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Cultural diversity on "Mogadishu Avenue" in Helsinki

Mixed neighbourhood in eastern suburb was too tidy to use as backdrop in new urban TV series

By Merituuli Ahola
Helsingin Sanomat


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Meri-Rastila in the east of Helsinki is Finland's first official multicultural suburb.


One in five residents of Meri-Rastila are immigrants - a higher foreign population than anywhere else in Helsinki. The largest groups are Somalis, Russians, and Estonians - and more are coming. In ten years the proportion of foreigners among residents of Meri-Rastila has doubled.

Why? The trend is a combination of planning and coincidence. Meri-Rastila was built next to the old Vuosaari in the early 1990s. The housing market was hot, and at the same time, Finland got its first large wave of immigrants. Inexpensive apartments were found in Meri-Rastila - both for rent and for purchase. Immigrants were not the only ones to move in there. Many Finns came there as well, giving birth to Finland's first genuinely multicultural residential area - a very interesting place all in all.
     
A bridge in front of the Metro station runs over Vuotie. The bridge divides Rastila and Meri-Rastila from each other. The Rastila side has a camping area, and stylish dark apartment houses. On the Meri-Rastila side the houses are lower, and they are covered with tiles.

A wide street snakes through the whole neighbourhood - Meri-Rastilan tie. It begins at the shopping centre and ends at the local comprehensive school. In between there are dozens of ordinary apartment houses.

Or perhaps they are not quite that ordinary. The balconies look a bit different. One of them has five sofas piled on it, while the other has eight hospital beds, and a third is protected by a rug hanging in front of it. Russians are said to favour lace curtains, while the Somalis prefer reeds.

Meri-Rastilan tie has another name as well: Mogadishu Avenue. The nickname goes back to the early days of the suburb, but taxi drivers driving through the area still have fun counting the number of dark-skinned faces they see.
     
Multiculturalism does not extend to every corner - for instance, not to the Otto bar on Harustie, which intersects with Meri-Rastilan tie. Immigrants know they should avoid this place. "There's a sign on the door about it", claims a middle-aged man leaning against the bar.

In fact, there is no such sign on the door, but the bar's reputation remains.

Now the topic of conversation is the television programme Mogadishu Avenue, written for the commercial network MTV3 by Jari Tervo, which begins on Monday.

"In Tervo's series I guess they deal with these meetings of different cultures, but it seemed pretty tame, and funny", ponder the regulars.
     
The life of Heidi Mekong, who lives in a row house on Meri-Rastilan tie, could provide material for a TV series. The 36-year-old Mekong has two children - four-year-old Säde and two-year-old Aava. The three of them live alone, because Mekong's husband, the father of the children, who came from Cameroon, drowned in the summer of 2005 while swimming.

The community in Meri-Rastila showed its positive side when the tragedy struck. Already the same evening 70 Cameroonians living in Finland were at the Mekongs' home praying. The following day, Finns and Somalis came to show their support.

"In Africa mourning is collective. There the feeling is that people are the children of the community."

Heidi Mekong enjoys living in Meri-Rastila very much. She is a kindergarten teacher, but now she is at home with the children. The neighbours are also a big support. There is always someone willing to look after the children so that Heidi can attend exercise class.

Soon things will be even easier, when the brother of the father of the family moves to Finland. The brother is also Mekong's new husband. This is not at all strange in African culture.

Mekong feels that new loves is the best that can happen to a family under these conditions. It is even better than the support of the community, although that is also important.

It is not in many suburbs that local residents would work together to help a family in such a predicament. The summer before last, residents set up a café in the local Haruspuisto residents' park to collect money to help the Mekong family.
     
Haruspuisto is like the heart of Meri-Rastila. Now the children of a music kindergarten are gathered at the community park building. After the lesson, children go to the kitchen at the park and eat Asian chicken sauce from glass jars, and the mothers have coffee.

The main visitors here are housewives - both Finns and immigrants, who can exercise, paint icons, and bring the children in for afternoon activities. There are also special groups for Russian and Somali women.

