Helsingin SanomatHalima was sitting in the yard when someone knocked at the gate. The sun had just gone down, but she could distinguish a friendly face in the dark. The guest was a skinny imam whom Halima had seen in the nearby mosque nearly every day since her father had taken her from Finland to Mogadishu two weeks earlier.
Tuesday, October 23, 2012
By Antti Tiainen
Her father had wanted Halima to get to know her relatives who lived in Somalia, but the 15-year-old girl felt anguished. The relatives were constantly talking about Islam and about sins which might cause a person would go to hell. They felt that Halima was on the wrong path.
Everything was different from what it was back home in Finland. It was mid-July in 2001, and in a few weeks Halima was to start ninth grade in her school.
The guest stayed for just 15 minutes. When he left, one of the women, a relative, came to tell Halima that the imam had asked for her hand in marriage. In the evening in her bedroom Halima begged her father that they could leave. Her father took Halima’s Finnish passport and tore it up: "You will stay here.
Halima cried herself to sleep.
Earlier in the same year the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) had drafted a report according to which nearly 150 Somalis had disappeared from Finland. At least a third of them had been taken back to Somalia or its neighbouring countries. Finnish officials had no idea what kinds of conditions the children were living in, nor did they know if they had gone voluntarily.
Halima certainly would not have wanted to go to Somalia, where she had been only once before, at such a young age that she did not really remember anything about it.
Halima was born in Ethiopia in 1986. Her Ethiopian mother died when Halima was a young child. Her maternal grandmother and aunt raised Halima and her elder brother. The Somali father was studying in the Soviet Union. He visited Ethiopia frequently and brought gifts to her children, but Halima hardly knew him.
Things changed when her father brought along his new Somali wife. In the next visit the father took his children with him and in December the new family flew to Finland. It was her father’s new home country where he had moved a few years earlier along with the first Somalis to come to Finland.
The family settled in an eight-storey municipal apartment house in a lush part of the city. Only a few immigrant families lived nearby, and consequently Halima made friends with Finnish girls.
Halima wanted to wear the same kinds of summer dresses as her friends. She visited the nearby library may times a week. The cheerful girl was liked at the library, and she usually did not even have to pay any fines for late returns.
For many years things went well for the family.
When she started in the upper grades of comprehensive school, Halima’s conflicts with her father began. She wanted to know why she should have to wear a scarf. Her father became angry. He felt that it is part of their culture. Halima was annoyed that her father did not know how to argue his case.
Halima had not questioned her father’s decisions before. Now she had decided in advance that she would not wear a scarf at school. Halima was the only black girl in her school. She was unsure of herself and was afraid that she would stand out too much. She already looked different, so she did not want to dress differently as well.
When she left for school Halima took off her scarf and put it back on when she got back home. Soon she was caught. In the first parents’ evening her father saw a class picture where Halima was not wearing a scarf. He did not say anything, but after that the rules changed. Halima always had to come straight home from school. Her father started reading Halima’s text messages, and occasionally he took her mobile phone away.
Halima felt that her father was trying to isolate her. She would have wanted to go to the cinema, spend time in the evenings with her friends, or at least go to dancing classes, but her father forbade everything. Her elder brother was allowed to stay out late at night and pursue his hobbies.
Halima did the grocery shopping in her family and helped take care of her three younger siblings who were born in the late 1990s. If her father was not satisfied with Halim’s behaviour, he might slap her with an open hand or use a belt.
When Halima wanted to meet her friends she said that she was going to the library or for a walk. She did not tell her friends about the problems she was having at home.
Halima was not allowed to enter the kitchen when her stepmother had guests. However, at times she would hear how the Somali women would gossip in a loud voice about how some ill-behaved girl had been taken back to Somalia.
Halima thought that girls like that had probably done something very bad, such as having pre-marital sex.
Then her father heard that Halima had been outside in the middle of the a Finnish boy, and was not even wearing a scarf at the time.
Halima asked him to call her teachers. They could tell him that she had been at school the whole day. Instead of making a call, the father started to hit and kick Halima. The beating did not stop until the stepmother intervened.
For a week Halima vomited, was not able to eat, and finally did not get out of bed. That is when her father called an ambulance.
"Don’t say a word about what I did. I only meant well. This is a consequence of what you did", the father said.
In the hospital her father became angry because he was not allowed to be present when Halima was taken for examination. Halima had a torn pancreas. The doctor wanted to know if she had recently suffered a strong blow.
Halima did not say anything.
A few months after the beating Halima started to plan a holiday trip in the summer of 2011 to Italy where her aunt was living. She had got her first jobs delivering newspapers, and as an assistant at a home for the elderly.
Halima and her aunt had been calling each other and writing constantly ever since Halima had left Ethiopia. In spite of the distance, the aunt was close to Halima, a dear friend, to whom she could tell everything.
Quite unexpectedly, Halima’s father said that the trip was a good idea. "Keep your money. You can use it for shopping", her father said. He would pay for the flights.
At first Halima wondered why the father was suddenly so nice. Then she became upset because her father decided to come along. They finally came to an understanding. Halima would stay with her aunt, and her father would stay in a hotel.
