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Somalis in Finland wary of Nato membership, Russian reaction

Somali people with first hand experience of war in their home country are more likely to be concerned about the consequences of Finland applying to join Nato.

Hassan Kaafi Halane previously worked as a journalist in Somalia but now lives with his family in Helsinki. Image: Ronnie Holmberg / Yle

Sitting in front of a makeshift 'green screen' in the living room of a Helsinki apartment, Hassan Kaafi Halane adjusts his microphone as he prepares for the start of a Nato-themed webcast.

He has invited guests to join him online to discuss Finland's possible application to join the military alliance, which in recent weeks has come to the attention of — and raised concern among — many Somalis living in Finland.

The conversation will be conducted in the Somali language on Facebook Live, and the viewership over the course of the webcast ranges from hundreds to a few thousand.

"Somalis are scared that Russia will invade Finland," Kaafi Halane tells Yle.

He had worked as a journalist in Somalia before fleeing to Finland eight years ago. Somalia is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a reporter.

In Finland, Kaafi Halane supports himself and his family of three children by working as a taxi driver. However, he has also wanted to continue his work as a journalist to some extent, as he considers it important to keep people updated about current affairs in the Somali language.

"The purpose of the programme is to increase the awareness of Somalis living in Finland about Nato. People have been worried about the consequences of joining Nato," he notes.

Kaafi Halane hosting the webcast from his living room in the Oulunkylä district of Helsinki. Image: Ronnie Holmberg / Yle

According to Statistics Finland, 23,656 people in the country speak Somali as their mother tongue, making them the fifth largest group (siirryt toiseen palveluun) of foreign language speakers in 2020.

Their command of the Finnish language varies greatly, especially as many have only come to Finland in the past few years — while others were born in Finland. This is why many do not follow news in Finnish or Swedish, but rather their native language.

University of Helsinki researcher, Matti Pohjonen, has studied the use of social media in East Africa, especially Ethiopia, and tells Yle that — similarly with Somalis — the platforms are a very important means for Ethiopians to keep up with news events as they live in different parts of the world.

"People living in the diaspora typically follow several news sources, which are available in their own mother tongue. They also follow domestic news from their new country," Pohjonen says.

Some may also have poor literacy skills, which is why news is often consumed visually, and another reason why social media plays a crucial role within Finland's Somali community.

"Visual media sources play an important role in countries with poor literacy. Information is sought from videos because they do not require literacy," Pohjonen further notes.

Based on the background interviews conducted for this article, people who have first hand experience of the war in Somalia are more concerned about Finland potentially joining Nato than their counterparts born in Finland.

Youths with Somalian backgrounds are eager to defend Finland, especially those who have served in the country's army, Kaafi Halane adds.

"If Russia attacks, young people say they will join the army," he says.

Many Somalis "fear" Finland's accession to Nato

Turku-based Alas Ali arrived in Finland in 1992 at the age of 17, having traveled alone to Moscow to escape the civil war that ravaged his home country. A few months after arriving in Finland, Ali learned that his father, who had remained in Somalia, had been killed.

"Unfortunately, many Somalis have experienced war. Many wonder if they will have to flee war again. Are we safe anywhere?" Ali describes the feelings among the Somali community that have been evoked by the war in Ukraine.

Ali is an entrepreneur and municipal politician representing the Social Democratic Party, which is why he knows a lot of people. He says he has listened to their thoughts about the ongoing war in Ukraine. Some people have told him that they have difficulty sleeping because of those concerns.

Having fled to Finland via Moscow, Alas Ali says he has many Russian friends in Finland. Image: Arash Matin / Yle

Having previously served on Turku City Council for two terms, Ali was elected to the Regional Council of Southwest Finland this year, after garnering more than 500 votes.

He says that many Somalis who fled the war have experienced a sense of security in Finland, enhanced by the Nordic nation's status of being militarily non-aligned. Finnish negotiation skills and the will to defend peace are highly valued among the Somali community, he adds.

"Many have a fear that if Finland joins Nato, what will happen? Will the neighbour attack or not? When Finland talks about joining Nato, people say that Finland can no longer be neutral. Finland is no longer a mediator for peace," Ali says.

Researcher Pohjonen also notes the role played by the United States within the Nato alliance in shaping Somali views, especially as American soldiers who served as UN peacekeepers in Somalia in the 1990s were involved in some of the fighting.

"There is strong criticism of the intentions of the West and of the United States. Part of the Islamic movement has been against Western imperialism and hegemony," Pohjonen says.

Alas Ali says there are many immigrants living in his neighbourhood in Turku. Image: Arash Matin / Yle

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the United States struggled for decades to influence East African politics, and Pohjonen says the after-effects of the Cold War are still being felt in Somalia.

In addition, many Somalis in Finland do not know enough about Nato, and that uncertainty can increase fears. False information can spread quickly and easily, Alas Ali says, because not everyone follows the news in Finnish. For example, someone might see smoke caused by a fire and think that Russia has launched an attack.

Researcher: Russia is trying to influence people's opinions outside Europe

According to University of Helsinki researcher Pohjonen, Russian attempts to influence public opinion in Western Europe have declined significantly in recent months as social media companies have cracked down on such content.

Furthermore, because of the war in Ukraine, anti-Russian sentiment is currently so strong in Europe that it would be very difficult to influence people's opinions. For this reason, Russian disinformation campaigns have switched their attention to other parts of the world, like Africa, where they hope to achieve better results.

"The farther we go from Europe, the more effective Russia's disinformation can be. It would be logical to try to influence countries that are not completely against Russia. However, it has not been studied very extensively because of the strong interest in Europe," Pohjonen says.

University of Helsinki assistant professor, Katja Valaskivi, tells Yle that false information — whether deliberately published or not — spreads quickly on social media.

Lies tend to grab people's attention more effectively than the truth, because false narratives tend to be surprising.

"People who are on the outside of society, or perceive themselves to be on the outside, are more likely to believe conspiracy theories. When you are not part of the community, it can be difficult to tell what is true and what is disinformation," Valaskivi says.

Despite the concerns, many Somalis interviewed for this article said they were in favour of Finland joining Nato, as they think it will guarantee Finland's security in an unpredictable geopolitical situation.

Hassan Kaafi Halane, the host of the Facebook Live webcast, sums up his thoughts on Finland joining Nato.

"Finland is a small country. Who will come to the rescue if Russia attacks?"