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Finnish civil society host young Arab voices in Helsinki: Opening up new opportunities for intercultural dialogue

Thu, 05/05/2016 - 12:33 -- Regina Salanova

Helsinki, 4 May 2016 - Finnish civil society and media professionals met for the first time with young leaders from six Arab countries at an intercultural encounter organised by the Anna Lindh Foundation in partnership with the Finnish Institute in the Middle East and UNESCO's Net-Med Youth programme.

One of the central points discussed was the potential of traditional and new media as a challenge and opportunity in promoting cross-cultural understanding in the face of current challenges impacting on the region, in particular the impact of the refugee crisis as well as issues of xenophobia and extremist narratives. There was a consensus among the participants that the centrality of Mediterranean affairs in European media and political narratives must be leveraged to allow a real dialogue and exchange and the region's civil society and youth, and to provide an insight to the social and cultural realities.

Anu Leinonen of the Finnish Institute in the Middle East, Head of the Anna Lindh Foundation Civil Society Network in Finland, underlined the great importance of such encounters and the importance of working to create a new partnership with media: "We can best influence the future relationships between citizens of Finland and the MENA region through young opinion leaders. In addition, we can enhance the understanding of the region in Finland, which will contextualize and help understand the current process of mass migration. Through improved contacts and understanding we can combat hate-speech and racism.”

Gloria Tauk, a youth leader from Lebanon, also underlined the importance of such an opportunity to interact with civil society to the north of the Mediterranean, saying at the meeting: "The Finnish society are so interested in us, in getting to know us, that we must not miss this chance for dialogue.” This sentiment was shared by Almudaffar Shoubaki of Jordan who stated "We need to shift the dynamics of national narratives in our region, and the voices of youth can play a central role in that process", while Samira Dehri of Algeria reinforced "I believe deeply that young people have a big role to play in my own country and the wider region, and we need to build on this type of exchange and opportunity". Ambassador Risto Welheim, member of the Anna Lindh Foundation Advisory Council and former Finnish diplomat to the MENA region, stated: “I am very happy to listen to young Arab voices tonight and be able to discuss the foundations of the main issues threatening the region.”

The encounter also focused on how intercultural exchanges among youth can foster better understanding and tackle current challenges. Participants discussed social issues such as the refugee crisis and the ways asylum seekers and refugees are integrated in different societies of the Euro-Mediterranean region. The Finnish civil society representatives, which included journalists, university professors, young professionals in the field of arts and media development,  had a particular interest in knowing how the current refugee crisis and its management are perceived from the southern Mediterranean countries, as well as how young people view the increasing rates of radicalisation and violent extremism in the region. The refugee crisis, which significantly entered the public debate in Northern European countries in 2015, remains a growing topic of debate within the Finnish society and has had a special attention from mainstream media.

The organisers are now looking to build on this initiative as part of regional youth programming underway with Euro-Med Member States. Speaking in Helsinki ahead of the encounter, Paul Walton of the Anna Lindh Foundation Headquarters said: “We are convinced that the Euro-Med region has a historical window of opportunity to connect this dialogue generation and next generation of leaders from both shores of the Mediterranean to find innovative solutions to common problems of concern. Intercultural dialogue today represents the most powerful instrument we have to counter forces fueling polarisation and extremist narratives.” Rosario Soraide, media coordinator of UNESCO’s Net-Med Youth programme, also underlined the timely importance of the initiative in Helsinki, stating: “Such spaces for a real dialogue across cultures are deeply appreciate by participants from both sides of the Mediterranean. They provide a space for youth voices from Arab countries and European civil society and media to share their views on major challenges affecting their societies, and to bring fresh thinking at a critical moment in Euro-Med dialogue.”