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IS wants me: Young refugee resists extremist scouts

The extremist organisation Islamic State is recruiting youngsters from immigrant backgrounds in Finland to join ranks of fighters. That’s according to one young refugee who’s been five years in the country, Habat. He told Yle that particularly during the long and idle summer months, there are dozens of young drifters ripe for enlistment.

Mogadishusta 14-vuotiaana paennut Habat
Habat fled to Finland from Somalia at the age of 14 five years ago. Image: Tuomo Björksten / Yle

Espoo resident Habat came to Finland when he was just a boy of 14. Estimates put the number of young men like him in the hundreds. They come from places like Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia. Many have no jobs and aren’t in school.

Habat said that the extremist recruiters know just whom to talk to. They point out that the youths are in a country where they have no future. If they joined Islamic State they would get money, status, they’d go to paradise and would even be considered holy.

“Come join us to free the faithful, we have the power to control the world. Blah, Blah,” Habat said, quoting the recruiters' pitch.

The young refugee said that he came to know many youths in similar circumstances at the refugee centre in which he lived. Most of them, like him, had no family in Finland.

Making it against the odds

In spite of the staggering odds against him, 19-year-old Habat now has a summer job at an elder care facility in Helsinki. Otherwise, he’s studying to become a pharmacist and is receiving on the job training.

He pointed out that all of his peers would like to work, but aren’t given the opportunity to make a breakthrough into the job market, not even in low-paying positions like warehouse work or cleaning.

He said that sport is another area to constructively channel young men’s energies. However in Finland, playing football costs money.

“Everyone plays football. I believe that some of them could even play for the national team. But you have to belong to a club and that costs. A friend and I were in Espoo FC, but the player’s license was too expensive and we had to give it up,” he explained.

The temptations to go abroad looking for self-validation are huge, Habat explained. He said that men claiming to be imams urge rootless young men to go abroad to fight.

“And the boys believe them. How can I explain it? When you’re nothing it doesn’t take much,” he added.

Pull from social media

The pull to leave also comes from those who’ve already been recruited to join the fighting abroad.

“In social media guys from Syria say, ‘Look, out here I’m a king, we have everything.’ Some might comment, ‘Wow, good for you.’ The recruiters check to see who has commented and go to speak to them,” Habat remarked.

He claimed that there are many scouts, most of them older men who either live in Finland or visit the country. He noted that in the Somali culture, youngsters respect their elders.

“A man may follow you looking for the right moment to talk. In public transportation, on the bus, at some event or in the mosque. It could be anywhere. You are his target,” Habat said.

Luring young men to leave Finland seems to be easier during the summer Habat noted. That’s when the days stretch out and many youths are idle for extended periods. There's no school or work and everyone is fasting during the holy month of Ramadan. It’s more difficult during the winter when people tend to stay indoors.

Segregated classes a bad idea

Habat noted that language is an important starting point in preventing war scouts from nabbing young men in Finland.

“I was able to go to school in a normal class so I learned Finnish. I tried to do things with the Finns and it helped,” he said.

“An immigrant class is a bad idea. If we’re in the same class all the time and we live in the same communities we will never learn. And then you will never get to high school or a vocational college,” he added.

He declared that attitudes among Finns also have to change.

“Once on the bus I thought I would be nice and give my seat to a woman who was standing, but she didn’t want to sit where a black person had been sitting. Every day you meet racism out there. It makes you feel bad,” Habat declared.

There are about 100 young men considering taking their chances in armed conflicts abroad. Habat said he has urged them to start over and to study while they are still young and have time.

“These young men need something to do. They need homes. They need to feel they belong,” he stated.

As for Habat himself, he told Yle that one day he might be able to make use of his pharmaceutical training in Somalia.

Finland's security intelligence police Supo say they know of 60 individuals who have left the country to fight in Syria.

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