Refugee Woman of the year 2012: A mother and a doctor building bridges
The Refugee Woman of the year 2012 is an Afghan-born doctor and mother of five, Malalai Rahim. Rahim, who lives in Seinäjoki,, Rahim is keen to address the issues of prejudice, encourage youth to educate themselves and help fellow refugee women.
Photo: Finnish Refugee Council/ Katri Aalto
“When I was asked to run for The Refugee Woman of the year I thought about it for a long time. The main reason for my acceptance is to increase people’s knowledge about refugees. In Finland many do not know anything about refugees, and the prejudices against us can be great,” ponders Malalai Rahim, 46, upon hearing the outcome.
Rahim has been lucky to face racism only in a small scale, but her children have had difficulties at school from time to time. Her son was in the seventh grade when a boy bullied him in school, making him exasperated. “My son asked me and his father for permission to hit the bully, which we declined since it would not solve anything,” Rahim reminisces.
They tried to solve the situation together with the principal and the bully’s parents, but did not get any results. Finally, Rahim asked the principal’s permission to speak with the boy herself.
”I met the boy and told him about our life, the difficulties, the war in Afghanistan, and about being a refugee and how we had ended up in Finland. At the beginning of the meeting the boy was nervous and fidgeted on his chair, but in the end he sat frozen still and listened to me enchanted. After that he did not bully my son anymore, and they became good friends.”
Malalai Rahim sees The Refugee Woman award as a bridge between native Finns and immigrants. As she is passionate about combating prejudice and is keen to support young people who themselves are in danger of experiencing alienation from society, she visits school to give talks and encourage students to study hard.
“Finland is a rather new country to receive refugees, and that is perhaps the reason that so many people still do not know about our situation. Every refugee has their own problems and a rough story to tell,” Rahim reminds.
Rahim believes that the greatest cause for racism against refugees and immigrants is, in fact, ignorance. It is a common misconception that one comes to Finland to live on tax payers’ money – a notion Rahim herself has had to put straight many times. Eventhough the newly arrived refugees face challenging and difficult times at the beginning and need support from society. Rahim and her family are a good example of how people coming from difficult circumstances can integrate well in Finland.
Rahim, who works at the Seinäjoki central hospital thanks her husband Karim for his support during the period when she was finishing her studies. The couple met in the Soviet Union where Rahim studied medicine. After studying Finnish and passing medical studies, Rahim obtained the license to practice medicine in Finland.
From there one, the flight away from home begun. Tracking along a border river, the family fled to Iran where they were granted refugee status. Rahim applied for work as a doctor but the Iranian government did not grant a foreign doctor the license to practice medicine there. Finally she secured a position as the only doctor working in a refugee camp on the country’s border. From a city nearby Rahim would geta lift with an ambulance to commute to work at the camp each morning.
”The conditions at the camp were horrible. There was not enough water and the refugees had to make everything themselves, starting from the bricks to build houses,” Rahim reminisces. Epidemics and malnourishment were common and the infant mortality rate was high.
Settling down in Hervanta
Malalai Rahim’s family of six arrived in Finland as quota refugees in 2000. Along with the family, were Malalai’s sister and two brothers. They were relocated in Hervanta, Tampere, where the family’s fifth child was born. Rahim studied Finnish diligently and, besides her own children, also looked after her younger siblings who practically lived with the Rahims.
Now the family lives in Seinäjoki due to Rahim’s specialist studies. In a few years, she will become a gynaecologist. But until, then, she will be kept busy fulfilling her role, working hard as the Refugee Woman of the Year.
”We refugees are a very diverse group from various nationalities, cultures and religions. Many are well educated people like me, but there are also illiterate refugees living in Finland. These factors and backgrounds should be taken into consideration in integration programmes,” Rahim states.
Rahim is particularly concerned about the under educated women who come from the developing countries. They should be given special education about women’s position, illnesses and child care and, naturally, in reading and writing. Attention should be also be paid, for example, to refugees rendered incapable of working due to mental health issues as a result of experiencing war-related trauma.
Malalai Rahim does not dare think of permanently moving back to Afghanistan. “I do not wish my children to go through the things I have gone through. My son stutters because of the war,” she states. The family has visited Afghanistan once but the recent culmination of events in the crisis and the Taliban’s rise to power may make further visits to the home country impossible. The prospect of returning to Afghanistan is also frightening for them. “No one can know if coming back from there is possible.”
Finland received its first refugees in the 1970s from Chile, but the actual refugee politics started in the beginning of the 1990s. The Somalis were the largest refugee group at the time but in recent years most of the quota refugees have been arriving from Afghanistan. Afghans also form the largest refugee group worldwide. According to the UN’s refugee agency, over 3.5 million Afghans needed protection in year 2010.