By Enrique Tessieri
A few weeks before the election in April, I visited a group of second-graders at a local elementary school in eastern Finland. Like many schools in this country, the class was made up of a few kids with African, Middle Eastern and other European backgrounds.
One girl sitting in front of the class surprised me with an emphatic statement: “I don’t want to be a Finn because I’m Arabic.”
A boy sitting a row from the girl gave a knee-jerk response: “I don’t like where you’re from!”
The argument between the two started to gain momentum until it came to an abrupt end. I told the class that an important lesson could be learned from the incident: The importance of acceptance.
I tried my best to tell the class that some of us are fortunate because we have two home countries. Accepting one does not wear off your feelings for the other.
On that day I noticed something else missing at Finnish elementary schools. There weren’t any songs where everyone, irrespective of their background, could feel included in Finnish society.
“This is a nice song we used to sing at my elementary school when I was a kid in the United States,” I said. “Why would a song claim that this is your land and this is my land if everyone knows that Finland is our land?”
I explained to the class that the United States is a country that has a lot of immigrants and people of different ethnic backgrounds. Some of them feel excluded from society. That’s why Guthrie’s song was sung at our school so people from all walks of life could feel at home.
One worrisome questions that the April 17 election has raised is whether Finland will become a more hostile country to visible newcomers, minorities and multicultural Finns?
Apart from greater euroskepticism, one of the most regrettable consequences of the election is growing nationalism, anti-immigration and anti-refugee sentiment in Finland.
While it would be unfair to claim that all Perussuomalaiset are against immigration and accepting our ever-growing cultural diversity as a society, some don’t hesitate to make a case about how “white” Finland is coming under threat. Immigrants and multicultural Finns are not the only ones feeling the adversity but our Swedish-speaking minority as well.
It is surprising, if not shocking, that in 2011 some politicians are making a case for racial “hygiene” in Finland, a concept that was prominent in the Europe of the 1930s and with the rise of fascism. It was the smoking gun that unleashed World War 2.
Those that make such a ludicrous case conveniently forget our history and that over a million Finns emigrated to other lands in the last two centuries. Those that left these shores have prospered as well as mixed with other cultures and people in many forms and ways. Thanks to them Finnish culture is more diverse today.
Talk of tougher immigration laws, fuelling myths and suspicion of immigrants, refugees and minorities rarely affect those that may want to move to Finland. It spills over like poison on the whole community.
I sometimes think about that Arabic girl in the class who was adamant about not wanting to be a Finn. Was it because she felt unwelcome?
No child or person who comes to our country should ever feel unwelcome by our society because it’s not the way we treat our own.
Taking into account the election result, Finland needs today more than ever its version of Guthrie’s famous song.