weekends, people would chase us around calling us names. We never expected such hostility.

Al Jazeera: How did you cope with those challenges?

Ahmed: I believe it starts with one individual to ignite a movement and inspire change. When we moved to Helsinki, I found more Black communities and other Somalis but there was no one representing them and speaking up for them. So I started reaching out to people and getting involved in local community events.

At first, it only made matters worse for me. I have attracted so much negative attention and I was targeted both online and offline. However, that did not stop me from continuing with my mission. I am motivated by the thousands of people who joined me last year for the first Black Lives Matter protests in Finland.

Al Jazeera: How did you end up at the Helsinki City Council?

Ahmed: I joined the Left Alliance party and was elected to be the deputy chairperson in 2016, becoming the first person with an immigrant background to lead the party. That has given me an opportunity to travel around the country and learn more about the people and political system.

In 2017, I ran for Helsinki City Council and won. I started taking the voices of the ordinary people to the city hall. I introduced more than 12 motions, including the first anonymous recruiting initiative in Finland which allowed for people to send their applications without name, address and other personal information, to help increase opportunities for Black and minority people.

Al Jazeera: Have you faced any backlash over your political ambitions?

Ahmed: In 2019, I was attacked by members of a far-right group while I was campaigning for parliamentary elections. I was carrying my campaign leaflets when two men came up to me and asked if I was Suldaan, and when I said yes, they immediately started punching me.

They said, “Never dream to be in the parliament.” I lost the election that year but I never lost hope.

Today, the dream they thought they could stop has come true as I have officially replaced my Left Alliance Party colleague, Paavo Arhinmäki, who is nominated for Helsinki deputy mayor. I am making history and if I saw those men today, I would tell them that Finland is greater than them.

The people of Helsinki voted for me twice to be their City councillor and now I will be representing them in parliament. It is the honour of my life and I want to put my full energy in making sure that I deliver what I am expected of.

My victory is for everyone, particularly for the refugees who are forced to flee their homes and who are seeking the opportunity to contribute to their new countries and fulfil their potential.


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