When given the task of placing myself in a cultural environment that I was unfamiliar with, I thought long and hard of where to go. I wanted to challenge myself and truly use the opportunity to become better educated. I looked at the controversies that are in my present society. I examined my own stereotypes or preconceived notions about different cultures. The one that caught my eye and
ignited my brain the most was Muslim. There is so much I didn’t know or understand that I wanted to delve into the culture.</p> <p style="text-align: justify;">I began researching Muslim to familiarize myself with some of the basic norms of the culture. I had many misconceptions. I thought that women wrapped their heads as a sign of oppression from the men of the culture. I thought they believed and worshipped a completely different being than I did. I believed that they wanted power and wealth. What I found was so different and very enlightening.</p> <p style="text-align: justify;">I researched where my local mosque was and found their service time was on Fridays at noon. When I arrived I had brought a scarf with me but was unsure of if I would need it since I was not of the Muslim faith, but I wanted to be respectful. I wore modest clothing, khakis and a high neck long-sleeved button up shirt. When I first entered the mosque I had a few stares but was quickly greeted by a middle-aged woman, Amal. She approached me and said, “Salam.” I tried to repeat the phrase back to her, and then panicked that they would not be speaking English. I told her that I was there to observe and to ask some questions about their culture. She smiled wide and said it was great to have me there. I was so thankful that she replied back to me in English.</p> <p style="text-align: justify;">She led me to take off my shoes, and helped me to wrap my head. The gentleness and welcoming nature of her made me feel peaceful. She then took me to the wudu to show me how they cleanse before prayers. We slipped on slippers and then walked to the sinks. She showed me that they say “Bismillahir-Rahmanir-Rahim” before they begin. (She had to write it down for me!) She later told me that they say this phrase before they begin many activities such as eating, praying, or going on a long journey. As she graciously walked me through the cleansing process, which was longer than I anticipated, I couldn’t help but criticize myself and my misconceptions.</p> <p style="text-align: justify;">Walking with Amal back into the mosque she told me to sit next to her to listen to the imam give the short and fully English sermon. I was pleasantly surprised that the sermon was done entirely in English. Then she told me to sit near the back to watch the congressional prayers. Here many of the congregation spoke in Arabic as they recited their prayers. Some audible and some I could only see their mouths moving. The men and women were separated which I found odd. When the prayer time was over, I asked Amal why they separated. She explained to me that it keeps modesty in line while praying, that women should never bend over in front of a man. Overall the sermon and the prayers were very enlightening for me and I couldn’t help but sit with the biggest smile on my face as I watched them so flawlessly go through their prayer positions.</p> <p style="text-align: justify;">Amal came back to me after her prayers were through and we sat and talked for what seemed like hours. She answered so many questions I had about Islam and Muslim culture. There were thankfully not very many communication barriers that I had to overcome. Amal was so gracious and kind to me that day that I cannot wait to go back and maybe even participate in the prayers! She said the door is always open and to come anytime and she would love to teach me. I did notice that she seemed so thrilled to have a somewhat younger person there to inquire about Islam. She beamed at me as she explained the answers to my questions. I will admit that at times I was unsure of who I should or should not talk to, especially concerning men. Amal let me know that it was okay to greet but never touch a man. There were only a few times that someone spoke Arabic to me and thankfully again my gracious host quickly translated for me.</p> <p style="text-align: justify;">As I left the mosque that day, Amal this time embraced me, with a kiss on the cheek as well, as we said our good-byes and I excitedly said to her, “Ah-Salamu Alaykum” as I had been taught. The experience as a whole was so enlightening and empowering, and I walked away feeling so peaceful and so energized. I actually cannot wait to learn more and study more about the Five Pillars. I do not think I will convert due to my strong Faith in Jesus as the way to Heaven, but I do now appreciate the religion and structure of what Islam teaches. I don’t believe that God will have any disagreements with me wanting to be closer to him in any way. I know now so many of my misconceptions were so very, very, wrong and I am glad to have done this experience to learn of my mistakes. I look forward to answering others’ questions when Islam or Muslim comes up in conversation.</p>
She was instantly recognizable as an exchange student. It wasn’t her red hair or her unusual dotted red shirt that made her stand out—it was the pocket translation dictionary that she held in her hand.
I met Helka on school registration day for my final year of high school. Apart from family trips to Mexico and the United States, I had never really met anyone who wasn’t Canadian before. I envied my friend Angela because her grandmother was British (which, for a born and bred northern Albertan, seemed very exotic) and asked my friend Mike endless questions about his time in Germany. So when I saw Helka struggling to thumb through the pages of her Finnish-English dictionary, I knew I had to meet her. That same afternoon, I called her host family and asked her to coffee.
The questions came quick and fast. I wanted to know anything and everything about Finland. But the first question was, by far, the most memorable. “So what language do you speak in Finland, anyway?” I asked Helka. “Spanish, right?” The fact that Helka was willing to humour me instantly solidified what would become a pivotal relationship in my life.
Helka and I celebrate Albertan culture at the Calgary Stampede
Born half a world apart, Helka and I had a lot in common. Seinäjoki, her hometown, was comparable in size to Cold Lake. She instantly understood the dynamics of our small northern town—much like I had grown up in Cold Lake my entire life, she had grown up in Seinäjoki her entire life. Helka and I were also both interested in traveling, politics and music. So when she asked me to sign up for a multimedia class with her, I instantly agreed. I knew it would be a challenge—she was still far from fluent in English, but I didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to learn more about her and explore our mutual interests.
We became partners in writing, filming and editing weekly segments for a cable news show. It may have only been a local news network, but the positive feedback we received from the network producer made me start to realize that there were two key things that I wanted in a career—the opportunity to explore and experience different cultures, and the opportunity to share those experiences.
More than a full year after we first met, I boarded a plane, and met Helka in Berlin. We spent two months traveling through Eastern Europe together, before returning to Finland for her high school graduation. During Helka’s time in Canada, she had became very close with my family, so I was eager to meet hers—I wasn’t even dauntedby the fact that neither of her parents spoke English. Soon, the very same worn pocket dictionary that Helka used during her time in Canada became dog-eared from my own page turning. It was challenging at times, but the relationships I formed and the experiences I had during my short time in Finland only solidified my desire to travel more extensively.
And much like my interest in Finnish culture, Helka has also remained a fixture in my life—in 2005, she joined my family on a sailing trip in British Columbia. And last summer, nearly five years to the day since we first met, her boyfriend Touko came to stay with me in Toronto. Helka and I still share our common interests as well—while I currently work for Youth Challenge International, Helka and Touko now reside in London, where Helka is studying international development with a focus on youth.
For me, Finland wasn’t just the start of my love of international affairs—it was also the start of a lifelong affair with learning more and with exploring the unique distinctions each culture has to offer.
-Jessica Lockhart, International Programs Coordinator