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Open Hearts - Open Doors

60 people mainly from the Nordic countries, Russia and Ukraine, met in Helsinki, Finland, aiming to counter the trend towards closed doors and heavy hearts.

Helsinki Gathering
60 people met in Helsinki

We were greeted by tall pine trees, a sparkling sea, a faint scent of tar and blueberries. At last it was possible to meet again! This time at the Orthodox cultural center Sofia in Vuosaari outside Helsinki. Over 60 participants came from Ukraine, Russia, Germany, Switzerland, France, England and from the Nordic countries. 

This gathering was part of a decision taken in 2019 to have a summer meeting every year in the Nordic region. In 2019 we met in Grebbestad, Sweden. The following year it was held over Zoom, owing to the pandemic. Last year was planned for Finland but postponed, again because of the pandemic.

Having Finland as host this year felt extra valuable as its proximity to Russia brought added realism and made it possible for several participants to come from Russia. Most of them returned home after the gathering to continue working for truth in the situations they are in.

A foundation for these inspiring days was the calmness breathed by the buildings in Sofia; there was a very beautiful Orthodox chapel where many before us have found strength and stillness. The whole setting made it easy to alternate exciting meetings with relaxing swimming and saunas.

We were all divided into small family groups which met in the morning and shared around given themes; in the afternoon there was a chance for those who wished to share their life story.

The theme of the conference was Faith, Hope and Love. Opening the gathering, Anja Snellman, a Finnish architect living and working in Paris, said: “The time we live in is overwhelming us with reason to be deeply worried. As a result of this we rather find ourselves with heavy hearts and closing doors. During our days together we wish to find out how to move against this by building trust and friendship, finding hope, finding peace for our minds and a place for us as individuals and a group. It is not only about what to DO, but who to BE in today’s world.”

Each morning there was a plenary meeting with speakers on these topics. Here are some excerpts from what was said.


Father Ambrosius

Father Ambrosius, former Metropolitan of the Orthodox Church in Finland, began with his experiences: "God speaks to us through all religions, through people and even through things. Initiatives of Change (formerly MRA) was given a special task after the Second World War to work for reconciliation, and even now a special task awaits. Sofia means wisdom, we humans do not stand still in our development, we either go forward or backward. We can choose. The Eastern Church can contribute action based on experience – it is not so intellectual.”

In answer to a question, he spoke about looking at Jesus instead of spending too much time looking in the mirror.

Hassan Muhamed

Hassan Mohamud, a Muslim, talked about his upbringing in Somalia where he grew up in an orphanage. “I didn't choose my faith, I was born with it. I have not always been happy about my faith, it has challenged me but also led me from country to country and then to reconciliation work between people from different clans both in Sweden, where I came 42 years ago, and in Somalia and in other countries." Among other things, Hassan has worked for reconciliation and democracy in underprivileged parts of Stockholm.

Camilla Nelson

Camilla Nelson, a graphic design teacher from Noway said: "Many people around us are people we have not chosen, they have been given to us; and so it is also in this community." Through the New Year's conferences that have been held in Norway for many years, a strong friendship has developed. "After the Ukraine war started, we spontaneously felt that what we can do right now is to pray. Since then, we have prayed online at 8 o'clock every evening. There have always been both Russians and Ukrainians in the group."

Sometimes we worry a lot about our children, Camilla said. On her journey through the Baltic countries en route to Finland, Camilla saw a Madonna with the baby Jesus in her lap. Maria is not holding the child, but her hands are up in the sky, in trust. This image conveyed how we can have care for our children but also trust when it's time to let go.


Pertti Kajanne

The meeting with this theme was historic. The first two speakers shared traumatic memories of being children during World War II.

Pertti Kajanne, born in 1931, former industrial leader, gave us a background to the wars, occupations and civil wars that Finland has experienced in the last 100 years. He described how Finland raised up and found ways to reconcile after so much violence. He also pointed out that because so many men were away at war, it became possible for women to take on jobs and responsibilities that had previously been closed to them. This accelerated the process towards a more egalitarian society.

Urte Hvidt

Urte Hvidt was born in 1938 in Hamburg. There were both Nazis and resistance fighters in the family. She can still hear the deafening sounds of the bombs that fell on the city. She vividly told how as a little girl she sat in the basement, finally she couldn't stand it, tried to crawl out, but someone grabbed her leg and pulled her back. When they finally emerged, their former home was in flames. After the war, the family was reunited. By then her mother had become an independent woman and the old roles in the family did not work. Divorce was close but through a meeting with MRA her parents were helped to find their way back to each other. They bought a large house with 17 rooms in Denmark near the German border to create a meeting place where different people could come and live. A place of reconciliation. In the house her father resumed his dental practice and as a small child Urte had to assist. "My experience is that when you start doing something active, hope starts to grow."