In the morning Halima called her aunt. Soon they would meet for the first time in eight years. Halima was very happy.
There was a stopover in Prague. "It is cheaper this way", her father said. The next flight was not until the next morning. At night in the hotel Halima was suspicious, but she never imagined that her aunt would cheat them.
Halima was really worried when the flight from Prague was to Dubai.
"Don’t worry. Everything will be fine", her father said.
In Dubai Halima was overcome by desperation when her father told an airport official that they would fly to Mogadishu, Somalia.
Halima knew little more about Somalia than what she had seen in the news. It was a country where people were constantly at war. She started to feel scared.
"This was a surprise. We’re going to see our relatives. You wouldn’t have agreed to go if I would have said that we’re going to Somalia. On the way back we’ll stop by your aunt’s place", her father promised.
Halima believed him. And anyway, there was no option, and her father had taken her mobile phone.
The plane landed in the middle of a dusty desert at the end of June, 2001. Or that is what Halima felt. She was wearing a long skirt and a scarf, but suddenly this was not enough for her father. Relatives who were meeting them had clothes that covered everything but the face. Halima was told to put them on.
She stepped into a minibus with her relatives. It was escorted to the harbour by two flat-bed lorries with young men sitting in them, holding assault rifles. Halima thought that they hardly looked any older than she was.
Mogadishu looked like it had been flattened. Halima was in a state of shock. She could only wonder what she was doing here and how she could get out.
Finally they arrived in a fenced-off area. In the middle there was a house built of concrete with four bedrooms, a living room, and a kitchen. There was a separate outhouse away from the main building. Halima could recognise it. It was the same family-owned building that she had visited as a young child.
Halima shared one of the bedrooms with two cousins. After a couple of days she managed to gather up enough courage to go outside for a walk with one of them, to the market to buy vegetables and meat. The relatives wanted Halima to wear a black garment that covered everything except her eyes. Halima would not agree to that.
At the market the vendors looked at Halima and murmured to each other that there goes a girl who has been brought back from Europe. Halima asked the cousins what the vendors were talking about.
"Haven’t you heard that girls who did not know how to behave are constantly being brought back here?" the cousin responded.
Halima’s cousin could not answer the question of what it means that a girl does not know how to behave. But Halima now understood that she was one of those girls.
Halima’s relatives tried to get her to enjoy life in Somalia. They took her to look at nearby areas and told her about the history of Somalia and her family. Halima actually liked the white sandy beach of Mogadishu.
She understood that in the midst of all of the difficulties, there were people in Somalia who were trying to live normal lives.
But with each passing day the relatives started to talk more about Islam, and every day they had to go to the mosque to pray. At home in Finland Halima had gone to study the Koran and Arabic once a week in a clubhouse on the other side of the city, and her father had asked her in the evening if she had remembered to pray.
In the view of the relatives, everybody in Europe did whatever they wanted to do. There were no rules. They spoke about infidels, and in their opinion Halima was on the wrong path.
The comments were having an effect. Halima felt that her relatives had ready answers for everything. For the first time she felt that she was getting well-founded answers to her questions concerning religion. Scarves were for the protection of women. That way, the beauty stays with the woman herself, and can be selectively shown to the person she wants to show it to.
Nevertheless, Halima wanted out. Her life was in Finland, and she had not heard anything about her aunt.
It was a short walk from the family’s house to the mosque. It was a large room in a bleak concrete building. The room was split in two in the middle, with separate sides for men and women. Preaching at the back of the room there was always a thin imam who seemed friendly. He was dressed in a white robe that extended to his knees.
The imam was the only one to see both onto the men’s and women’s side. At times he smiled to Halima. No other man ever smiled at her in Somalia, and she smiled back at him. This was a mistake.
In mid-July, after evening prayers, the imam arrived for a visit. He knocked at the gate and asked the relatives if he could speak to Halima’s father.
After the discussion the father tried to avoid Halima, but finally he had to tell her what was going on. He stepped into the bedroom with a smirk on his face.
Halima had heard from a female relative that the imam had proposed. She had never spoken a word to the imam.
"I get to decide about this. At your age people here get married and have children", her father said.
Halima’s father felt that she had become too Finnish in her ways. Halima did not behave like she was supposed to according to her religion, and that is why she had to stay behind in Somalia.
Her father also said that she had no alternatives. Friends in Finland had advised him to take Halima to Somalia, to leave her there and to say that the girl wanted to stay. That is what the father’s friends had also done.
Halima was left in the room to cry. The women tried to comfort her. "You will get by here for sure."
Halima would no longer go to the neighbourhood mosque. Her relatives did not pressure the crushed girl. She was left on her own, and did not see the imam again.
Her father’s behaviour started to change. He hinted that Halima might be allowed back home. He talked about an Iraqi man in Stockholm who had killed his daughter because she had been dating a Swedish boy. The father said that he might do the same if Halima did not obey him in Finland.
