“I came here last year on the 1st of January 2016 as an asylum seeker. I was escaping Pakistan and I saw that there was a plane from Pakistan to Russia. The Russian border was open for five to six months and there were many people crossing from there. First everyone was going to Norway, but they shut the border two days before I got there.
I applied for asylum when I arrived in Russia, but they told me that while in theory that was possible, it was not possible in practice for someone like me from Pakistan. The immigration officer was kind enough to give me some phone numbers for human traffickers in Russia and I got in contact with one, who took me to 250km from Salla [in Finland]. There I waited for my turn to go to the Finnish border.
I didn’t know anything about Finland, but I thought that if the borders are open, then why not. Eventually we went to the border in a car with six people. We had nothing to eat; we stayed in the car and peed outside. The trafficker asked who could drive, and I said that I could. He got us a car in my name, insured it and did the paperwork, then at the border we got in a line of about seventy cars. We waited in this line of cars for one week.
When we finally crossed I was charged with human trafficking. I thought that I’m okay with all that; I just wanted to be in a safe place. A jail or something, whatever. They also told me that I broke the law because there were only seats for five people in the car and we were six. After two hours they said that the charges were dropped because they understood that it was the only way for me to cross. The human trafficker is the boss; if he wants to put six people in a car then that’s the way it is. I applied for asylum straight away and I got my residence in Finland already in two months.
It was horrible, but it turned out fine. I don’t want to roll around in my past, I want to live with it and deal with it with a positive attitude. It took me less than a month to get from Pakistan to Finland. I come from the northern part of Pakistan. I call it the ‘North Korea of Pakistan’. It’s completely different from what you see in the news or the media. There are mountains, all this Talibanisation and the new Jihadist phenomenon. I was born there. It’s very controlled.
“I was targeted because I was seen as some sort of “champion” of women’s rights”
From 2009 I was in England for five years. I wanted to work and live my life there. I couldn’t live in Pakistan anymore because it was so hard and I never had any intentions to go back. But then there was this education program about women’s rights, so I went. It was a success in the beginning, but then of course changes happened. When things change you can’t do anything, it’s so controlled. You get disappeared, or killed for no reason. I was targeted because I was seen as some sort of “champion” of women’s rights. In Pakistan there is somehow some kind of narrative of secularism and open-mindedness, but where I come from it’s like a forbidden thing. You can’t think out of the box.
I was getting a momentum and that momentum was not accepted. It was a social movement. I became motivated to work for girls’ education during my time in England because I came to the conclusion that historically men have always controlled society and that’s one of the reasons things are a bit messy. I had and still have the strong belief that if you want to see equality in a society you must empower your women. I had friends in England from Pakistan who were from the urban areas, and their sisters and mothers would send them letters and text messages. I wanted those messages from my sister and mother, from my female cousins. I wanted to feel that warmth. But they could not do that.
My family is still there. When I escaped it was a social and mental pressure for them and what they absolutely had to do was to renounce me and say that they have nothing to do with me. I don’t blame them for it. That’s a part of the game. If they had not done that then the result would have been absolutely terrible. The girls or women would be somehow safe but my uncle or brother would disappear. You just know when you are on the radar. You know people who are close to the military and you start to hear things gently, like, “You know the thing you are doing might cause problems.” You get messages on Facebook and phone. You know you are the next target.
I love humans and humanity and I love the potential that we have actually. I have always been optimistic, but it’s terrible to live in this hopelessness. Many people who were very close to my life have died and many of my friends have been stoned by the Taliban. When you are a kid you read about heroes, and the heroes here in Finland are completely different from what we have. Where I grew up the only heroes were war heroes who fought against the West in Afghanistan or attacked India in days gone by. Those are all the heroes we know – the Jihadists, the holy war. So of course it’s natural to grow up as a religious extremist because that’s the only reality you have. For example, I always wanted to go to Afghanistan to fight against the West and America. Actually back in those days the phenomenon of Jihadism was not the kind of suicide Jihadists we see on TV these days. There was a minimum age and everything, so I could never go because I was not old enough. My father told me at the time, “You can go to college for a year and then go after that.” So I went to the college.
Two things happened to me at college that changed my path from being a very conservative person to becoming very secular and open minded. It was a secular college and on my way to class on the first day I got stopped by one of the last remaining secular student unions in Pakistan. They said I had to join them so they could protect me, so I joined. The second thing was that I had a crush on a girl.
A year later I was asked if I would still want to go on “Jihad”, and I said no because things inside me completely changed. I wanted to study more and that took me to England. I studied science in Pakistan, but it was not my thing. In the university I went for law and political science. I was influenced by the leftist movements and literature, like you know, Karl Marx. But in England law was too expensive so I went for a cheaper option, strategic management. That’s where I got my degree from.
“I don’t want to roll around in my past, I want to live with it and deal with it with a positive attitude”
I think in Finland it’s a bit true the stereotypical thing that people are a bit cold, but when you talk to them, get to know them, they are really nice. They are true in their feelings and expressions. In England after five years I never got even five English friends. But here after one and half years I have like sixty Finnish friends. From different age categories. I love them and every bit of this country.
I was in the Red Cross reception centre in Vallila and because I’m an active person and I don’t like to sit around I went to the managers and said that I can help with whatever they need. I think it was totally okay living there, I just wanted a safe place. I was happy to be among people and I also made a strong connection with them. Some people were complaining about food and accommodation and things, but I think it was fine. There will always be people exploiting the system, but if you have seen your family being killed, you don’t really care about the food. Also the situation was so messy back home that I was just happy to be there.
I moved to my own place in May. I live in Kallio – the best place, I love it. Something happens all the time. In August 2016 I started Finnish language classes. It is five hours a day and four days a week. It is very intense. I can already speak a little bit. I also have job practice now and I’m involved in a project with the theatre about refugees – funded by the city. I want to break the taboos. I just strongly feel that people need to meet each other. That’s why I wanted to share my story. People are different and cultures are different. We have to absorb it. That’s the beauty of this world.
When I was in the reception center, we had an invitation for a sauna from a sauna society, but nobody wanted to go there. I thought, why not. I had no idea what a sauna was. The concept of sauna was in my head somehow connected to sex or eroticism or something, based on what I’d heard in England. When I was in Russia the human trafficker also asked if I wanted to go to the sauna, and also there I felt it was somehow connected to these things. The guy at the reception centre was telling us that you have to be naked and asking if that’s a problem. No problem for me, but it was for the other guys. So I went alone. The sauna society has great saunas in Lauttasaari. I love them. My host was German and he is still my best friend. I still go every week to the sauna, I’m so into it now. I’ve tried ice swimming and it’s great. I love the feeling of going from 100 degrees to the absolute cold and not feeling it. And it is so calm and soothing. You feel so connected to your body, the nature, air and everything. And then there is the sauna beer as well.”
More like this:
This interview was recorded in 2017 in Helsinki by Peter Seenan. If you’d like to be involved in this official Finland 100 project please visit our contact page and submit the form.