Finnish Migration to Australia: One Family’s Story

Finnish Migration to Australia: One Family’s Story

Although small numbers of Finnish migrants came to Australia in the 1800s and early 1900s, particularly during the gold rush years, the majority arrived between 1947 and 1971. Today, there are approximately 30,000 Australians of Finnish ancestry with a further 7,500 residents who were born in Finland. This is the story of one family’s journey from the Arctic winters of northern Finland to sunny Australia. Anna Roppola was born Anne Kovalainen in far north Finland, one of five children of Lahja and Juho and grew up on the family farm in Kuusamo. 

Image: Our home in Kuusamo photographed a few days before we left for Australia

"My parents started talking about migrating to Australia in 1968, when I was in my final year of high school. World events, particularly the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Russians, combined with the hope of creating a better life for their children, led them to apply to migration officials in Sweden. Matters progressed quickly and in October 1968 we left the home that our father had built. I can still remember the lump in my throat as I took a last look, with its windows boarded up, as we were driven away on the start of our journey. Although the sun was shining on fresh white snow, it was hard to stop crying. This might be there very last time I saw these forests, houses, hills and snow. Everything ahead was unknown.

Farewelled by relatives, we took the bus to Oulu, and then a train to Helsinki before we had our first experience of flying, first to London and then to Australia. Our Qantas flight had people from all over Europe, all bearing lapel buttons indicating final destinations. After stopovers in Bahrain, Karachi and Singapore we arrived on a warm and sunny November morning and were taken to the Cabramatta Migrant Hostel.

I had studied Advanced English at school and this proved useful on the journey, where I was able to help Finnish passengers complete their entry documents, and at the hostel where I did some interpreting for employment interviews. My ability to speak English also meant I quickly found work with the Medical Benefits Fund in the Sydney CBD.

Image: Proudly wearing the Medical Benefits Fund uniform

Love entered my life soon after. I met and married Antti Roppola, who had been born in Finland and confirmed by the same pastor who had baptised me. His family had migrated some ten years earlier and I thought our meeting and our marriage in December 1969 was some kind of fate. 

Meantime, learning that there were opportunities in the building trade in Canberra, my parents and siblings moved there. My father had been trained in carpentry by his father and, given that much of Kuusamo was destroyed at the end of World War Two, he was experienced in building and construction. Soon, he was working with a Finnish team and making timber house frames.   

My husband and I, with our two children – Antti and Jenny – moved to Canberra in 1974 and our third child, Julie, was born later that year. In 1976 we bought a block of land and built a home in the new suburb of Kaleen. Having always had to catch a bus to school from our tiny village, I particularly appreciated the fact that our children could walk to the local public school. 

In May 1981 the Canberra Finnish community, led by Dr Leo Marjanen, considered that it was sufficiently well-established to warrant establishment of a Finnish School. It opened in July 1981 with 80 students, including our children, and I became one of the teachers. The school was to become an important asset for our community: ensuring that our children, whilst growing up in an English-speaking environment, were able to preserve their language and culture and communicate with grandparents and relatives in Finland.

Image: The January 1985 visit of the Finnish President, Mauno Koivisto and his daughter Assi Koivisto, to the Canberra Finnish School. The girls are wearing the skirts and scarves I made in our national colours. 
Image: A Finnish School Christmas party photographed in December 1989. Pastor Jorma Saari is at the back on the left and his wife Eija Saari is on the right in front. 

I stayed at the school, teaching and providing administrative support, for 14 years. During this time I completed studies in accounting at the University of Canberra. In 1983, I was elected Treasurer of the Canberra Finnish Lutheran Church Committee. I held various committee positions there until 2012. For two of these years I was Chair as well as Treasurer. Although voluntary positions, these were very rewarding. I arranged for our church to participate in the annual Canberra Multicultural Festival and enjoyed making traditional sour dough rye bread and other Finnish baked goods for these events and our regular fundraising fetes. 

In 1994, I was invited by a Finnish social worker, Tuula Peltola , to join a team charting the needs of Finnish seniors in Canberra. We realised that there was a lack of information on what services were available and how they could be accessed. As a result, a Committee was formed and we delivered information sessions and provided printed pamphlets in Finnish. I contributed to this work for the next three years.

An advertisement in the Canberra Times in late 1970s led me to become one of the Department of Immigration’s casual on-call Finnish interpreters for the Translating and Interpreting Service. In 1984, I started work in accounting and taxation on a permanent basis moving between government agencies. Working as an interpreter gave me some challenging experiences. One that I found particularly interesting was interpreting for a delegation of Finnish parliamentarians in the 1990s. By then I was employed in the Australian Taxation Office. At first, I was a bit hesitant as many delegates had studied in the USA or the UK. However, when I discovered they were members of the Taxation Committee, I accepted. At times, courage in the face of challenge is called for. I must have been a success as I was subsequently offered similar work with the Finnish Embassy. 

Image: Interpreters and translators working for the TIS were encouraged to wear national costume at our regular get-togethers. I am standing on the right wearing the Koillismaa costume of north-eastern Finland.

The Embassy also recommended me to a course in conference interpretation at Turku University in south-west Finland. After on-site testing by a panel of 12 experts, I was accepted in 1997 and spent nine months studying in Finland, Belgium and Luxembourg. It was very hectic but most interesting, and it was good that I opened that particular door! 

My children were grown up by then and were completing their university studies. My parents were getting older, and I could sense from their letters that they were worried I might not come back. However, I did return to the Australian Taxation Office and became closely involved in the introduction of the new Goods and Services Tax in Canberra. I spent the last ten years of my public service career in the Department of Defence, retiring in 2012. 

Today, I enjoy exercise, gardening, reading, travel, current affairs in Finland and Australia, baking sour dough rye bread and, of course, seeing my three grandchildren grow up. I still act as interpreter for the Finnish and Australian communities.

My family and professional life, and work with the Finnish community, have all greatly enriched my life, far beyond any expectations I had when I first set foot on Australian soil more than 50 years ago."

Anne's story won the Finland to Australia writing competition organised by the Embassy of Finland in Canberra. The story will be published in the second edition of the Australian National Maritime Museum’s We are many – Stories of Australia’s Migrants e-book, and Anne’s name will be permanently inscribed on the Museum’s Welcome Wall.