I remember the first time someone called me 'Somali' in Finnish.
Something about how the word was spoken made me uncomfortable. I wanted to say something but I didn’t know how to respond. Of course I am Somali, but I hadn’t yet internalised that I was supposed to feel shame. And that’s why it felt uncomfortable; the word carried an apology-seeking undertone. But at the time I was just a kid growing up in Finland.
My grandparents did their part by reclaiming territories belonging to their ancestors. Some of the land was regained, but all of it wasn’t. My grandfather was exiled in Mogadishu when his home became part of Ethiopia. Life went on and my grandparents lived out the rest of their days in an independent state that came to be known as Somalia.
My parents, both of whom were born into colonialism, started their family in an independent state, though civil war later expelled them.
With my background, discussions around “Finnishness” as a characteristic—that is, who is Finnish enough by some imaginary measure—strike me as absurd. The suggestion that I should be ashamed of my heritage because it extends beyond the boundaries of "Finnishness" repulses me. I know that this particular stigma does not slander all nationalities in the same way. Sometimes foreign blood is a source of pride in Finland, but this honour unfortunately does not apply to people of Somali origin.
I am not a foreigner in this country. I am a local with my own history and roots reaching far beyond Finland’s borders. Roots aren’t much to boast about as we don’t have the power to choose our own history. But where we come from can never be a source of shame.
People are complicated. My history and roots aren’t the only conflicting things in my life. I am too old to be a millennial but too young to feel like a bona fide Gen-Xer.
My goal isn’t to fulfil some idealised version of what it means to be Finnish or have a superficial generational experience. I’m just living my life.
I’m too Finnish to be Somali as I’ve grown up here. For a Finn, I’m too Somali to fit into the narrow blond-haired, blue-eyed Finnish female ideal.
In relation to others, I often feel like I’m too much of one thing and not enough of another, but not enough of anything to fit neatly into a box. I know who I am and I’m okay with it. I don’t need terms to tell me what or who I am. Pigeon-holing is a pressure that comes from outside.
I fluster people just by being me, so I suppose I too should be bewildered or at least look like I’m confused about who I am.
Over the years, the word 'Somali' has bounced around me in schoolyards, public spaces, in political rhetoric and made news headlines.
The word rarely carries a neutral or positive tone. For some Finns, Somali, my actual heritage, is a swear word. This hurt me when I was younger and I couldn’t relate to the Finnish word ascribed to my identity.
Today I’m not allowing my very existence, my Somali background, to be discussed as if I were a passive bystander.
I find it especially disturbing when the word is hijacked by ethno-nationalists to amplify their version of the Finnish ideal—a prototype more fragile than ice floating atop a moving stream.
”Somali—aren’t you even ashamed?” a white Finn once asked me at the bus stop. I wasn’t ashamed, but I did feel embarrassed on behalf of my interrogator’s ignorance.
The writer, originally from Tampere, now lives in Helsinki and works in media and culture.