“Finland is active in networks within Europe and in North America, but we also need to collaborate with the Global South. We should invite more scholars from developing countries and enable them to come here.”

From the Arctic, for the world

Nafisa Yeasmin considers internationalization and North-South research collaboration necessary for addressing global problems. She works for social change at multiple levels – in academia, civil society and policy-making. Yeasmin received FUURT´s The Academic of the Year award.

As a migration scholar, Nafisa has studied social inclusion and well-being of immigrants in Finland. She defended her PhD dissertation in November 2018. Her PhD dealt with integration of immigrants in the Arctic region. Nafisa also has long-term practical experience of working with immigrants. She emphasises that in this context, the most important principles are equality and equity.

— Integration is a two-way process. Immigrants need to feel that they belong to the society, and local people need to meet and get to know immigrants. This is why I started to study Finnish as soon as I and my family arrived. I felt it was necessary to learn the language to work here. I was also considering the integration process of my children. I wanted to be able to communicate with the day care personnel and teachers, and help my children do their homework in Finnish.

After taking intensive courses in Finnish for two years, Nafisa got a job as an assistant in a local day care centre. In 2009, she received a position as a cultural mediator in MoniNet, a local NGO working with immigrants. Nafisa’s personal experiences, combined with her engagement with other immigrants, inspired her to start her PhD research in 2012.

After her PhD defence, Nafisa has explored issues such as social inclusion, community sustainability, regional development and migration governance. In her ongoing projects, she focuses on the well-being of immigrant youth and immigrant women, integrated education, and the role of social enterprises in enhancing immigrants’ labour market access.

Towards truly international universities

Nafisa is pleased about the fact that there are increasingly more international scholars in Finland. In 2006, her husband was the first Bangladeshi researcher to start working at the Arctic Centre. Now, the University of Lapland hosts a large number of international scholars not only from South Asia but all over the world.

— The research profiles of Finnish universities are becoming more international. Here in the Arctic region, we collaborate with scholars from different countries through networks such as the UArctic, CIMO and ERASMUS. Still, there is room for improvement.

According to Nafisa, Finnish universities have a very good reputation abroad, but they have not taken full advantage of this. She is also concerned about the lack of diversity and structural inequality. While scholars in the US and Europe have excellent connections to Finland, researchers in the Global South often find it difficult to collaborate with Finnish universities due to lack of resources. More funding should be available for knowledge sharing and working together.

— Finland is active in networks within Europe and in North America, but we also need to collaborate with the Global South. We should invite more scholars from developing countries and enable them to come here. Enhancing North-South cooperation would bring many benefits. We need more opportunities and resources for internationalisation – both ways. We also have to become more active in our communication.

Nafisa points out that internationalisation is also crucial for addressing global challenges.

— We must share our knowledge, to learn from and with each other. In this way, also new research areas will emerge. We already understand that climate change is affecting everyone on this planet. We need to create epistemic dialogue also on other issues to understand their interlinkages and global impacts. One of these issues is migration.

More support for early-career researchers

Nafisa emphasises the importance of research visas and permanent work contracts for attracting international scholars to Finland. As a positive development, she mentions visiting professor programs funded by the Academy of Finland and Finnish ministries.

For many years, Nafisa has been actively involved in Lapin tieteentekijät Lati ry, the local member association of the FUURT. She regards the situation of PhD students and early-career researchers as very difficult. Many are working on short-term contracts and grants. There are not many open positions. Resources are limited and competition for funding is fierce.

Nafisa considers it fundamentally important to develop more effective support strategies for the younger generation of researchers. There should also be more travel grants available for attending conferences and developing research networks.

— Completing a PhD should result in good opportunities for employment and enable career development. We should recognise and utilise the expertise of early-career researchers better in academia, as well as outside of it.

Nafisa says that the FUURT has an important role in supporting junior researchers, bringing attention to their difficult situation and communicating with policy- makers. She also suggests that the expertise of international scholars should be promoted more actively.

— All communication is important and it needs to be as inclusive and as participatory as possible.

Actively against racism and prejudice

Nafisa emphasises that openness and transparency are also necessary in addressing and tackling prejudices. Racism is a much discussed issue in the context of her research as well as her work with immigrants at the grassroots level.

— Institutional racism exists in academia and outside of it. Racism takes different forms, some of them more and some less visible, but racism exists everywhere. Many of us immigrants and international scholars have had to face it in various contexts.

Nafisa refers to a recent study which concluded that the majority of people of African origin in Finland have experienced racism. As one reason for this, Nafisa considers the low number of immigrants in comparison to many other countries. Yet, she points out that there are challenges and problems, as well as racism, even in truly multicultural societies.

Nafisa has written widely on these issues, publishing not only scientific and professional articles but also popular texts in Finnish and English. She is convinced that prejudices can be overcome, but it demands continuous work and more people who can act as cultural mediators.

— People should learn more about multicultural issues. We should not isolate people who have racist views but we have to talk to them. Without engaging with them, we cannot fight prejudices and racism.

Advancing social change at different levels

Nafisa emphasises that social change requires active participation at different levels of the society – academia, civil society and policy-making. She is an excellent example of this, as she has engaged with all of these sectors in an effort to increase interaction between them and to strengthen the impact of her research. In 2014, Nafisa founded the Arctic Immigrants Association that supports immigrants and works towards an inclusive and multicultural society. She is also active in local politics, which she considers important for advancing awareness at the policy level.

Nafisa was a member in a national working group formed by the Ministry of Education and Culture to promote the integration of immigrants in Finland (2018–2019). She is one of the distinguished members of the Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund (AMIF) follow-up committee hosted by the Ministry of the Interior. She is also the chairperson of the Lapland Ethnic Advisory Board of the ELY Centre, and a member of the national Ethnic Advisory Board run by the Ministry of Justice.

— We need immigrants in Finland and in Europe. People are starting to believe in us, and we have gained more respect. We contribute to the society in many ways, not only by working and paying taxes but also by sharing our expertise and through our social and political engagement.

Nafisa is very honoured to have been nominated as the Academic of the Year as the first researcher from the University of Lapland. She has also received other awards. In 2015, the Advisory Board for Ethnic Relations ETNO of the Ministry of Justice granted her a special mention for advancing good ethnic relations and promoting non-discrimination. In 2016, she received the ‘Voice of Immigrant’ cultural achievement award from the Municipality of Rovaniemi on behalf of the Arctic Immigrants Association (AMA). As the founder and chair of AMA, Nafisa was also granted an award by the Lapland Regional Organization Advisory Board in 2017.

— It feels nice to get recognition for one’s work. I also try to credit other people for their efforts as I know how encouraging it is. Feeling valued and appreciated inspires people to do more. Whatever we do, in whatever field, we should respect one another.

Nafisa Yeasmin

Dr. Nafisa Yeasmin works as a project manager at the Arctic Centre of the University of Lapland in Rovaniemi. Before coming to Finland, she studied at the University of Rajshahi in Bangladesh from where she graduated as a Master of Law in 2001. She moved to Arctic Lapland with her two small children when her husband started his work at the University of Lapland in 2006.

Text Tiina Seppälä
Photos Tapio Nykänen

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