16 December, 2010


My kids began their schooling in Finland as part of a cultural melting pot, in a special immigrant class. Irony: Finland has very little immigration, a very short history of immigration, and really, most of the general population have not much of a clue when it comes to the real issues surrounding immigration. Australia, on the other hand, is a nation of immigrants. Australia is arguably not particularly good at integrating them (why integrate when they can always find fellow countrymen there to socialise with anyway) but you would think that as Aussie kids they'd be quite accustomed to being surrounded by cultural and religious diversity.

Not so. Two years in Wellington left them insulated from all except disadvantaged indigenous kids and redneck white-European families. (Before someone protests intolerance  I'm well aware there were some exceptions. But when the only main types of "culture" which pervade your school life are those two, it has a massive impact on growing minds.)

So it has been a mixture of wonder and amusement as I hear them tell stories of their classmates, their attitudes, their beliefs, and their dietary habits. One in particular, a nasty Eastern-European boy with a mouthful of attitude, constantly belittles my children for eating pork. I am grateful for the fact that my kids are old enough (just) to appreciate that they're NOT filthy for eating it, and that TardBoy's religion makes him feel that it's wrong, and his mouth is too big. We've also discussed the fact that one other kid has the same religion, doesn't eat pork either, and yet never says cruel things to those who do. One of Jay's close friends. He has class.

That kid is from Somalia. I'm going to call him Hakim-Khalid. My kids have expressed amazement at these Somalian kids. There are another 7 kids in the class named Hakim, or Khalid, or Ali-Hakim, or Khalid-Abdi, or a combination. Many of them couldn't write, couldn't cope with learning their ABCs, and have blackened, rotting teeth. When they first attend school, they turn up without warm clothes and accessories, until well into the snow season - not for a lack of clothing but a lack of understanding how to protect themselves from cold. Hakim-Khalid is typical in that his tiny stature is evidence of having lived a very harsh life before he got to Finland.

Several months into school, we were discussing some of the immigrants I had met while learning Finnish, and particularly the subject of given names. I use a "Finn-ised" first name and my husband's surname, so people are quite unaware I'm an immigrant until I open my mouth. Those who have black skin are not nearly as lucky, and likewise those whose name is difficult for a Finn to pronounce. While Finns are almost never openly racist - since they rarely open their mouths to a stranger at all - there's the racism you'd expect from any nation anywhere in the world: If I'm choosing someone for a job, I'll just never know if someone with a very foreign name can actually function well in the local language. Easier to throw that application in the bin and go with the man named Tapio Leevi Nieminen, who is so obviously Finnish.

Jay was very thoughtful about this and asked if his Anglo first and surnames might stop him getting work when he was older. My husband was frank about it. "It might make things a little tougher. But it will be MUCH easier than for a Somalian."

Again, he was thoughtful. Then he observed, as if it were the first time he ever noticed, "Kids always ask me why I came to Finland. They never ask Hakim-Khalid why he came to Finland. Why not?"

Now there's a thorny question. It's impossible to answer without being harsh and being racist. "Jay, unfortunately, most Finns don't care why Hakim-Khalid came here. They all know, already. Or at least, they think they know. He's black, therefore they think he's probably a refugee, who came to Finland for a better life. And many people will treat him like he's a waste of public money who doesn't deserve to be here."

Silence. "But everyone likes Hakim-Khalid, Mum. He's cool."

"Yes, he is, once you take the time to get to know him. But strangers decide why Hakim-Khalid is here, just from the colour of his face. They don't understand why a white foreigner is here. That's why they ask you, and never ask Hakim-Khalid. If he's so cool, why doesn't anyone ever ask him why he came to Finland?"

It gave Jay something to think about. I don't like upsetting my kids, but I like them to have a view of what the real world is like. If you don't understand the world, how can you ever change it for the better? Jay is going to stand right beside some racist haters, at some point - and when it happens I'd like him to think about how people treated his black friend, and I want him to speak up and tell them it's wrong.