Notes on Intercultural Mentoring

Eight years ago I made an attempt at returning to work in Finland after several years abroad. It was, to all intents, constructions and purposes a return to the fold of a wandering Finn. It was obviously a breeze: air was fresh, tap-water clean, domestic garbage collection impeccably organised, public authorities had access to the internet and could perform all types of matters online, everybody spoke my language and lunch was had at 11:30.

Half a year in I was still appreciating some of my compatriots’ quirks with quiet awe – I could certainly perform being Finnish everywhere, but still felt slightly out of the water. I’d lived much of my adult life abroad, so I did fancy myself rather international and at the same time had never really given my country-hopping lifestyle much thought.

This was mostly because I had mainly done the hopping within the EU, always with an excusable status in my pocket when entering a country: always an expat (except when I was a student), never an immigrant. Never at the mercy of authorities, no explanation or permission ever needed. My diplomas, certificates and documentation were all automatically recognised, and I was good to roll immediately.

I came across an announcement about a mentoring programme on social media in the middle of my own spiritual repatriation process in Helsinki seven years ago. The Finnish Family Federation Väestöliitto (an NGO I knew existed, but had never had anything to do with) was looking for Finnish mentors for educated immigrant women as part of their WOMENTO-programme.

I figured that as a recently returned citizen I would be well placed to help a non-Finn find her feet in Helsinki. I had also followed with growing concern the discussion in the media about the challenges with integrating immigrants. The prospects for educated immigrant women to find employment were disproportionately bleaker in comparison to men.

Now, we all like sexy multiculturalism, me especially. This usually takes place against the backdrop of an international organisation, where everybody is educated, wealthy and exempt from national income tax.
Sexy multiculturalism means having Portuguese and French colleagues over for apéros.
Sexy multiculturalism means sleeping through all Latin-American Erasmus-students enrolled in one’s university during the spring term.
Sexy multiculturalism is chillaxing at P.Diddy’s crib.
It is most definitely not a meet-and-greet with random Finnish women and a corresponding number of random, unemployed immigrant women in a function room of Finnish Family Federation (tiny sandwiches were served to add continental flair, I shall point out).

I met my mentee, human rights activist Dima, during some infantile game that was supposed to break the multicultural ice between the participants. If I could not hide my loath at silly games, neither could she. Our bond strengthened as soon as working in teams was introduced as regular part of the curriculum. Disliking team work culturally transcended from Finland to the Middle East and back.

The purpose of the WOMENTO- programme (originally from Denmark) is to offer career mentoring for unemployed, educated immigrant women: concretely to help them with a CV and share tips about the local culture. In plain speak, any foreigner who has a native as a reference in their CV will already stand a slightly better chance at making it forward in the recruitment process.

The mentors are not responsible for finding a job for their mentees, neither is any migration-related psychotherapy required. A short introduction/training is provided, and throughout the 8-month programme there are usually 4-5 group meetings for all mentors and mentees, who are advised to meet once or twice a month on their own to discuss progress.

Dima and I met about once every 3 weeks, often in a café near my work, or in our homes. There was once a rendez-vous in a Lebanese restaurant (she grew up in Lebanon and Sudan), because during a momentary lapse of all judgement I decided that she absolutely needs, for once in her life, to enjoy a proper Lebanese feast in a near-authentic takeout joint in Helsinki.
(Yes. It was the saddest piece of Finn-splaining there ever was.)

I probably considered myself as this great feminist superhero for swanning in and taking an immigrant woman under my wing, but in reality it was very much me endlessly going:
“So, what’s the deal with headscarves/alcohol/sex/religion in the Middle East?” and Dima almost never getting tired of explaining.

Other than that, we mostly discussed gender equality and feminism, writing and literature. A few years prior I had handed in my LL.M thesis about trafficking of women, and Dima’s specialty was family law. The two of us were coming from totally different places in all meanings of the word, but saw eye to eye on women’s rights.

My eyes were opened also to many things about my country I never had seen previously – simply because I’d never had to. My experiences from studying and working abroad, including sexy multiculturalism, all enabled by fundamental, law-bestowed, privileged freedoms to roam as I wished, were a world apart from the other type of multiculturalism: migration.

I do not want to go into details about Dima’s academic and professional ambitions, as it is not my place. Her courageousness, determination, perseverance, disappointments, fears and wins belong to her, and are hers alone to share. I was mostly just awkwardly hovering around with seminar invitations.

It is almost impossible to measure tangible benefits of such a mentorship, unless we count the mentee getting a job in the end as such. But not everything in life has to be tangibly measurable.

Imagine arriving in a foreign country without your usual support network, without a job and without any certainty about your future in that country.
Imagine having a local woman with similar education and work experience volunteer to peer-mentor you for 8 months: spell-check your CV, pass your name to useful contacts, give tips for job interviews, help with paperwork, translate the weirdest parts of your new country’s culture, (have coffees with you and pretend she knows shit).
Imagine if all immigrant women who wanted this kind of support received it.

I moved to Brussels shortly after our mentoring cycle finished. A few years later I saw Dima’s Instagram post on Finland’s Independence Day, which she was celebrating for the first time as a newly-minted Finnish citizen.
This sparked an intangibly enormous amount of joy.


If the city you live in offers a similar programme and you have the possibility to participate, do check it out. I cannot think of another, more effective way to help integrate anyone anywhere – the input/output -ratio is immense. Finnish Väestöliitto is currently accepting applications.
Also, Dima has proof-read and approved this post.

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