By Enrique Tessieri
When I grew up in Finland during part of my childhood and adolescence one matter became clear: I wanted to move here permanently when I became an adult. How did I succeed at making a living in Finland back in the 1980s and beyond?
Adapting to a country like Finland felt sometimes like sojourning on a long and winding path. Despite the many curves and uncertainties, the right people appeared at the right time. Without them, I would be most likely writing this blog entry from California.
When I moved back to Finland in December 1978, one of the matters that struck me wasn’t the freezing temperatures but how few foreigners lived in the country. At the time there were under 10,000. Many of them weren’t what we’d call “real” foreigners since they were native Finns who had become naturalized citizens of another country.
I had many personal reasons for moving back. One of these was to live in a country that was at peace with itself and wasn’t waging war against other nations. My country of birth, Argentina, wasn’t a very promising prospect to build a home and family since it was ruled at the time by a ruthless military regime that had no respect for human rights. Probably the most important reason of all for moving back here was those wonderful summers I spent in Eastern Finland with my grandparents.
Those two-and-a-half months I spent with my grandparents were like entering a totally different world compared with the mad rush of Los Angeles and Buenos Aires. In summertime near Mikkeli, time nearly stopped amid those dreamy lazy summertime landscapes.
While I could not place my finger on it, there was something that bothered and concerned me about my new home. Many years later I figured out what it was. It was the near-total disregard by some Finns, the authorities and laws for my fragmented Finnish ancestry. The law determined that only the children of Finnish fathers had citizenship rights.
You could have probably guessed that my first big disappointment took place at the Finnish Immigration Service, which was then called the Aliens’ Office. A cantankerous official snapped back at me for asking her why I had to go through so much red tape to get a residence permit if my mother was Finnish.
“In our opinion, you are not a Finn,” she said with all the weight of the law. “We are not interested if you are engaged to a Finnish woman. What counts is your mother, who is a Finnish citizen.”
It was a devastating knock-out blow by the official that not only left me in pieces but raised questions about my Finnish identity. Was I a Finn?
Even if things have changed for the better, there are some important questions that remain unanswered: Are those critical pathways to acceptance that encourage integration closing or widening today?
Compared with the past, immigrants, Finns with international backgrounds and most importantly common Finns have shown through Facebook sites like My Finland is International that they are a growing force to be reckoned with.
Finland is a good country to live in but we must defend our good country every day. Despite much of the rhetoric and fear-mongering out there, what threatens our society does not come from abroad but from within.
We must strive to build and most importantly defend a society based on mutual acceptance, respect and equal opportunities for all those that live here.