Ujuni Ahmed's message to teachers: “Listen to young people from immigrant backgrounds and have the courage to intervene”

Ujuni Ahmed believes that the challenges that immigrant families in Finland are facing would be reduced if young people received more support in building their identity. Ahmed has been speaking at upper secondary schools in Helsinki since last autumn.
Ujuni Ahmed
Photo: Sanna Wallenius

The principals of schools and educational institutions in Helsinki, as well as health care professionals, met on 19 April at Stadin AO's Teollisuuskatu branch to listen to human rights activist and influencer Ujuni Ahmed’s message. This event was part of the City of Helsinki's campaign to find ways to identify and prevent domestic violence.

Ahmed shares her observations of her own years in school and as a student, as well as her experiences in youth work. The keynotes are based on Ahmed's book, Tytöille, jotka ajattelevat olevansa yksin.

– hope that schools and educational institutions dare to support the formation of the identity of young people from an immigrant background. That requires knowing their culture and thoughts, as well as working with their families, says Ahmed.

Ujuni, who went to comprehensive school in Helsinki in the 1990s, admits that feelings of loneliness and shame were ever-present in her youth. She felt that she was constantly balancing between two completely different worlds, and that it was difficult to make her own voice heard. 

–My teacher never asked me how I was doing or how I spent my free time. That made me feel excluded and suspect that there was something about my culture that I needed to hide.

Many families silent about difficulties

While the world of school and studies has developed a great deal since the 1990s, living between two different cultures still poses challenges for many children from immigrant families. According to Ujuni Ahmed, this phenomenon is very typical in diaspora communities, which emerge when religious and national groups are forced to move to a new country.

–If the society around you is racist, the diaspora communities cling even more tightly to their own culture, which is mixed with harmful traditions. And when that sense of community is distorted, it can perpetuate violence or unequal power structures,” says Ahmed.

According to her, it is typical that any challenges are not talked about in immigrant families.

–Families don't want information about their problems to spread, inside or outside the community. That is why many families may refuse, for example, the use of an interpreter to handle their child's affairs, as they fear that the family's honour will suffer.

Everything starts with building trust

Girls and boys from immigrant families may still have very different rights. Boys often have more freedom in their lives, girls are expected to help their families with childcare and housework.

–For me, comprehensive school represented freedom, a respite from household chores. I felt that my mind got to rest at school. That led into disruptive behaviour and poor performance.

According to Ujuni Ahmed, unequal treatment can also be seen in the types of professions young people are directed to in Finland. Ahmed first ended up studying practical nursing, until she got the courage to apply for youth counsellor education and became interested in social influence.

–I got tired of the expectations placed on me and the fact that others felt like my thoughts were mistaken. I wanted my voice to be heard and hoped that I could use it to help other young people like me.

Ahmed has a clear message for the staff of schools and educational institutions.

–Listen to children and young people from immigrant backgrounds, strive to have a good relationship with their families, and dare to intervene if you find problems. Everything starts with building trust.

Say thank you, give praise and listen to the young person

Ujuni Ahmed has been lauded by schools and educational institutions in Helsinki for her concrete message. The principal of Tehtaankatu elementary school, Jouni Leivo, also recognized familiar situations familiar in Ahmed's message during his own 30-year teaching career. Leivo worked as a special education teacher at Itäkeskus elementary school as well as Outamo school at Lohja.

Jouni Leivo
Photo: Sanna Wallenius

–In Itäkeskus, girls from immigrant families often stayed at school after hours. We would come up with clubs for the girls so that they had something to do and a good reason to spend time there,” Leivo says.

Building trust in students and families with an immigrant background often starts with everyday encounters.

–It is enough for the teacher to be present, to pay attention, to listen and to ask how they’re doing. I also made it a habit to learn a few words in the pupils' mother tongue. For example, I know how to say good day in Somali.

Naturally, Leivo can identify the challenges in today’s school and study world: too-large class sizes, the teachers’ increasing workload and the huge variety of learning challenges.

–Each school should have special needs classes and multilingual instructors and teachers. It is important for students to see that there are professionals from all cultures and backgrounds in our workplaces.”
In the end, it’s the small things that create a supportive atmosphere.

–We need to remember to thank and give praise more. Both to pupils and students as well as teachers. The power of encouragement is immense.

No compromises on Finnish teaching

Last year, the idea of hearing what Ujuni Ahmed had to say came from Sanna Manner, the principal of the Helsinki Upper Secondary School of Languages. Manner’s everyday work environment is multicultural, but Ujuni Ahmed's book expanded the perspective even further. Head of Student Welfare Riina Ståhlberg found the idea exiting and immediately started the visits to educational institutions.

–Helsinki's upper secondary schools, too, have many students with an immigrant background whose lives we fundamentally know very little about. We rely only on what the students themselves tell us, Manner says.

Ujuni Ahmed has also visited the Helsinki Upper Secondary School of Languages, where slightly under half of the students are not from Finland. 

–The students raptly listened to Ujuni's experiences and asked questions about, for example, female circumcision. These are painful topics that people in Finland easily become ashamed to talk about.

Manner would also like to what boys from immigrant backgrounds think. She thinks Ali Al-Saffu's film, Normaalii, could be a good starting point for an important topic.  

–I believe that boys also live under considerable cross-pressure, even if their everyday lives have more freedom than the girls.

As far as comprehensive school and secondary schools are concerned, Manner wants to highlight the importance of Finnish studies. 

–I hope that the language teaching is not compromised, as it will help with adapting to society and is also key to the young person's further studies. For example, the curriculum at our Upper Secondary School of Languages includes a lot of courses in Finnish as a second language as well as remedial teaching.