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Or a Finnish-American Couple Settles in Helsinki

Fellow Finns, don’t fall in love with a foreigner

wedding

Finland is yet to build a concrete wall around itself. Finns can still travel freely in and out of the country, and foreigners, including asylum seekers, are by and large let inside our borders should they manage to make their way all the way north. (Though staying here is another matter.)

The bricks of an intangible wall between ‘us’ and ‘them’ are however rapidly stacking up. The ‘us’ is some supposedly homogenous group of blonde, blue-eyed, hardworking and God-fearing, honest people whose country Finland is. The ‘them’ is most other people, though more often than not they are dark, Muslim, lazy, stealing our jobs and raping our women. ‘They’ are a threat, ‘we’ are vulnerable. Even the president said so.

Neither group of course exists. The citizens of Finland are a heterogenous bunch; language, skin-colour and religion are not the only measures of difference. Who the ‘them’ are is equally unclear. For decades Finland’s ‘other’ was Russia. Now, ‘they’ are some indeterminate Muslim menace, probably from the Middle East, but maybe from Afghanistan, or even Africa, too. ‘Their’ coming to Finland is a problem, it challenges our values. The president said so.

Those disagreeing with the president and speaking out for human rights and tolerance are branded the extreme. A ‘good’ Finn is a tolkun ihminen (person of common sense) who understands that people unfit for our society are deported, but respects those who integrate and become contributing members of society.

Today’s Finland seems to be holding on to some abstract, imaginary idea of what Finland is, and despite protests of some pesky extremists (read: human rights advocates) moving towards building increasingly real walls around it.

A recent manifestation of this trend is the proposed legislation regarding family reunification. The proposal expands the income requirement for family reunification, to the extent that it will become next to impossible for those who have received international protection in Finland to bring their families over. Already, refugees in Finland wait years for permission to reunite with their family. Now, if the proposed legislation is adopted, the person intending to reunite his/her family would have to earn a minimum of €2,600 per month after tax to bring a spouse and two children. Few well-educated Finns even earn that.

An allowance is made for those who receive refugee status (as opposed to secondary protection), but only if the family applies for residence within three months of him/her gaining the status. This too isn’t easy – the family must do so in person at a Finnish embassy. For Iraqis, this means travelling to Beirut. And filling in paperwork in Finnish, Swedish, or English. To mention just a few hurdles.

Making it next to impossible for refugees to be reunited with their families is however not the extent of it. If enacted, the legislation would also impose an income requirement on Finnish citizens with ‘foreign’ families. Had it been in place when the Husband and I moved to Finland last year, well, we wouldn’t have moved to Finland last year. Without me having a job ahead of the move, the Husband wouldn’t have received residency.

There’s been some backlash against the proposals, particularly since it dawned on Finns that it could potentially affect them too, not just the ‘others’. As a result, it seems likely the government will drop the income requirement for Finns, though the regulations regarding refugees will remain.

Regardless, the message seems to be: don’t fall in love with a foreigner. Don’t ask the Chinese exchange student out on a date, don’t hang out with locals during your year abroad in Mexico. If you work abroad, only socialise with Finns. Because, danger!, you may fall in love with a foreigner, and we don’t want those people here.

What I also take away from the proposal is how deep-seated xenophobia runs in Finland. It runs in the face of human rights, and even in the face the government’s own stated objective of promoting integration. How, pray tell, do they think keeping families apart will enhance integration and prevent exclusion? It doesn’t. Even tolkun ihmiset should understand this, and make a fuss.

As a first step, I suggest you sign Amnesty’s petition against the legislation here.

15 Minutes of Finnish Fame

I don’t actually know what this commercial is for. Ketchup? Maybe? But I was in it. As were a good number of my rugby teammates. But I actually got a shot with just me and the star of the episode. My entire purpose – stare dumbly at her as she speeds through a Rubix cube. The metro shots also give you an idea of how hideously orange the subway in Helsinki is.

When the Wife and I lived in Cambodia we had lots of friends who did modeling or commercials simply because they were young and white. We never did any. Though the Wife appeared in the magazine she worked for plenty. So it’s funny that I’ve come West just to finally appear in commercial. Not that there are going to be any more. Though we did film a second on the same day, though I’ll merely be background. But we did it to raise some money for our rugby team.

On a lighter or perhaps more entertaining note, here’s a video that totally sums up Nordic summer cabin life:

Minus 25 and fifteen places to sit

IMG_0088

It’s the new year and the blog is back. In her first post of 2016 the Wife writes about her struggle to say anything at all.

Over the past few months, I’ve struggled to write. To say anything at all in the face of growing hatred, xenophobia, and plain idiocy in Finland (and, sadly, elsewhere too). I condemn the racism – obviously – but what is there to say? Feels like everything has been said already, and much more eloquently than I ever could, yet nothing changes. A lot of the time, it just feels like things are getting worse.

Most mornings I swallow tears and anger after reading the paper. How is it possible that the police does not outright condemn “citizens’ patrols” run by former criminals who aim to keep “white Finland” safe from “dangerous immigrants”? How can Sweden begin passport controls and with that end six decades of the Nordic Passport Union? How dare Finland demand border crossings in the north are done exclusively by car, thereby severely limiting the right to seek asylum to those few who have access to one? Seriously – how can all of this happen while I sip my morning coffee?