A historian from St. Petersburg: "In the Narnia books, the children step through a door and enter another reality. They are in a dream but they are still fighting for their lives. We must behave at every opportunity as if our dream of a better world is real – and then it will come. The “heavy” Russia of the police, the army, the bureaucracy occupies now front pages of all newspapers, but another “light” Russia also exists – Russia of saints, martyrs and the best writers who, with their books, gave humanity an ethical compass. And then there are also all the ordinary people who do their job, and those who, like the children in Narnia, fight with their lives as an effort to find the truth.”

Backdrop of the meeting hall

Yana Zhurenko is a lawyer from Ukraine. Now she lives with her daughter in Oslo: "I thought the future was bright, I loved my country. At five in the morning on 24 February my father called and said now the war is here. Two days later my city Romni was occupied. It went so fast. We didn't have guns. We lived in the basement, it was extremely cold. Finally the Russians retreated. These days have made us different, we became kinder to each other, we shared."

Elena, who teaches English at a university in Moscow and during the entire conference translated for Yana, pointed out: “Andrey Sakharov, Larisa Bogoraz and many other dissidents did not believe that the Soviet state would fall, maybe not even in 1,000 years. But still they continued to fight for the truth. We must dare to follow in their footsteps. We have gotten used to living a double life in Russia. But true healing of our society may only begin if we dare to live by our principles, honestly, regardless of the consequences and even if we don’t hope to see positive changes while we live.”

A common thread during this meeting was that even terrible experiences such as war can pave the way for new attitudes, for democracy, equality, and empathy.


Helle Dalgaard Lauridsen

Helle Dalgaard Lauridsen Musuku, a policy analyst from Denmark whose husband is from Zambia, talked about the difficulties that can face a couple when one is an immigrant. Those who are native to a country always have an advantage; it applies to obvious things like language, but also the opportunity to get a job and enter deeply into society. Helle spoke of sadness that not everyone sees the great potential that her husband Viktor Mususk has and that society does not take advantage of it. The word for love in Danish, “kaerlighed”, contains both love and equality. It can be a difficult path to find that equality in a relationship when the social structure constantly makes it difficult, but is well worth fighting for.

Helsinki boat trip

Anna Simojoki is head of Finland’s Radio One. She shared with us valuable tools on how to create a loving environment in a workplace. Together with her colleagues at the radio, they have developed written house rules on how they can support one another. “It's about showing interest in each other's lives, respecting, encouraging, helping and praising each other. In conflicts, it's not so much about what I feel, but how I behave. As a manager, it is important to listen to others but also not to back down if it is something you think is important. Kindness is not the same as being soft. When you get really angry yourself, a good tip is to press your feet to the floor and breathe!”

Axel Nelson, a Swedish artist and teacher living in Norway, told us how strongly we are influenced by the romantic image of love. The difficulties that arose in his marriage he illustrated with tree branches that he found on the journey to Helsinki, which together formed into a cross. Once he had a dream where he and his wife Camilla were sitting in a room, not looking at or touching each other, and he experienced incredible happiness. During a difficult time later, he remembered this dream. “This is the essence of love. Just being allowed to be in the same room as the one you love.”

Painting from Within Workshop

During the gathering we also had the opportunity to choose from a range of activities such as understanding icons, learing about storytelling and how to offer coaching, “painting from within” and more. Most of us went on a wonderful, three hour boat trip through the Helsinki archepelago, reaching the very central square of the city.

Three inspiring films were also shown during the conference: Paul Gundersen: A Finnish History; One Word of Truth – based on the Nobel Literature Prize winning speech by Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, viewable online here; and a new film about Ukrainians working to challenge corruption.

Helsinki boat trip

During the closing meeting on Sunday, many expressed great gratitude for all the work done. Because perhaps the most important thing of all is to create a loving meeting place where honest conversations can take place and teamwork can grow. To support the people who dare to stand for the truth in Russia today but also to inspire each other wherever we are is to dare to continue the good work where we are in our everyday life.

We plan to meet again next summer, perhaps in Denmark.


Report by Marja Ekdahl

Photos by Ayman Elkadi, Edward Peters and Elisabeth Peters