But each time he took back what he said and declared that Halima would get used to living in Somalia. According to the father, Halima had to grow up to be a good woman, and that could not happen in Finland. The same things were repeated day after day, and Halima got tired of hoping.
Halima’s school had started in Finland when her father disappeared for several days. Halima was sure that he had gone back to Finland. Halima would never get into ninth grade.
But then he came back. In early September he revealed that he had got Halima a new passport. The passport was probably forged, because her father could not have got a new one without Halima coming to the embassy. A couple of days later they would go back to Finland.
Halima did not know why her father had changed his mind. She had been in Somalia for more than two months. She resolved to do as her father told in Finland – and to leave home as soon as she turned 18.
The plane landed at Helsinki-Vantaa Airport on a chilly autumn night. Halima was wearing sandals and she shivered with the cold.
The next morning she went to school. She was a month late and was told by her class teacher that she had failed a number of courses – even elective physical education.
Halima went to the toilet to cry alone. Why was no adult interested in what had happened? All that she told her friends was that she had been in Somalia and was not able to leave any earlier because that is what her father had decided.
Halima called her aunt in Italy and finally learned why she was allowed to come back home. The aunt was worried when Halima never showed up in Italy and she had started calling her relatives.
The eldest in the family, Halima’s paternal grandmother, had left Somalia because of the civil war there. When the grandmother had heard what had happened, she demanded that the father take Halima back to Finland. She felt that it was wrong for the father to treat Halima and her elder brother differently, and had said that if Halima’s father still wanted to be her son, he had to obey his mother.
The aunt also said that Halima’s stepmother had been in on the scheme from the outset.
Halima felt that she was completely alone and she started to look for information on the internet on what she might do. She would rather live in a children’s home than with her parents.
Halima went to see a social worker. She told about how she had been taken to Somalia and what had happened there. The woman listened and asked if Halima might not discuss the matter with her father.
After finishing comprehensive school Halima got a chance to study nursing. In the evenings she worked. Halima’s father kept her wages. He continued to make threats and made it clear that he regretted bringing her back to Finland.
When she turned 18 Halima carried out her decision and rented her own apartment. She got an unlisted telephone number and kept her address confidential. She also started dating a Finnish man.
Her father nevertheless found out where Halima lived. He left a note at her door. "I know who you are with. This is a final warning."
Halima reported the threat to the police, but they said that they could not intervene unless something actually happens.
Two months later something did happen. It was February 2005. Halima was coming home from work after nine in the evening. As she walked out of the bus she saw her father approaching.
Her father grabbed Halima by the wrist and started to pull. Halima tried to struggle, but her father’s grip was strong. Father and daughter were shouting at each other.
A drunken man sitting at the bus stop demanded that Halima’s father let her go. The drunk stood up and started walking toward the father.
The distraction allowed Halima to wrestle herself free, and she ran away in hysterics. She had run for several minutes before stopping and looking around for the first time.
Her father was nowhere to be seen and has not been seen later, nearly eight years after that evening.
The apartment has large rooms but the furnishings are sparse. The walls are white, and so is the wooden floor. An Apple laptop is on the table, adorned by Iittala candles.
Next to the door there is a child’s bicycle with training wheels.
Sitting on a sofa is a graceful-looking 26-year-old woman with toenails painted bright red. Halima is not her real name.
"I am no longer afraid, but for my daughter’s sake I do not want to use my real name. I don’t want her to get into any trouble", the woman says.
She now has a completely new life - a husband, many friends, a job, and an everyday life which revolves around her five-year-old daughter.
"I feel that I am very lucky. I wanted to tell my story because I know that this kind of thing happens. Many girls are taken to Somalia against their will, and have been left there."
The Finnish Embassy in Ethiopia is contacted each year by a few young people who have been taken to Somalia, and who want to get back to Finland. They are either Finnish citizens, or they have a residence permit.
The woman has heard from her aunt that her three teenage half-sisters have also been taken to Somalia. For a long time the woman thought that officials in Finland simply do not care.
"Now I have understood that helping is not easy. I do not know myself how I would intervene in these things. But I feel that disappearances and honour killings always happen in Sweden and Denmark. In Finland nobody wants to interfere."
A year ago Halima went to the police when she was sure that a girl whom she knew had been taken to Somalia, and she knew that it was not her choice.
"The police gave me telephone numbers to the Foreign Ministry. When I called I was asked if the person in question was underage. In that case they could do nothing. They have to trust what the parents say."
Halima knows two Somali women who have tried within the Somali community to intervene in efforts to take girls to Somalia.
"They have moved abroad and started new lives. They have been afraid to be here anymore. People who leave their family are left alone, and excluded from the entire Somali community. It is not easy."
She has lived outside the Somali community herself for years.
"I don’t know if there have been changes in the attitudes of Somalis living in Finland. At least for my generation the pressures have been great. Parents have tried to raise us into a completely different culture from the one where we were living in."
She takes as an example her older brother, with whom she no longer has any contact. "He has become like my father. He now has two children of his own, one of whom is a girl."
For the girl’s sake, she hopes that her elder brother will remember what happened to her.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 21.10.2012