I’m 26 years old and I came to Finland in 1996 when I was 5. My family is Kurdish and we lived on the border of Iran and Iraq.
Through history the border has changed a lot because of big terrible wars and fighting and in the ’60s and ’70s it was particularly difficult for my family. Then we lived on the Iranian side of Kurdistan. In 1979 the Iranian revolution took place when the Shah was replaced by Khomeini who came in with this Islamic revolution. Khomeini and the new regime was Shi’ite and Kurdish people were mostly Sunni. Soon they started ethnic and religious persecution against Kurdish people and they began to bomb Kurdish villages.
My parents were young then and lived there with their parents but they all had to flee for their lives.
At that time the Iranian regime used the Iraqi Kurdish people – Kurds who lived in Iraq – against the Iraqi regime. And the Iraqi regime, Saddam Hussein, used the Iranian Kurdish against the Iranian regime.
Saddam Hussein saw the Iranian Kurdish as a threat so he put Iranian Kurdish people, like us, to a refugee camp near Ramadi, called the Al Tash camp. My parents told me that it was just like a desert.
There was really nothing there and they could never get used to a place like that. The Red Cross and UNHCR helped the refugees and then after a while they realised they were going to stay there for more than a year or two so they started to build houses and infrastructure.
People were desperate for work so the refugees went to work with the Iraqis or in the Iraqi areas. A lot of times they were found out because of their looks, their behavior or their clothing and there was a lot of killings of Kurdish, especially young people. Young people had to work – their father was sick, there were many different reasons – and so they lived and worked there.
I was born in the Al Tash refugee camp. It was quite amazing, you know, the lack of sanitation, just simple things. Women’s sanitation didn’t exist and you were always thinking, what’s going to happen next?
I remember I had a very nice childhood even though I lived in a refugee camp. But my father told me that once a soldier came up to him and seeing his watch said “give me that watch!” and my father asked “why?!” So they sent him to prison and tortured him there. My sister remembers going to meet my father and giving him food. We didn’t really have any rights despite being not the worst off.
From the camp my father sent applications to countries that took refugees. He was ready to go to any European country. Then Finnish workers from Maahanmuuttovirasto [The Finnish Immigration Service] came to the refugee camp.
My dad told me that many people dressed their children to look dirty and really bad – remember these people were so desperate – but my father was like, I’m going to dress my children as beautifully as I can. You know, hair done and nice dresses. We had the interview and Finland checked our background and said welcome. And then in 1996 we came to Vaasa, my sweet home.
I have some memories of life in the camp. I kind of remember that I was a very quiet child. I didn’t have a lot of friends, but it wasn’t like I was sad or anything and I was very much daddy’s girl. When I was young my dad was everything for me and I wanted to be like my dad. I don’t remember thinking “I’m Kurdish”. I don’t remember thinking “I’m in a refugee camp”, I was just a child and the only things I really loved were playing and food. I really loved food. Kurdish food. Every time somebody invited us to their house I remember I was like “yeah food!” That was the thing.
Before we moved to Finland I remember that I just felt that something was happening. People came to our house and would talk. They talked about what Europe or abroad is like: there are cowboys and they have guns and people have refrigerators and they have cleaning ladies and people who clean their house. I have some clips in my mind of some situations or some pictures. But I actually blossomed when we came to Finland because I just felt the vibe change.
It was March/April 1996 when we arrived. It was snowing and it was cold and it was different. I hadn’t experienced snow, but I think my parents had. I had just been living in the middle of Iraq, in this desert. It was hot and now there was snow and different people, different looking people, a different language and you didn’t have the same people around you. You were now in Finland in your own house.
I’m very grateful. We had two neighbours, Aila and Raimo. We were young when we arrived in Finland. We played a lot outside because finally I think my parents felt it was safe to let us out. We had swings and all sorts of outside things to play with. I remember that this was paradise, you know. I could actually play, because before it was rocks and sticks that you played with or some mud.
Raimo and Aila had several cats and we just went playing with them because we’d had cats also in the refugee camp. From there we started to hang around in each other’s houses, they invited us to their house and we invited them into our house. It was funny when they came round because we usually eat on the floor. Aila and Raimo had difficulties to sit. My mother would wear a very traditional Kurdish dress that she used in the refugee camp and my father also wore a Kurdish dress. My parents did know any English. We just communicated with hands and sounds.
Even today when I go to Vaasa, I meet Raimo and Aila. I always remember in my mind how grateful I am because they really had a huge influence on all of us. They did a really great job and I still remember getting candy from them as a child. Everything was so new, like candy or ice cream. I thought that this is paradise.
Nowadays I study contemporary history. In the yläaste there was this teacher who influenced me deeply because he thought about world values. That was somebody I wanted to be: funny, silly and he talked about values. My grades went from 6.5 to 8.3 and I can’t be more grateful for him. I would not be in the university today without him.
I knew I wanted to be in politics, but then contemporary history popped up. I applied to the University of Helsinki but I didn’t get in. I started to read again, with my energy drink and coffee. I went to the library every day. When I got my scores [for the entrance exams] I was one point too few, but I challenged it and I got in. I couldn’t believe it. With my journey, my history, coming where I come from to get into a Finnish university. And on top of that I was selected to be an exchange student in the States.
Looking to the life ahead of me I think I have a lot to give to ministries or in my own field. I applied to the parliament to be an assistant for a parliament member. When I’m excited, I work. If someone is asking me to take out the trash even if it’s not my job, I’m like “okay”. But don’t take my kindness as a weakness. I can work for 15 hours if I feel like I have something to give.
Earlier I wanted to get elected to the Vaasa municipality. Finnish politics needs more energy, more something. I think being a politician is not only about making politics, it’s also about influencing. I think Martti Ahtisaari is a good example. When I got to shake his hand, he was very real and I could feel it. I’m very grateful for that experience. I was up for election in 2013 in Vaasa and got elected. I was there just for a while because I got into school that year. I feel like I let my voters down, but I hope they understand. This was a big thing and maybe I can finish my studies and then go back.
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This interview with Šeida Sohrabi was recorded in 2017 in Turku by Peter Seenan. If you’d like to be involved in this project please visit our contact page and submit the form.