From war-torn Syria to wintery Finland
It is the year 2015. A woman arrives in Turkey with her little son and finally meets her husband after three years. Homeland Syria is amidst war and returning home would be life-threatening. Turkey threatens to drive all Syrians out of the country. That is when Lama Kourdi and her family decide to go to Europe to seek refuge.
Twenty days after the decision to leave, the Refugee Woman of the Year arrived in Finland with her family. It was December, and Helsinki was quiet. Lama thought, “Where are all the people?”. Lama and her family went to the Helsinki Main Police Station to get interviewed, after which they were taken to a reception centre for a week. There was a dreadful journey behind—they had crossed the sea in an inflatable boat, reached countless kilometres on foot, or in the most favourable situations by bus. They spent nights under the sky and protected their sick child with only coats and blankets.
- Age: 30
- Family: Husband, 10- and 3-year-old boys, expecting a third child
- Lives in: Tampere
- Profession: Bachelor of Philosophy, sociology student, works as a language and cultural assistant in early childhood education services
- Arrived in Finland: From Syria as an asylum seeker in 2015
- Special: Has set up a club for immigrant women to increase women’s knowledge of their rights
“I held my firstborn in my arms in an inflatable boat all the way from Turkey to Greece. Someone asked how I had dared to take my child on such a dangerous journey. I replied that this child has lived in the middle of war and distress all his life: at least he has a chance to get to safety now,” Lama recalls.
Life in Syria was chaotic and uncertain. Lama’s husband was from a region outside the capital, Damascus, where war and protests were fiercest. Eventually, the area was closed, and Lama heard nothing from her husband for 12 months. The lives of the residents were threatened, and her husband was forced to flee the country. After escaping, he ended up in Congo. Meanwhile, Lama sought to continue living as normal as she could regardless of the war.
“In the mornings, when I went to the university to study or teach math, I was not sure if I would return home in the afternoon. However, I could not stop living. After all, I was a mother and wanted to do something for our future,” Lama describes.
A lot of waiting and a new language that sounds like singing
Lama brought her strength of will to Finland: in the first week, she and her husband indicated their willingness to study and work. However, due to the system, things did not happen as quickly as the family hoped, and they had to wait a year at the Seinäjoki reception centre. Because Lama had no work permit and no opportunity to study Finnish, she volunteered as a language and culture assistant in the local primary school.
“I helped the children from the reception centre get to school and assisted them there for a couple of months. In addition, I worked as an English-Arabic interpreter in the reception centre and taught Arabic to Finns at the Seinäjoki Vocational College.”
Finally, the family received a residence permit in September 2017, and the family’s journey continued from Seinäjoki to Tampere.
“That’s when I felt that our life in Finland started. Although some questioned our chances in a new city, we wanted to move and find our place there. We found a small but comfortable apartment, we both started studying Finnish, and my husband got a permanent job in the company where he’s still working today.”
When Lama thinks back to studying the Finnish language, she laughs happily:
“I once called a friend and told them that hearing Finns speak sounds like singing. The Finnish language sounded like a bird’s song to my ear.”
A voice for immigrant women
At the beginning of their new life in Finland, Lama was expecting her second child. After completing a Finnish language course, Lama was told to stay home, but she had other plans. She started a work trial at a secondary school as a school attendance assistant and toured hospitals and schools to share her experiences as an expert on various projects. For Lama, the rights of immigrant women were already at the centre of her work and life. Only two weeks after the birth of her son, she set up a club for women in the clubhouse of her residence.
“I heard that one of my friends did not have the opportunity to attend a general Finnish language course. That’s why I decided to set up my club where we studied Finnish. I also invited experts like nurses and social workers to talk about different topics because I wanted to increase women’s knowledge of their rights,” Lama says.
As the Refugee Woman of the Year, Lama intends to continue to advocate for the well-being and inclusion of immigrant women and children. While involved in various projects, she found that immigrants’ voices are not heard, even though the work is be done specifically for them.
“For instance, I have heard others talk about mothers at home. But I am interested in what the mothers want to say and make their voices heard. This has motivated me to speak from their point of view.”
Another goal of Lama for the coming year is to increase professionals’ understanding. According to her, misunderstandings and assumptions arise if the parties are unfamiliar with each other’s cultures or religions. In Lama’s opinion, education is one of the most important things in life, and she encourages people who have moved to Finland to study. It opens the gates to society and working life.
“In Finland, everyone has equal opportunities to go to school despite one’s background. It has also been wonderful that it is possible to take children to work and study places. I hope that in the future, I will be able to develop myself and utilize my skills and experiences for the benefit of immigrant families,” says Lama, who is now expecting her third child and finishing her social services studies.