Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

The welcome immigrant

Ronan Browne moved to Finland with his family last year, and received a warm welcome as an Irish person, but soon discovered his experience as an immigrant differed greatly to those of other nationalities.

Sat, Nov 5, 2011, 13:06


Ronan Browne moved to Finland last year his wife Laura, son Lukas and daughter Frida

Ronan Browne moved to Finland with his family last year, and received a warm welcome as an Irish person, but soon discovered his experience as an immigrant differed greatly to those of other nationalities.

In August 2010, we moved to my wife’s home town of Jyväskylä, Finland with our two children. We decided to make the move for many reasons – not least my wife’s work and our children’s education.

However, as our life was being packed into boxes and suitcases, I felt the pressure of leaving family, friends and a career behind me. I knew it was especially difficult for my parents to say goodbye to their beloved grandchildren as well as their only son.

There were many questions and uncertainties. How would our children adapt to new surroundings and a different language? How was I going to adapt? What was I going to do? Above all, what chance did I have against a Finnish winter that had repelled the Russian Army?

The fears proved unfounded though, and we all settled quickly.

Our son, 4 years old when we moved, was initially shy and reluctant to speak Finnish but soon became a confident, fluent speaker – without losing either his English language skills or his Kildare accent. Our 2-year-old daughter is learning to speak both languages as well – but generally uses Finnish to boss us around.

My first winter in Finland, described by many as “the big test”, did bring sub-zero temperatures but also cross-country skiing and the sauna – always in that order and usually involving a beer or two.

The longer I live here, the more I become increasingly impressed with the average Finnish person’s interest in and knowledge of Ireland and our culture. The topics are varied and the compliments are generous – although I have to stop people when they tell me they voted for Jedward in the Eurovision. There is also an incomprehensible obsession among many Finns with Irish dancing. More often than not, I am asked about it: Can I? Will I?

As an extension of this, people are interested in me too: Why am I here? What do I do? What do I think of Finnish beer? They always work their way around to asking the beer question. I have started to suspect that the Finns love us Irish even more because we as a nation share their national tradition of heavy alcohol consumption. Perhaps they feel I am someone they can trust, someone who is not looking down on one of the biggest negative quirks of their national stereotype.

However, when I began language classes one thing that surprised me greatly – apart, of course, from the word-bending complexities of the Finnish language – was that my experience of Finland differed vastly from that of many of my classmates. It almost as if we had been living in different countries.

In my experience, Finns were welcoming, friendly and interested, yet I met fellow immigrants that would add an “un-” in front of each of those adjectives. I discussed this once with one classmate, a lady of Middle Eastern descent, that the Finland she was describing was not the Finland I knew, and she replied “Yes, but you are a welcome immigrant”.

Her sentiment was not misplaced. Around this time the Perussuomalaiset, or True Finns Party was attracting a lot of attention in the Finnish media for their anti-immigration rhetoric. Their leader, Timo Soini, was often photographed in public wearing a Millwall FC scarf – which seemed to me an incongruous association for a political leader to cultivate. Initially I wondered if he found kindred solace in the Millwall fans’ obstinate chant of: “No-one likes us, we don’t care”. However it soon became apparent that people did like them, and in the April election their transformation from relative obscurity to political heavyweight was complete, when they were voted into parliament as the third biggest party in the country.

Their popularity also shifted political debate from the centre to the right, taking other parties with them. Päivi Räsänen of the Christian Party suggested Finland should give precedence to Christian immigrants and refugees as their ‘shared values’ would make integration easier. It may not have been her intention, but this type of statement from a political leader simply reinforces the notion of the “welcome” and the “unwelcome”. She has since been appointed Minister of the Interior, overseeing immigration policy.

With its inhospitable climate and indecipherable language, Finland can be a confusing and challenging place. The Finns are a complex bunch too – they don’t seem to take well to either praise or criticism and they have an unwavering belief that there are two ways to do things: there is the Finnish way, and there is the wrong way. Within this environment, and against this political backdrop, I began to understand a little more about my classmates’ struggles to integrate into both the country and the society.

However, things are not all negative. The True Finns electoral success prompted many Finnish people to join a political party – choosing parties that are diametrically opposed to the anti-immigrant discourse. Recently former Finnish President and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Martti Ahtisaari encouraged Finns to invite an immigrant around for coffee, metaphorically opening the nations’ doors. My local football side, JJK, extended this by asking fans to bring a foreigner along to a home game against FC Haka.

This change in public debate has even forced the True Finns to suspend a member of the party, Jussi Hallo-aho, after a series of controversial statements on immigration, multiculturalism, Islam and Greece. These may be small steps, but at least they are in the right direction.

As I mentioned earlier, the unfriendly, uninterested and unwelcoming Finland as described by some immigrants was unfamiliar to me. Equally, the immigrant stereotype promoted by some Finns is not accurate. Most of the immigrants I know, regardless of their nationality, religion or background, are interested in Finnish culture, motivated to learn the language and willing to integrate. The success or failure of their integration depends as much on themselves as on the welcome they receive. The danger is that this “unwelcome” group, striving to integrate and with great potential, will become frustrated, disaffected and angry. That would be a great shame.