The situation has made me feel frustrated and powerless. Furious, but unable to put that fury into words. Mute.

To cope, I’ve focused on working. First I volunteered at an emergency shelter for asylum seekers. Then I spent two months working at an asylum seekers’ reception centre – what its residents call a camp – during which I got to know some of the people who’ve made the journey across the Mediterranean and pretty much the length of Europe to Finland. Some great, smart, friendly, and generous people. People who I’ve since invited to my home, gone to the movies with. Some quiet ones, whose names I’ve forgotten. Some curious cases that have left me wondering why they risked their lives and spent significant amounts of money to make the journey north. What united many of them was frustration. Nothing to do but wait for a decision which for many could be the difference between life and death.

Then I got another job, and left the camp amid tears and incessant singing (the name Nora tends to hit a chord with Arabs). My new job involves working with EU migrants, mainly Roma from Eastern Europe. Amidst the focus on asylum seekers, the migrant Roma have largely been forgotten. For better and worse. It seems the rising wave of racism and hatred has not encompassed them to any greater extent than before. That’s a good thing. On the other hand I know a dozen or so people who are homeless and continue to live outdoors in temperatures closer to -30C. So while an asylum seeker has the right to shelter, food, education, and even a small amount of money, migrant Roma who have stayed in Finland for over three months and are not legally registered (generally because they are unable to do so given that they do not fulfil the requirement of formal employment) have the right to – well, pretty much nothing.

This is not about putting two groups against each other in any way. What I think the situation shows more than anything else is how basic human rights – to shelter, food, health care – are so highly linked to how you are categorised by the powers that be. Fall into category A, and you have these rights, fall into category B and you have another set of rights. Fall into C and your rights are next to nonexistent. For homeless, unregistered EU citizens in Helsinki, that means that the only place open to them on freezing winter nights is Kalkkers, an overnight centre with 15 places for clients to sit. It’s been full every night lately.

So while I’d rather tend to my slowly dying indoors plants than write something banal about the fearsome changes taking place in Finland and much of Europe, at least I can try to do something concrete. Find emergency shelter for people living on the street, give my Iraqi friend a hug when I bump into him on the metro platform. And work, however slowly, to erase the categories that define our access to rights.

First Finnish Thanksgiving

WP_20151129_003Last week was Thanksgiving in the US, and oddly Black Friday in Finland. For the first time ever the country has “celebrated” a monstrosity that is consumerism run rampant. Finland isn’t the only country to have done so. For some reason there was a consensus that this was the year Black Friday would be exported, and the UK was party to that forum. While I didn’t take part in those festivities, I did bring something peculiarly American to Finland.

We celebrated Thanksgiving for the first time as a family and in Finland. It wasn’t just the Wife and I but the majority of her family in Helsinki. All told we were 14 people, though two of those were babies. But even Bubi the dog got in on it and was party to the strainings of the gravy which in this case consisted of bacon, onion and turkey bits. The rest of us ate a more traditional Thanksgiving with turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans, salmon, mac’n’cheese, buttermilk biscuits, stuffing, salad, fruit salad, ice cream, pumpkin pie, apple pie and cookies.

WP_20151129_001

Not all of it was cooked by the Wife and I but the important bits were namely the turkey, gravy,  stuffing, biscuits, mac’n’cheese and pies. The rest were contributions were from family. Overall it was a great dinner with plenty of food, and the turkey which is a rarity in Finland was demolished. But that may have been because it was originally wrapped in bacon. To finish off the turkey I had to take the bacon off, but I used that in the gravy.

Dinner

Turkey

Pies

A concrete alternative to begging.

toisenlaiset joulukortit

The Wife likes her projects, so even though she claims to be too busy to write blog posts on a regular basis, she does want you to know about her latest work with Helsinki’s migrant Roma. Read on.

Things have been hectic of late and the blog hasn’t kept up. I still exist somewhere between exhausted and snowed under, but wanted to share a cool project I’m involved with: Toisenlaiset Joulukortit. The name translates approximately as Different, or Alternative, Christmas Cards. Here’s the story.

Most of the Roma in Eastern Europe live below the poverty line. They can’t afford the basics: food, clothes, housing. Don’t even mention education. They are severely, institutionally and structurally, discriminated against. Many therefore leave for other countries. Abroad, begging has become a means of survival and making money to send back home. So too in Finland.

This Christmas, the migrant Roma in Helsinki have an alternative to begging. Together with Finnish artists, a group of Roma have created a series of Christmas cards. From Nov. 26 onwards, these will be on sale on the streets of Helsinki, sold by the cards’ makers and their friends with profits going directly into their pockets. A no-brainer, surely?

To get your own series of six cards for only €5, don’t walk past the migrant Roma in the streets of Helsinki – stop, engage, and purchase. Not only will you get a kicker set of stand-out Christmas cards, but take part in developing concrete alternatives to begging.

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