Although there is not always a common language among people at at the sandbox, regulars at the park insist that gestures and sign language are good enough tools of communication. "The children can be upset at times if a playmate cannot cross the language barrier", Tiina Hirvonen, a mother of three, says.

The Hirvonens have lived in Meri-Rastila for 14 years and have enjoyed life there. The problem has been a lack of large apartments, but the Hirvonens had luck. A five-room apartment became available in their own building, and they managed to buy it.

However, the mothers of Haruspuisto have one common concern: the municipal public health clinic of Meri-Rastila was shut down a year ago.
     
The sign on one of the doors says "PAP smears", and the other is for blood and stress tests. Now the brick walls of the clinic are being taken down by Estonian construction worker Aivo Lomp.

When the work is done, the old clinic will be a temporary home to the Koralli child day care centre, whose current location will have to undergo repairs because of fungus growth in the structures.

There had also been other plans for the old health clinic: it was to have been a shelter for homeless men.

The mothers of the area were shocked at the idea.
     
Meri-Rastila already has a reputation of a restless suburb. The unemployment rate is higher than average for the city, the education level is lower than in other areas, and the income level is only half the Helsinki average. Two out of three residents are in rental housing.

In principle, all services are available in Meri-Rastila. There are two schools, many day care centres, a chapel, youth facilities, two hair salons, a kiosk, a few pubs, and a cash dispenser. Ethnic food ingredients and Halal meat is available at the Dounia Halaal food store.

There is something of a shortage of lunch restaurants, say the construction workers at the public health clinic. Usually they have a pizza at the Laila restaurant.
     
It is quiet at noon in Laila. A middle-aged man and woman in the back of the place drink beer.

The two are unhappy. The women had her purse stolen while she was on her way home from the restaurant. "When the beer bars close, people rob those who are in the worst shape."

Most residents feel that Meri-Rastila is a peaceful place - calmer than before. A bit too calm, says Ibrahim Tekbas, the Turkish owner of Laila. He says that business is not very good.

Meri-Rastila is not a very good location for businesses. Meri-Rastila is a fairly difficult place from the point of view of business. With the exception of Dounia Halaal's food store, companies tend to change owners about once a year. Faraj Zangana gave up after just three months.

He now has a small flea market at the Meri-Rastila shopping centre. It is so quiet in the shop that the Iraqi owner has plenty of time to iron clothes in the corner of the shop.

The time could also be used for study. Zangana, a Kurd from Northern Iraq, fled the Saddam's regime in the early 1990s.

 Before the flea market he had a pizzeria in Jakomäki, but it was not successful, and now there are large signs in the windows of the flea market advertising a close-out sale. The doors close permanently in a month's time. After that Zangana plans to complete his master's thesis in history for the University of Helsinki.

 

Actually, Meri-Rastila does not differ much from other Helsinki suburbs. The residents like the forest, the seashore, and the metro, and lament the disappearance of services. Compared with many older areas, Meri-Rastila is clean and quiet. It is so clean that it was not considered an appropriate location for the shooting of Mogadishu Avenue. The series was shot in Suvela in Espoo.
    

Two Somali-born women, Osman,57, and Ali, 66, have seen advertisements of the series. As original residents of Meri-Rastila they are confused about what the show is about. After all, the name refers to the capital of Somalia!

 

The two women, who speak heavily-accented Finnish, were not aware that they live on Mogadishu Avenue themselves. "Don't they understand that it is very insulting to us?"

But then the two start to laugh. "We are from North Somalia. Perhaps that might be a little bit better."
     
The two women have nothing negative to say about their Finnish neighbours - at least not those who are sober. "Our Finnish neighbour is quite nice. However, when he is drunk he upbraids us for being black."

 

No matter what anyone says, the two women say that Meri-Rastila is a good place. "We hope that our many children will get an education and work long careers, and that they would pay plenty of taxes to compensate for what the Finns have done for us", they say, and glance at a watch.
     It is already seven o'clock. The women have to rush to the sauna.
     
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 4.11.2006



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