Meeting Barack Obama #TownHallEurope

May 12, 2019

In this blog entry I gathered my impresions after meeting Barack Obama in Berlin. In short it was one of those memorable moments, shower of incredible ambitious and courageous individuals who have probably been the first in their league to do something extraordinary.

Below is a screenshot of my inbox from March 8th and what a gift it was to receive this message: my own Women’s Day celebration! The next day phone started buzzing from other friends who received the same and we were planning to meet, what to wear, what to ask if we were given a chance! Exciting indeed.

#TownHallEurope took place in Berlin during a warm sunny Saturday at the European School of Management and Technology.

The day started first with networking while we all waited outside the building. Then we got in, got the badges and took lots of pictures! The event started with welcoming words and followed by a panel discussion with Ben Rhodes, Obama’s speechwriter and foreign policy adviser and young leaders across Europe, including Delphine O, French Member of Parliament and my two fellow European Young Leaders Klen Rajääts, European Union Secretariat’s director and Flavia Kleiner, co-founder and co-president of Operation Libero in Switzerland.

Then Aminata Touré, the youngest and first black member of Parliament in Germany’s Schleswig-Holstein welcomed Obama on stage.

“Guten tag Berlin,” started Obama…

Obama was full of wit and powerful presence, he kept a strong eye contact and conviction. It was not difficult to notice that, since I sat within 5 meters from his tribune. Obama talked to us on the future struggles in Europe, climate change, migration, fake news, meaning of democracy, making democracy work and leading change in times of rising populism and exclusion. Social media, for example, helps us communicate globally, but these same media also serve to misinform and can as a consequence also cause conflicts, he said. I liked the fact that he touched upon personal leadership: burn out and sustainability in our own actions, and that whoever you are, you should also be mindful of taking time off in this never-ending work. He said he always took time for his gym workouts!

Power of networks and young voices
Americans have their ability to network, gather communities, invest and support them. Already as an exchange student in San Antonio, Texas (FSA/FLEX (Future Leaders Exchange Program between the republics of the former Soviet Union and the US, sponsored by U.S. Senator Bill Bradley) I could see how it is being taught and supported in speech classes, in sports, in building loyalty to schools and universities.

In Europe, community culture and networking are gaining momentum, but yes, we can do better, same in Uzbekistan. Since I have been working for many years as a social activist in Denmark and Finland, I have been invited to two networks: German Marshall Fund’s Transatlantic Inclusion leaders and European Young Leaders, so Obama’s TownhallEurope was a reunion with friends from near and far.

He was there to empower the voices of young people also especially how to get people involved in political participation ahead of e.g. National or European Parliament elections:

“You can change the world. You do not let your grandfather or grandmother decide what clothes you wear or what music you listen to. So why would you let them decide the world you’re gonna live in?” Barack Obama

He also encouraged young people to get involved and speak up with the politicians. “Sometimes we think of the government as this ‘thing’ that is separate from us,” Obama said. “But if we’re active citizens, then part of our job is not just to get government to respond to you — it’s also to improve the government.” With his work at Obama Foundation he offers to equip change makers worldwide with tools, resources, mentoring and collaboration skills for the next generation. According to Obama it would be the biggest impact he would have in partnering with the next generation.

“If we can teach you how to learn from each other, you will change the world and I can relax and sit back a little bit.” Barack Obama at #TownHallEurope

From Finland, there was a strong team of community leaders consisting of Maryan Abdulkarim, Ozan Yanar, Sean Ricks and Hassan Maikal. I have  cooperated with each of them in various initiatives on diversity and inclusion in Finland. You can see them on below photo in the middle. To the right you will see a dinner company with #GMFTILN friends at Each one teach one (EOTO), Berlin-based education and empowerment project for Black, African and African-diasporic people in Germany.

After Obama’s speech and Q&A, he went around to shake hands and I was lucky to exchange few words with him. Now, to something very important: Obama does not do selfies, so people, of course, chose other strategies to commemorate this day! 🙂 When he reached my side of the floor, I said: “Hello Mr. President, my name is Kamilla Sultanova and I would like to invite you to Uzbekistan on behalf of young girls and women!” Uzbekistan is a 34-million nation in the heart of Central Asia and regionally accounts 72 million people half of which are women. How much do we hear about this region? He asked how things were and I told that things are changing rapidly and we need more momentum.

I invited Obama to come to Uzbekistan and inspire our leaders to make Uzbekistan a place, where women leaders can also be part of change and reform. Also because Obama Foundation actively promotes inclusive leadership and gender equality. I gave his assistant an Uzbek men’s traditional skullcap (in Uzbek “doppi”) and said that Obama and his foundation could inspire change in the Central Asian region, which needs to attract global ideas and practices, as well as investment in human capital. The skullcap is a nice souvenir, and I have gifted many of them to my friends. It is also a symbolic Uzbek artifact that I am sure will help Obama remember my ask. Obama is a strong role model as a father of two daughters and a spouse promoting gender equality and who could be a better role model for many Uzbek fathers enabling their daugthers get ahead in life and live the lives they dreamt of?

