Refugee of the year 2023 Berivan Suleiman

© Julius Töyrylä

Finnish Refugee Council has chosen Berivan Suleiman, from Helsinki, as Refugee of the Year 2023. The nomination was published on World Refugee Day as a reminder of the situation of people who have been forced to leave their homes and their rights to a good and safe life.

Berivan Suleiman, a Syrian Kurd, arrived in Finland as an asylum seeker on Christmas Eve 2015 with her then 2-year-old daughter after a month’s dangerous journey through 12 countries. Berivan and her family moved to Turkey in 2012 to flee the war in Syria. However, life in Turkey did not get much better, as everyday life was marked by constant control and domestic violence. The desperate situation drove Berivan to attempt suicide, after which her family realised her plight and let her, and her daughter go.

Berivan contacted her siblings who were already in Finland and decided to go to the country she had intended to move to as a child through family reunification but was unsuccessful at the time. After finally reaching Finland, Berivan and her daughter were first directed to a reception centre in Heinola and then to Helsinki. After living a for while at the reception centre, Berivan and her daughter moved in with their relatives. To Berivan’s disappointment, the control and threats of violence continued in Finland. Eventually, with the help of Finnish authorities, she was able to escape the situation and go to a shelter.

Although the violence initially overshadowed her life in Finland, Berivan found new opportunities in life: in Syria she had no chance to study, so as soon as she received her residence permit, Berivan attended comprehensive school and graduated in two years. Previously, Berivan could speak Kurdish and Arabic, but not read or write them – so Finnish became her first written language. She took a few language courses, attended church-organised language evenings, and worked hard to learn the language on her own.

Comprehensive school also offered Berivan a chance for love when she met her current husband Kawa. The couple got married in 2020, and Berivan soon started expecting a child. However, early in her pregnancy, Berivan was told she had cancer. The treatments were not supposed to affect the baby, but as the pregnancy progressed, things took a different turn, and in the 8th month the baby was caesarean sectioned and Berivan had the cancer removed. The baby was taken to intensive care for 14 days, after which he passed away in his mother’s arms.

Mourning drained Berivan’s strength, but gradually her will to carry on with life grew stronger. Berivan had always dreamed of working in security, but had heard that women, especially those born outside Finland, could not enter the field. However, these misconceptions were proven wrong, and she started the basic studies in security. She completed the basic degree, which normally takes three years, in one year and graduated in 2021.

After graduation, Berivan got a job at a security company, where she still works today. She also completed a security officer’s course and a preparatory course for a police school. She is currently waiting for a decision on her citizenship so that she can then join the army and apply for police school.

During her studies and work, Berivan has faced a lot of belittling and sexual harassment, but she has not let that stop her – she knows she is on the right path. With all her experiences, Berivan wants to speak out as a Refugee of the Year about violence experienced by women and thus empower women and infuse faith in them. Berivan has already spoken openly about her experiences in the past, and many women around Finland in the same situation have contacted her for support.

– When I have shared my story on social media, other women who have experienced the same thing have seen that they are not alone. This is exactly what I want to emphasise in the coming year: if women are experiencing control and the threat of violence, help is available, and it is necessary and possible to talk about it.

Beyond gender-based violence, Berivan wants to encourage women to pursue their own dreams, whatever they may be. If even one woman from a refugee background is motivated by her story, Berivan says it is a success. Understanding the language and culture has a huge impact on achieving dreams, she says.

– I have seen how culture and language barrier cause misunderstandings. That’s why I encourage immigrants to learn Finnish and both they and Finns to be brave and open-minded in getting to know each other’s cultures. In this way we can avoid groups being stigmatised based on some individuals and get the opportunity to get ahead in life.

Finnish Refugee Council’s Board wants to highlight the different stories and experiences of refugees, support them in their goals and dreams in their new homeland, and make their voices heard in public discussions about immigration. Berivan is courageous in sharing her own experiences and persistent in advocating women’s rights. The nomination was announced on Tuesday 20th of June 2023 on World Refugee Day in Helsinki.