Zahra and Mervi – friendship without a common language

It is a winter evening in Pieksämäki in November 2015. A mother, father and two children arrive at the reception centre where warm showers and made beds are waiting for them. They soon collapse in their respective beds having endured a journey that took more than two months. Finally they are safe and can rest.

The next morning, as Finnish Red Cross volunteer Mervi Kivirinta is preparing breakfast for reception centre residents, she notices tiny hands reaching onto the kitchen table. A brown-eyed 9-year-old girl has come to the kitchen to make a breakfast sandwich for her 4-year-old little brother. Mervi will later find out that the youngsters, Fatemeh and Mohammed Javad, are the children of Zahra Rezaei, a new friend she is about to make.

Language learning and the scent of cardamom

While working as a volunteer at the reception centre, Mervi decided to invite some of the women living there to her home to teach them Finnish. The group of ten women, including Zahra, met roughly once a week to drink tea and learn day-to-day vocabulary. Together they examined items and objects in the home – a chair, television set, spoon, coffee cup and so on. The women also explored the kitchen cupboards and smelled some spices and seasonings.

“I once met Zahra at the grocery shop and she tried to tell me she needed something. I didn’t understand her, since we didn’t yet have a common language. But when the women were visiting me and Zahra smelled a bag of cardamom, she got excited and exclaimed that cardamom was, in fact, the spice she was looking for in the shop,” Mervi laughs.

The women continued studying Finnish, ran errands together and visited the library, where Mervi also taught them how to use a computer. With time, Zahra began to learn the language, which provided more versatility for communication. Soon, the women noticed that they were spending more and more time together and sharing all kinds of things about their daily lives – a friendship was built, even though there was initially no common language.

Together with joy

Having lived at the reception centre for about a year, Zahra and her family gained residence permits and were able to move to a home of their own. Fortunately, the children had already had access to school before that; the daughter Fatemeh was able to start attending school as soon as the family arrived in Pieksämäki.

“The children were taught Finnish at school and, during one lesson, Fatemeh indicated to the teacher in Finnish that it was Wednesday. The teacher wondered where the girl had learned the word, because they hadn’t covered weekdays at that point. Fatemeh said she had heard me say the word when I was going through my calendar. Mervi’s teaching had reached my daughter, too,” Zahra recalls with a smile.

Once Zahra had her own home, it was her time to invite Mervi for a visit. The women often chatted over a cup of tea, baked together and continued studying Finnish. Mervi helped Zahra run errands, access services and fill in official documents. One important milestone in the friendship was reached in the autumn of 2021.

“I had been studying diligently and was delighted when I passed the Finnish-language test required to gain citizenship. In November, I submitted my citizenship application, which was a big thing for our entire family. I was also congratulated by Mervi and her daughter – it was wonderful to notice how people around me were genuinely happy for me,” Zahra describes.

Sisters from different cultures

It is now an autumn day in October 2022 and the women are sitting in good spirits on a sofa in Vantaa, where the family moved the past summer for Zahra’s husband’s studies. During the conversation, the baby of the family, the 3-year-old Zohra, climbs in her mother’s lap. When asked what friendship means to them, both women go silent for a moment and their eyes shine with joy and profound emotion.

“These years have been filled with so many amazing moments; getting our own home, learning the language and culture, birthday parties for the children, and Mervi’s wedding and 60th birthday celebration. My most cherished memory is the birth of Zohra, and Mervi and her husband Ahti visiting us at the hospital. My parents and other relatives are far away, so it felt important for someone to come by and ask how I was doing and how the childbirth went,” Zahra explains.

“For me, it has been an enriching experience to be able to be involved in the life of Zahra’s family and see the children grow and learn new things in school. We also have wonderful shared memories from my family’s summer cabin, where we enjoyed the sauna and swam, and our husbands went fishing together. Zahra’s and her family are very considerate even as guests – they came to the cabin with their own food that they wanted to prepare for us,” Mervi laughs.

Both women also mention the matter of their different cultural backgrounds. According to them, faith, native language or other things of that nature have no bearing on friendship.

“No one of us humans are that different, even if we come from entirely different sides of the world. Friendship goes beyond these kinds of small things and enables talking about absolutely anything. This is how I find my relationship with Mervi to be. She is like a sister to me,” Zahra says.

The Whole Picture – stories behind immigration project addresses questions of belonging to Finnish society and the importance of interpersonal relationships for integration in a new country. The project also opens the global situation of immigration. Through a photo exhibition and an online campaign, the project asks, do we see individuals behind the immigration statistics and invites you to explore six different humane stories. The photos and interviews have been collected during the summer and autumn of 2022.


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