My last school visit in Helsinki was at a construction vocational school and I had an unexpected, honest and insightful conversation that will stick with me for awhile. I found myself passing the afternoon around a table in a warm sunny corner with young men from Israel, Rwanda, Afghanistan, America, Russia and my Finnish host.
Eric started the conversation describing what it was like to first see snow when he moved from Rwanda to Helsinki as refugee. Kasra (Afghan) quickly threw a cup at him and said that he was making it up and that he really hated every minute of it. I knew that these two good friends were going to be entertaining and I was going to get a good look into their lives. Jonatan from Israel and Valentin from Russia joined us after awhile and before I knew it an American came over to find out what we were talking about. This is the diversity that is unique to East Helsinki.
Our conversation floated between serious and comical- these guys really know how to tell a story and so I want to attempt to tell you theirs.
Jonatan immigrated to Finland when he was 13 years old from Israel. He spent his first year in Finland in a class for foreigners learning Finnish. He described how it was really tough his first years before he could speak Finnish. Jonatan talked about how he didn't have a lot of friends and he didn't know how to get around. Once he finished his language class, Jonatan was faced with the decision about what type of upper secondary school to apply to. He decided that a lukio (traditional high school) would be too difficult because he didn't do very well in school and wanted to pursue construction because he knew he could get job and that it would be much more hands on. Jonatan is about to finish the construction program and is currently working on his diploma project where he is working with a local builder on a new way to lay foundation. He is very hopeful that he will be able to get a full time job when he graduates.
Eric moved from Rwanda when he was 17 years old and breaks into a huge grin when he says there are only two Rwandans in Finland- himself and his brother. Eric also took the language class before he went into the vocational school program, but openly says it was dating a Finnish girl (now his wife) who really helped him with the language.
Kasra is clearly a school leader as everyone stops to give a friendly hello as they pass by us. He immigrated to Finland from Afghanistan when he was 13 years old because his father was sick and the United Nations helped his family get to Finland for health care. He went right into Finnish schools and learned the language with other Finnish students in compulsory school. Kasra went to a lukio and graduated in 4 years with a diploma. He then had trouble finding work and decided that the most open field to immigrants was construction so he applied to the adult vocational school and will be finishing his work this spring. Kasra talked openly about how the only way he made friends was because he played football with them and practiced his Finnish on the field. He describes his first year in Finland as lonely.
Valentin was the newest to Finland out of the group. He moved from Russia three years ago when he was 17. He is finishing up his studies next spring, but is planning on continuing to the University of Applied Sciences in the fall to continue his education. Valentin explained that he doesn't know what he really wants to do so he figured that he will just keep going to school until he finds what he likes.
At the end of the conversation an American joined us just to see what we were talking about. I didn't get his name, but he shared the same perspective as many of the 18 year olds in my classroom. He moved to Finland because his mom is Finnish and they moved back to Helsinki after living in Washington his whole life. He had no idea what he wanted to pursue as a career and so just decided on construction to make his mom happy. The nonchalant attitude that he approached life with set his voice apart from the others in the conversation. It could be the influence of not having a struggle that brought him to Finland or it could be something else entirely. Regardless it sounded very American to me.
The common themes that kept coming through this conversation were how tough it is to be in Finland and not be Finnish. However, it isn't the kind of tough that would send these guys packing. Instead they rose to the challenge and each of them now describe themselves as Finnish. They are proud of the hard work they have put in to be where they are and to have the opportunities they do because of the quality of Finnish education. Ironically, it was in this conversation that I truly understood the idea of Finnish Sisu. The determination and perseverance that this country is so proud of is found in these stories just as it is found in the history of Finland.
After some of the guys had to head to class, it was just Eric, Kasra and I left talking. The questions had turned to the States and about my life there. As I described what it was like living within a primarily African-American neighborhood and having to learn new ways to adapt to a new culture, we found common ground. I asked them about facing discrimination in Finland as foreigners. Both Eric and Kasra were honest about several situations in their 4 or 5 years in Finland which made them directly feel as if they were discriminated against because they were not Finnish. They described stories of job interviews that they knew they wouldn't get or stares as people passed them by. What was striking is that when talking about these situations, there was no hate or frustration that came through. In many ways immigration is a relatively new conversation in Finland and these guys are living the beginning of that conversation. However, as I heard about their dreams and plans for life in Finland they were full of hope and promise. Helsinki is clearly a place that is learning how to embrace immigrants and open their doors to people from all over the world.
Living in central Finland, I don't see the diversity in the same way that I would if I was living in Helsinki. Classrooms in Jyväskylä aren't facing the same challenges yet, but I am hopeful that the conversations and policy decisions that are made now in Helsinki will make the transition easier when more diversity extends throughout Finland. And I am most hopeful for Eric, Kasra, Valentin and Jonatan. Each one of them are proud to say they see no reason to leave Finland and consider this country their home. Although my stay is temporary and my experience is different, it is easy to see why they call Finland home.