• Anisa Akhter

Three Countries and Me; Lets Talk Identity Part Two

Here’s another early memory of mine: it’s a cold winter evening and I see Baba getting out of the car from the window of our apartment. Excited and overjoyed, I wave at him and then I see a man with a butcher’s knife approaching Baba, trying to strike him. It’s 1999 and the skinhead that used to live next to us attacks my father, fuelled by his racism. Thankfully, no one was harmed but the fight was seared permanently into my young mind. Reality hit a little too hard and I realised quickly as a child that we were not wanted here in Finland.

I’m sure once this gets published, a lot of members of the Finnish society might deny or belittle about the experiences I’m going to share today. But, I have to argue that this is due to the minimal exposure to immigrant and minority narratives, rather than pure malice and denial. You cannot understand what you haven’t gone through so, for today, consider an alternative perspective on your paradise nation.

You see, despite having loving parents and a sweet childhood, I grew up as a very angry teenager. I think I had every right to be angry, even when I had no understanding of the source of my rage. My first two years of primary school were in an institution that was mostly minority kids, or as we say: mamus. Mamu is a shortened version of the Finnish word maahanmuuttaja, meaning immigrant, but it has never made sense to me. How can I, a Finnish-born child, be called an immigrant solely due to my ethnicity? Later on as an adult, I found how damaging this mamu concept would be in terms of public opinion and general livelihood.

I enrolled into a specialised school in third grade in the suburbs, and as an inner-city kid, things had drastically changed. Suddenly, I had become the only Muslim child in the whole school, and to say that it felt weird was an understatement. The one-piece hijab that I recently had started wearing felt comforting, until someone had pointed at me and called me ‘the sand-camel coloured like shit’. In an international upper secondary school, my teacher had remarked that I spoke Finnish like a native and she’d think I was fully Finnish if I had spoken to her via the phone. In high school, I was appointed as the ‘cultural expert’ on Afghani culture, the Taliban and bacha posh while we were dissecting The Kite Runner, topics I had not a single inkling of knowledge on. When reports came in that a disproportionate number of mamu kids were joining ISIS, including people I vaguely knew, I was severely questioned about my loyalties as a Finnish and an EU citizen. How come I was not considered Finnish? Surely being born and raised here would be enough as a guarantee?

Unlike the USA or the UK, Finland is a very homogenised society with a history of being colonised and many Finns believe taking in refugees and immigrants is not the Finnish society’s responsibility, viewing it as a threat to their heritage and culture. This sentiment is widespread and has been adopted by nationalist political parties across the country. However, it is not as pervasive in the younger generation and in large cities (although, there are nuances to it), but that is a topic for another time.

So after college, I decided to temporarily leave Finland behind and move to UK for some soul-searching (and uni) and I soon felt that my whole outlook on life had been drastically changed for the better. With this newfound love for life and optimism, I came back and started a new graduate job in an institution boasting how international and accepting they were. Once I started, a senior of mine marvelled multiple times how I was able to work in the field looking the way I did, a brown-skinned hijabi Muslim. Another superior wanted to know how to ‘bridge the gap between Indian people and "us" in the field’ and I felt deeply uncomfortable to be part of the discussion. These microagressions set back the unfortunate reality of living here as someone who is only seen as a mamu.

Reconciling the fact that this land is where my heart resides, while simultaneously being vilified and othered by my fellow country-people who do not see me as such left me in a tough position. But, I refuse to dilute my experiences and myself to appease others, not after what this country has offered me, be it good or bad. At the very least, the racism has made us resilient and resourceful -- oddly a very Finnish trait.

By Anisa Akhter