Kaarina Jager. Jessica Palmer Photo
Kaarina Jager’s life reflects her philosophy of perseverance, education, spirituality and service to community. She volunteers for Wings of L.I.F.E. and started her own Neighborhood Watch group after her home was burglarized 20 years ago. She is still her neighborhood’s watch captain. She sets up meetings, brings in speakers from the fire department, police department, even the county extension department. “I’ve tried to be a benefit to my community.”
Jager was born in Kemi, Finland, a town 50 miles south of the Arctic Circle. “It had short, short summers and cold, cold winters. I skated on the ice of the Baltic.” She recollects skiing to school. Her family moved to Mänta in the Southern Lake District when she was in high school.
Jager also has an overwhelming devotion to God, Christ and church. She spent much of her life as a missionary. She has traveled extensively both as a student and a missionary, going to Israel, Sweden, Iceland, Norway, Italy, Estonia, France, South Korea, Austria, Germany and England. She met her husband, a fellow missionary, in Paris. Their work brought them to the U.S.
“My husband was killed 30 years ago in Albuquerque by a drunk driver,” she said. Jager was left alone with two children, ages 1 and 2 years, but she did not give in to her grief. Instead, she went back to college to qualify for a bachelor’s degree in America, 40 hours primarily in U.S. history and government. Then she took the additional classes to get a teaching certification.
Jager does not mention her accomplishments, accomplishments achieved through adversity. She received her initial bachelor’s in business administration from Turku. Then she decided she had no penchant for business. She speaks six languages: Finnish, her native tongue, which is a Siberian dialect known as Suomi; Swedish; English; German; French and Spanish.
She believes language creates barriers between people. She is all about tearing barriers down. In her quest to remove barriers, she translated books from English to Finnish and from Finnish to English. “You need to look for the common denominators between people. Get to know your neighbors. We must work together for the sake of the children. People need to learn from each other. It’s no good to be alone. It’s not good to isolate yourself.”
Her youngest son was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 14; he died at the age of 18. “When my son got sick, I lost everything. I had spent all my savings.” Even then, she did not quit. “I went back to Finland for one year and got a certificate as a tour guide,” she said. This provided her with a summer job when she visited her family.
At the age of 64, she received a master’s in education from ENMU. Jager will be 65 when she goes through the graduation ceremony. During the winter, she works as a substitute teacher, teaching all grades. “Finland is all about education. The Lutheran church mandated that men and women had to be able to read and write before they got married,” she said.
“It is important to know your roots.” Jager explained the country’s history. Finland was under Swedish control for 600 years and Russian control for nearly 100. It has been independent for 65 years. “It is a country surrounded by stronger neighbors, but even if there is oppression, there is always something to learn.”
Finland’s involvement in World War II was limited to defensive action against the Soviet Union. Stalin attacked Finland in 1939 in what is known as the 100 Days Winter War. Her family history is intimately interwoven with the history of the country as family members found their villages under siege by the Russians and burned by German soldiers during their retreat from the Russian Theater.
Her family remains in Finland. Her mother is 99. She goes to visit every summer. Her mother lives in Naantali, which means Valley of Grace. The town was built around the Brigittine Convent, an order found by St. Bridget of Sweden, who lived in the 12th century. At a time when few questioned the Catholic Church, St. Bridget wrote, “God is disgusted by the fall and ruin of his holy church.”
Jager values her Finnish heritage, but she also loves her adoptive home, America, something she learned from her father who worked as pulp and paper engineer and traveled in the United States and Canada. “He grew to love this country. He’d seen small-town America and knew how hard working Americans are.”
She came to the U.S. the first time as a foreign exchange student in Arlington Heights, Ill. Jager speaks ardently about the benefits of living in America. “America is a most generous country. There’s religious freedom and freedom of enterprise … and here an old woman can go back to school to get an education. In a lot of countries, you can’t do that.”
She was able to provide the benefits for her sons that her family had provided for her when she was growing up. Both sons spent time as exchange students in South Korea. “What I’d like people to understand is education is the key, perseverance is the key. … The life of an immigrant is not always easy, spiritual life is not easy but people cannot give up. After all, God created everyone and everything. We are all God’s creatures, and I want people to appreciate all life and appreciate the differences between cultures.”