Nice People Live Here

Bandy team from Nice People (2015), via Firsthand Films.

On Thursday October 4, the Market Hall Performing Arts Centre was abuzz with conversations of immigration acceptance, and more surprisingly, sport. The theme was integration.

The event ran from 5:30 to 8:30 and featured a documentary film called Nice People. It followed the lives of Somali immigrants in the Swedish town Borlänge, where the residents claim to all be nice people. They must live up to their motto by accepting a culturally different group of people and accepting them as Swedes.

Immigration is something that all our forefathers did. The land we currently occupy had previous owners, and they were also visitors. One of the most fundamental facts throughout human history is this: we are all immigrants.

By technical terms, an immigrant is anyone who moves from one country to another. We tend to only attach the word to people who are more obviously diverse or different from the majority population or culture of their new place of residence. This difference is usually made based on the distinctions that are easily noticeable: language, accent, religion, race. These create a divide and can make integration into a new community a little harder.

Patrik Andersson, the journalist and jack-of-many-trades asks himself: “How do we get Swedes and immigrants to talk to one another? That’s the big issue.” He settles on sport. This is how he comes to start the first Somali Bandy team.

But why sport? Beyond language, race, identity, ethnicity, religion and culture, what is it that people bond the most over? Have you ever seen the stands at a premier league soccer game? They’re overcrowded with painted faces, bellies, and cheeks. Flags flying high, chants chorusing over the sweaty heads of the soccer elite, bullhorns loud and angry, cheering the swift feet of any player with an impending goal. It is a feverish dream of excitement, livelihood, and most importantly, community. Sport fosters community. Except in Borlänge, Sweden, the sport of choice is not soccer. It’s bandy, a form of ice hockey enjoyed by many in several parts of Europe.

Here in Canada, we have a special attachment to hockey. We bond and celebrate over it, discuss stats and trade glossy laminated cards with our favourite players’ faces on them. What makes this team of Somali immigrants exceptional is that there has never been an African bandy or ice hockey team before – until Patrick grouped the hopeful and determined athletes together.

Despite already doing what had never been done before, they raised the bar even higher, and set their sights on the World National Championships in Siberia. No one on the team knew how to skate. In the eight months following their formation, the film tracks the team’s progress – from getting sponsors to getting their first pair of skates and attending practices.

Like newly hatched birds, they tap the ends of the skates tentatively on the ice, then with wobbly and uncertain steps, focusing hard on reaching their destination. By the time they hit the ice at the world championships, there’s confidence in the way they glide onto the ice. Each player is surrounded by supportive teammates, their coach, sponsors, and organizer on the sidelines, cheering them on.

Their success, however, did not lack its obstacles. When the team lands in Siberia, they’re met with awe at first, then gawking, making them uncomfortable. One player cites their dark skin for the persistent looks and curious questions: “They’ve never seen dark skin before.” The team loses their first and second games but their spirits are high – they’re enjoying the fight, relishing the game.

On their third game against Mongolia, they hit a rough patch. The game begins with the wrong anthem, and the players are disheartened and angry. The game goes on. Mongolia is leading 12 to nothing, and the game is nearly over. Suddenly, the Mongolian team stops playing, they skate along languidly, letting the Somalian team gain speed. They see an opening in the net and take a shot – the goalie does nothing to block it. They gave them a free shot. The team retreats to the locker rooms feeling angry and insulted. They’re mad that they were given a free goal – it insults everything they’ve done to get to where they are. When the team also expresses anger over the national anthem, apparently a mix-up with translation, the team is still not appeased. When Patrik asks why, one of the coordinators says, “I don’t think they played the wrong anthem deliberately but if you’re used to being belittled, you may find it humiliating.” She has a point. Later on, they learn that the Mongolian team expects five bandy sticks as payment for their free goal.

By their fourth and final game, a pattern has emerged. You’re reminded that this isn’t a Disney movie; they don’t hit the ice and suddenly become pros. They’re up against Germany for one fierce game but, above the roar of their Swedish supporters, there is the applause of Siberian locals, waving Somali flags and cheering for a goal. They have fans! From the locals no less. Even with Germany ahead 22 to nothing, they cheer on. There’s a minute left on the clock and the sounds of metal dividing ice is a loud and distinct sound. A player gets a hold of the orange ball and races for the goal. The cheers roar louder as the ball flies across the ice and safely into the net. It’s a crushing defeat Germany 22, Somalia 1 but the team is wild with ecstasy. Their first goal as a team.

As they get ready to skate off the ice, they’re beckoned over by their newly-converted Siberian fans. High-fives and back-slaps rain down on them and a few people even ask for autographs on the sticks of their Somali flags. When asked why they cheered the team on, one of the spectators says, “Because they’re strong like us, we Russians – we Siberians. Big hearts like us!” The team has international appeal.

By the time they return home, they’re national superstars despite the scores. The small town of Borlänge sees their Somalian immigrants in a new light. They accept them as part of the community, and that was the goal.

Conversation flowed long after the film was over. A panel, led by Trent professor and basketball coach James Onusko with 2018 ProSport Bike Champion Tomas Cassa and athlete Tanya Perras. Both had tales to share of their own integration into Peterborough’s growing community. Tomas recalls when he moved with his family from Columbia nine years ago, looking for a safer and more peaceful life. As a competitive motorcycle racer, he can understand the sense of community sport offers and promotes. He remembers how his sport allowed his family to integrate easier into the community. Tanya and her family moved from Hong Kong four years ago. For both of them, they believe that they’re still integrating and their respective sports are a large part of what brings them and their families into the community.

Humans have been immigrating for thousands of years, and will continue to do so for thousands more. Many, like Tomas and his family, move to find a better life and some like Tanya’s family, move to rediscover their roots. In either case, it’s important to remember that we’re all immigrants, and we want what’s best for ourselves and our families. Integration is only one of the many ways that we can make new people and families feel welcome, and help them flourish in their new homes. Treating immigrants with respect and kindness is what reminds them that nice people live here.