I arrived here in August 2006 from the United States. I lived in Jyväskylä until November 2009, when my girlfriend – who was then living and volunteering at the Bahá’í World Centre in Israel – and I decided to get married and move to Tampere. I’ve known my wife since we were 14 or 15 years old, growing up in Cameroon. When I left for the United States we agreed on a long distance relationship and to marry one day. At the end of 2009 we got married and moved to Tampere. We are both Baha’is so we had that in common.
I don’t feel confused about my identity, I have been in many places and I like to be who I am. I’m born to Iranian parents in Cameroon, lived for two years in the States. When I moved there I made the decision that I would not change my accent.
I could only work on the university campus with my visa and I found work as a receptionist. My accent changed, but it was really a pure Darwinian change. It was unintentional and unconscious, but really Darwinian whereby my accent started to become the way it is now just because people kept asking me what I was saying. I found myself speaking in a more Americanist way over time, just so people could understand me better.
Finns are comfortable hearing native English, but for many people a Cameroonian accent is not native English. That’s what they think. Native speakers have either American or British English. I remember when Alex Ferguson [Former Manchester United manager born in Scotland] was giving interviews and I had to think if he was even speaking English.
SAHBA FROOGHI: “We believe that faith has to be expressed as useful action and useful service to humanity. If religion does not provide anything for society then there’s no purpose”
In Cameroon you stand out and as a kid get teased because of your skin color. But it’s more like looking at a funny painting that you don’t understand. Here I try and not to think about it.
My bachelor’s degree in Cameroon was in biochemistry. I did a certification in the States in early childhood education then I took a Master’s degree in Jyväskylä in Educational leadership. I have never used my degree from Finland in a practical way. I got a job in a daycare here based on my qualification from the States.
I’m motivated to learn Finnish because I think it’s time. It’s easy to get by in a place like Tampere, Turku, Helsinki with English. Easier than you think. But I feel like I want to be more connected and also to have access to the jobs that require Finnish.
An important part of being Baha’i is to be at service for your community and we believe that faith has to be expressed as useful action and useful service to humanity. If religion does not provide anything for society then there’s no purpose. In the Baha’i faith it’s actually a part of the holy scripture that if religion is a part of a conflict then it’s better not to have any religion.
We get together with people from our neighbourhood and sit and teach the children what qualities we’d like them to have – truthfulness, honesty, kindness and so on. Then we have a youth programme, and an empowerment programme about spiritual and material development. The youth can have a much more active impact on their environment afterwards and there have been a few successful attempts at this kind of activity here in Finland and all over the world.
The idea is spiritual and moral empowerment and the way to do it, we think, is service. That brings service and spirit together in a meaningful way. We got a group of 12-15-year-olds together to do service projects in the neighbourhood and all that. We ended up with this bunch that had karate on Mondays, astronomy on Tuesdays, hobbyhorse riding on Thursdays – it’s really something.
Another activity we do together is talk about common spiritual nature. Baha’is believe that we have a physical presence but the human reality is also a spiritual reality and that humans need to get together and talk about their spiritual condition just like you would talk about your work or any other mundane aspects of life.
One way of doing that is prayer… talking about the spiritual condition is really what prayer is about. It’s to connect our physical being with the spiritual being. We just get together and say some prayers. When you can connect with someone beyond a materialistic level then you can start seeing whoever as being a part of the common human experience. When you meditate and close your eyes, try to pray, you can be anywhere. The challenge in Finland is to try and remove some of the misconceptions about spirituality and religion and try and focus on the inner reality of our existence.
SAHBA FROOGHI: “It’s easy to get by in a place like Tampere, Turku, Helsinki with English. Easier than you think. But I feel like I want to be more connected and also to have access to the jobs that require Finnish.”
I come from a culture that does not value recreation in the same way it is valued in the western world. We don’t value hobbies and things like that. I didn’t have any hobbies growing up. In Cameroon we would instead hang out with each other on the street. Music is also really important in Cameroon, but it’s only in bars and nightclubs.
All my closest friends here are Cameroonian. I’m married to a Cameroonian. My child is now 4 years old. I have been thinking about what cultural things to pass on. My parents are Iranians, but they raised us in Cameroon. They tried hard to integrate, so we barely spoke any Farsi. It’s a bit of a shame because Iranians are everywhere in the world. My parents didn’t push any Iranian culture on us, they did not insist that we learn anything about Iran. I’m doing it with my child as it comes along, just trying to figure it out. I think he learns best by meeting other Cameroonians and I try to make sure we meet them. There’s just under 20 Cameroonians in Tampere and we get together for family events and things. I think I’m not interested in formally teaching him details about Cameroonian culture; he’ll learn as they’re presented to him.
For me home is still Cameroon. My parents still live there, but no other family. That’s where my roots are. One thing that annoys me is that every 5 years I have to go to Cameroon to renew my passport. I can’t do it by mail or electronically. I have to get my whole family to a Cameroonian embassy and the closest one is in the Hague, in Holland. It costs like 3,000 euros to do this thing. It’s a very material thing and it’s really annoying having to do that.
SAHBA FROOGHI: “Humans need to get together and talk about their spiritual condition just like you would talk about your work or any other mundane aspects of life.”
My older sister came here one and a half years before I did. She got married to a Cameroonian who had been living in Finland already for a few years. I can’t remember what I knew about Finland then. I think everybody knows Sweden a lot more, football is one reason for that. Then you know Finland is next to Sweden and it’s cold. That’s it really.
My younger sister moved to Oulu about 4 years ago. There is this Master’s programme in education and globalisation at the University of Oulu, known as EdGLO. She moved to Tampere about two years ago after she was done with her studies and actually she has been living with us here. Then one of my sisters live in the States.
I have never felt that I have been treated in a very suspicious way in Finland, but I can also say that there are many times I have been. I think Finns have a healthy mixture of curiosity and suspiciousness. I look the way I look, and absolutely it’s a human nature thing that if you look in a certain way people are going to think some certain things about you.
I try and not think too much about whether I’m an “immigrant” or an “expat”. If you think too much about those things you will be consumed by them. It’s such a stress for foreigners, like me, to actively block these things out. Otherwise you will get sucked into it and think that every single thing you do is because of that.
There is this psychological study where you show a picture of a pretty girl with a broken glass and a fat girl with a broken glass and then you ask people what has happened in the picture. The answer most often for the fat one is that she just broke the glass. For the pretty one people might say she is standing next to a desk, maybe she found a broken glass or something. I think it’s important to understand that that’s just how the human brain works. We learn things by putting things into different categories and it requires a lot of discipline or just experience to change it.
In Finland, people are trying to make their environment better; in Cameroon you can see the lack of progress in development. It’s corruption and many other things, thinking “memememe, how do I get rich” – and not about the society. That’s something I really admire about Finnish society. The social system is one of the best things about living in Finland. You do feel like this is what civilisation is supposed to look like, where sustenance and surviving should be possible even in a difficult situation.
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Interview by Peter Seenan recorded in Tampere, Finland in 2017. If you wish to support our work in projecting the voices and achievements of immigrants in Finland please like our Facebook page and share Sahba’s story.