Dec 16, 2009

By Mirva Lempiäinen

If one had to compile a list of discussion topics to avoid at Christmas parties, rape would no doubt be high up there. Yet on Dec. 16, 2009, more than 100 New York Finns and their friends got together for Finland Center’s holiday party at the Salmagundi Club to break the silence surrounding this exact issue.

The purpose of the event, “A Holiday Celebration with Meaning,” was to raise funds for the Panzi Hospital in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. For years, the hospital’s gynecologist Denis Mukwege has patched together the bodies and lives of the battered women, who have become victims in the long-standing war.

“Sexual violence is the weapon of choice,” said Lisa F. Jackson, a documentary filmmaker whose documentary, “The Greatest Silence: Rape in the Congo,” played a central part in the evening’s program.

“It’s been shown to be more effective than bullets,” she said. The Panzi Hospital treats about 3,600 victims of sexual violence per year, many of who have been ostracized from their communities. The most disheartening thing, Jackson said, is that many of the women are now repeat visitors in the hospital that has become “a fistula factory.”

Despite being 76 minutes long, the film captured an attentive audience of about 20 people. Meanwhile, the rest of the guests enjoyed themselves by listening to the soulful tunes of singer Janita in the Parlor, and by challenging the billiard World Champion Mika Immonen for a game of billiards in the Lower Gallery.

The evening also provided the guests the chance to nosh on Nordic-style hors d’oeuvres served by Smörgås Chef, and to bid on items in a silent auction, including a dress designed by Paola Suhonen, some Ghanian woodcarvings and Finnish Christmas baskets.

In the event’s opening remarks Finland Center’s President Jaana Rehnström thanked the audience for “coming here and choosing not to remain silent.” She also talked about the values of health, education and women’s empowerment being Finland’s greatest exports.

Rehnström announced that the holiday party would kick off a yearlong campaign of fundraising efforts for the Panzi Hospital. Ritva Jolkkonen, the Consul General of Finland, gave an overview of Finland’s development assistance to Africa over the years, and thanked Finland Center for tackling such a difficult topic.

Jackson said she was happy to see that her documentary was making the rounds among the Finnish community in New York and that the Finns were enthusiastic about raising money for the Panzi Hospital.

“Ultimately it’s a tremendous help because there are women who need these services,” she said. “Once people know, you’ll want to do something.”

Ossi Närhi of Hastings attended the event with his daughter, Amy, and won his bids on three Ghanaian woodcarvings for $110. “I think it was money well spent,” he said, calling the event a “wonderful occasion.”

Panzi fundraiser income and expense statement 1/13/2010