Paulina Tervo portrait

Written by Paulina Tervo

Co-Founder and Co-CEO at Lyfta; an immersive learning platform for educators.Her background is in documentary filmmaking and web production.

I’m holding a heavy camera in my arms, which are shaking from the sheer weight. It’s 35 degrees; hot, humid and I’m standing in the middle of the biggest slum in Dhaka, Bangladesh, filming a UK A-list celebrity who is crying and talking to the camera. We have just visited several homes in the slum, where we have met young mothers, who are still children themselves, who live in abject poverty and whose children are malnourished. My brief for the day has been to make the A-list celebrity cry in front of the camera, because that’s what will make people donate to the charity that I am doing the work for. I start crying myself, because of the absolutely devastating stories of hopelessness that we are telling, and because I have been told by the local staff that the families we filmed are not beneficiaries of their aid, and therefore will not be helped. 

What this narrative was doing was problematic for many reasons. Not least because it reinforced the white saviour narrative, portrayed the poor as a helpless one-dimensional group who are only going to be saved by our charity. It also showed only one side of the story. What we didn’t tell was how the young mother might have been part of a women entrepreneur’s group, saving together to launch a business, or how she is a resilient and resourceful person. We didn’t humanise her, we victimised her, objectified her even. 

I felt disgusted and embarrassed for being there. It was the first time I had ever taken an assignment like this, and it was absolutely going to be my last. It was clear to me that what we were doing would not bring about sustainable change. I realised that I wanted to tell stories that were empowering, and even if they had tragedy or difficulties in them, they would humanise and have hope. 

A very different story

Fast forward 5 years, I am filming another young mother, this time in Helsinki, Finland. This is where I come from. 

Habiba was a child when she came to Finland in the early nineties as a refugee from Somalia. To give you some background, in 2018 over 50% of Somalis in Finland were unemployed, and when it comes to women, that figure was even higher. Many Somali women become nurses or work in other caring professions. When Habiba told me that as a teenager she had been told by a school counsellor that she would be best off becoming a nurse, as that’s what most other Somali women do, she decided that wasn’t going to be her route. Her interest was in citizen activism and politics. 

Habiba always knew she wanted her own career while also fulfilling her duty as a mum. By her mid-twenties, she was the proud mother of 7 children when the relationship with her husband broke down. Committed to her aims towards social justice and advocacy for others, she chose to become a city councillor and started to work for her community, to help young people who faced institutional racism which put them at risk of marginalisation. It hasn’t been easy for Habiba to do what she is doing, she faces constant hate speech and racial abuse. 

The story we ended up telling about Habiba, like the other stories on the Lyfta platform, is emotionally powerful, yet hopeful, inspiring and empowering. Habiba is an incredibly resilient and positive person, reflective and committed and provides a powerful role model for us all. She makes us see that despite adversities, we can still follow our dreams. 

Habiba’s story has now been seen by thousands of children and teachers in the UK and Finland. For many people, she is an incredible role model, and for others, meeting her has given them a window into someone’s life, whom they might otherwise never have met. They would have heard a story that showed them a new perspective.

Habiba’s story is one of many human stories featured in Lyfta’s learning environments called storyworlds. At Lyfta our mission is to share beautiful human stories from around the world to better understand ourselves, each other and our future – as individuals, as communities and as an entire planet. 

Storytellers and media outlets have a big responsibility as to how we tell stories, because stories shape our world and shape perspectives and attitudes. So it really matters how they are told. The world is nuanced, complex and beautiful and there are a million ways of telling someone’s story. At Lyfta, we choose to tell stories that humanise people. 

What is Lyfta?

Lyfta is an award-winning teaching platform made up of interactive 360° spaces and soundscapes of real homes, workplaces and environments from around the world. Students are invited to explore, unlock rich media content, and get to know real people through powerful and inspiring short films.  

The resources are ideal for teaching a range of subjects, skills and values and the UN SDGs. The ready-made lesson and assembly plans cover a range of vital themes such as sustainability, wellbeing, human diversity and compassion, and are ideal for nurturing skills and values such as empathy, resilience, and critical thinking.

Lyfta offers free training and trial access – find out more at www.lyfta.com/training

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