This meeting surely left a lasting impression, chills and feeling of accomplishment. Despite the fact that communication with Obama and Q&A was just around 2 hours, I had time to re-connect evening before and evening after with about 50 fellow participants from various networks. We bonded and energized. I assure you, everything was well-organized – high security check. Badges check. Seats check. Refreshments check. Time for networking before, during, after check.

Having left Uzbekistan in 2002, I was 18 years old. I have come a long way to achieve this level and recognition both in Denmark and in Finland… When you move to another country, you need to start over and re-create yourself! This is a big challenge for any person, regardless if you are an extrovert or introvert…After all, immigrants do not enjoy a good reputation especially these days. I had no way to loose the battle as I had to prove my parents and my society that girls can do it too! Studying in Aarhus Technical School (Now Aarhus Business Academy) I worked my way through cleaning jobs at Aarhus harbour, Aarhus cafes and restaurants to getting my first office job, which was also an achievement in itself for an international student in Denmark 2010… And there came loneliness and isolation. With already established friendships and networks, people did not have time to invest in foreign students and communicate face-to-face (ironically, when I moved to Finland I saw social media as an obstacle too) so making friends IS difficult period! Entering a world of civic society and volunteering for various causes has opened doors to meet people with similar interests and realize there is more that unites us than divides us. It gave me hope each and every time. I came to my own wisdom: we are equal in our right to reach our own potential and one’s gender or one’s origin is not an obstacle to lead a full life. Unfortunately I had to move out and create that environment where I could thrive and luckily I found a partner, who supports me 100%.

What does it take to meet Obama?

I believe one needs to be committed to whatever you do, you got to be bold and keep doing what you believe and do not “sell out” in regards to your values. Regardless my several moves from Denmark to Finland I always strived for consistency. Let me show you some highlights how it all started.

  • Joined mentoring activities and speaking on behalf of immigrant women in Denmark
  • Joined Board of members at Danish Internationals association Novum
  • Joined European Women Lobby’s political mentoring network
  • Campaigned for diversity days and debates with Copenhagen municipality
  • Selected at German Marshall Fund Transatlantic inclusion leaders network
  • Arranged seminars and debates on belonging and inclusion leadership in Copenhagen and Helsinki
  • Trained immigrants in pro-bono courses on export careers, sales and networkin
  • Received “Women of the Decade in Community Leadership” award from Nobel Laureate Ouidad Bouchamaoui of Tunis and Dr. Harbeen Arora of India, nominated as 100 Most Reputable People On Earth
  • Opened a Finnish branch of Global Dignity with Tanja Lankia – Global Dignity Girls & Boys ry
    During the 4 years arranged motivational volunteer-driven community events reaching 4000 students via speaker events, art projects and workshops.
  • During 2018-2019 reached 4000 people in Uzbekistan with focus on empowerment, education and civic engagement via workshops, seminars and webinars.

Yes, I invested time and money and cultivated my networks as well as cultivating other business-related relations…standing up for social justice, cross-cultural dialogue, representation on the job market, youth empowerment and gender equality.

“Meeting Obama will only give me the strength to continue working with people who dare to change the world.”

Next time then!

  • In fact, I was already invited to a meeting with Barack Obama in Washington in 2011, when I lived and worked in Denmark. Due to my work commitments at Nordic Tankers, I had to decline the offer but at that time, I decided to myself: “next time then!” Looking back, I am honored to be on the list of invited young leaders and get recognition for my civic action work all these years. I believe meeting Obama strengthened the spirit of activism for all of us, the power of one individual, one voice and choice we all have to make a change. “He was here as a former activist, he is a bringer of hope,”  Leonie Eland said, a journalist from Germany.

Living all these years in Scandinavian countries, I came to my own wisdom: we are equal in our right to reach our own potential and one’s gender or one’s origin is not an obstacle to lead a full life. Obama encouraged not to just to do work in the communities, he also said you should “be able to share YOUR story”. Which I did last year: watch my TED talk on empowerment and volunteering. My one wish to young boys and girls is to learn storytelling, be able to find ways for expressing themselves, write online diary be in on Instagram or Telegram, get involved in some hobby and thereby find their own voice and space in the society.

In the Nordic countries where life-long learning, entrepreneurship, healthcare and unemployment support is offered  from the welfare state, people need motivation and knowledge of what motivates, and this, in turn, I believe will give the energy to achieve a result. It is however, highly problematic for people with minority backgrounds, where job discrimination and racism persists in all spheres of the society. As elsewhere in Europe populism and nationalism forces and recent elections show that situation has only gotten worse.

Recent Finnish Parliamentary elections mainstreamed discrimination and deep-seated racism.  Around 60 foreign-background candidates vied for seats in the election, according to Statistics Finland, where an Iraqi-born Hussein al-Taee and Bella Forsgrén, who was adopted from Ethiopia as an infant, are the only minority-background MPs joining the new legislature. On the positive note women will take 92/200 positions as lawmakers, up from the previous record of 85 in 2011. In addition, this year saw more women than ever among the top vote-getters.

Watch a short highlight from #TownHallEurope 

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Watch the full live transmision below