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"Now the work begins" – New migrant-background councillors reflect on their election wins

Voters elected five migrant background candidates to the Helsinki city council and three to the council in Espoo in last Sunday’s municipal election. In conversations with Yle News, candidates attribute their election to everything from social activism to a yearning for a positive national atmosphere.

Äänestämistä kuntavaaleissa 2017.
Image: Roni Rekomaa / Lehtikuva

The demographics of major population centres such as Helsinki, Espoo and Vantaa are shifting to include more foreign-background residents. That means increasing numbers of foreign residents are voting – and running as candidates – in local government elections.

During last Sunday’s municipal elections, immigrant-background candidates managed to grab council seats in Helsinki, Espoo and Vantaa. When Yle News asked a few of the first-time migrant migrant-background councillors about their success, they spoke of their social activism, anti-racism positions, their messages of hope and bridge-building.

Zero tolerance for racism in Helsinki

The 2017 local election was not Fatim Diarra’s first political rodeo, but it was the one where she secured a seat on the Helsinki council on the back of 1,050 votes. A Finnish national, Diarra’s father is from Mali, a fact that helped shape her political consciousness.

Fatim Diarra.
Fatim Diarra. Image: Vihreät

"I think people voted for me because I was quite outspoken about racism. Helsinki needs to be open and to have zero tolerance for racism. When I speak about racism, I speak about my own experiences, although I can’t play the "victim immigrant" card. My father is a respected psychiatrist and I grew up in a middle class family, lived in a middle class community and went to university, so I can’t speak about all immigrant experiences."

"I think Helsinki can be a modern and versatile city where there is room for many different kinds of people and I am one of them. I can draw on my own experiences, training and education for my work [on the council]. I am an advisor for international affairs and my job is to make policy. I have worked in a school so I know what happens when we cut spending on education. I understand that teachers need flexibility to do their work. But I know that the work ahead will involve compromise."

Fatim Diarra, 30 – Greens, Helsinki

More voters wanted an open Helsinki

Kontula resident Said Ahmed gained some media publicity when Finnish press reported on racial abuse and threats he faced during the local election campaign. Despite the flak, he polled just over 1,000 votes to take up a seat on the Helsinki city council.

"I have done a lot of work and I have been a very active citizen. I have always participated in discussions on social media where I have raised a lot of important questions about national issues. I have also organised charity events for the underprivileged, for the unemployed and for young people.

Suldaan Said Ahmed.
Suldaan Said Ahmed. Image: Nelli Kivinen

I have also paid a great deal of attention to young people. I want to make Helsinki an open and multicultural city. It seems that the people who wanted that were more than the people who want a closed and inward-looking city."

Suldaan Said Ahmed, 24 – Left Alliance, Helsinki

Creating a message of hope and belonging

Widely known as Husu, Mohamed’s media presence on radio and television may have given him something of a head start over other political neophytes. It was also enough to nab 967 votes and usher in a career in local politics.

"I was voted in by immigrants and Finns, by Jews, Christians and non-believers. My supporters represent Ghana, Nigeria, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, India, Poland, Senegal, Ethiopia, the Philippines, Russia, Estonia and the Swedish-Finnish community. Most of my voters were young people. However a 70 year-old Finn said he voted for me because of my respect for elders and because he said my culture values the wisdom of older people. A young Iraqi guy who voted for me said he had never lived in peace. This was his first opportunity to vote and he was excited to be able to vote for a black Muslim in Finland."

Kuntavaaliehdokas Abdirahim
SDP local election candidate Abdirahim "Husu" Mohamed celebrates on election night, April 9. Image: Martti Kainulainen / Lehtikuva

"When I spoke to people, I told them about opportunities for creating work themselves, not just waiting for government to create work. I used business to create a message of hope and belonging. When people asked for concrete examples of what to do, I told them to approach Finnish companies to volunteer to help them sell products and services in their home countries. I will try to get as many companies as possible to partner with international students."

"I spoke to Muslim communities about belonging; I told them if they are not prepared to participate [in civic life] they might as well not be here. I spoke to mothers about their children and the importance of education. I spoke about setting up after-school programmes to help migrant kids catch up with their Finnish peers. I have always been honest and have never represented just one group. I have integrated so I can treat Finns as equals and challenge them when needed."

Abdirahim "Husu" Mohamed, 38 – SDP, Helsinki

"I can be a bridge-builder"

Single mother of seven Habiba Ali works at an asylum seeker reception centre and wants to combine the best of Somali and Finnish ideals to help her community. Ali's 276 votes was enough to install her on the Espoo city council.

Habiba Ali nauraa lämpiössä.
Habiba Ali Image: Kati Laukkanen / Yle

"I wanted to run because people seem to be fed up with the situation, with this them vs. us. The atmosphere has become very negative and people have had enough. And that’s not just immigrants, people who voted for me came from different groups, including many Finns.

I came from Somalia when I was just five years old and I have been here nearly 25 years. On the outside I look Somali and African, but on the inside I am more like a Finn. I belong to two cultures so I feel I can be a bridge-builder between Finns and immigrants.

We need to focus more on the positive. People have become so negative and something needs to be done. I am doing what I can to change the world. My work has just begun."

Habiba Ali, 30 – SDP, Espoo

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