Lost in Immigration
Once they used to live in Russia, and everything was fine: household, career, friends. But one day they decided to emigrate. This is a project of «7x7» about people who left Petrozavodsk for Finland in different periods of time and for different reasons, and how they overcome difficulties of relocation, build their lives in another country, in accordance with its rules, customs, and traditions.
Tatiana Kokkonen-Roivas: «Finland is my second homeland»
Tatiana Kokkonen-Roivas has lived in the Finnish border city of Joensuu for 26 years so far. «This is my second homeland, — she says. — I have spent half my life here».
You understand that Joensuu is Tatiana’s actual home at once: she walks around the city constantly greeting someone — her friends, colleagues, students. Tatiana’s students are immigrants, whom she has been helping to adapt to the unfamiliar Finnish life and education system for almost 20 years.
According to Tatyana, she had never had any thoughts of moving to the neighboring country: work, friends, the apartment — everything in that life was good and quiet. She decided to move when she had met her future husband — Seppo Roivas. He was the reason she moved to Joensuu in 1993. The wedding did not take place immediately though.
— My parents told everyone that I got married, because cohabitation was not accepted in the Soviet Union, they were worried about it. When I told my husband about it, he asked my father for my hand in marriage, and the father gave it undoubtedly, —Tatiana recalls. On April 28, 2019, Tatiana and Seppo celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary.
According to Tatyana, the leader was always clear in her parents’ family: the mother was the head, the father agreed with her in most cases. In the Kokkonen-Roivas family the rights are divided equally. After his wife’s immigration, the husband immediately made it clear: it is necessary to settle down, find a job, and then continue to build the family.
For some time, I did not even want to go to the store
— I was luckier than other immigrants as I spoke the language. But I remember how irritated I was at first by this omnipresent whiteness— white walls, white floors, like in a hospital. For some time, I did not even want to go to the store, I was annoyed by the Finnish speech — there was no one to speak Russian to. The melancholy was gone when I started working: the labor exchange sent me to internship in the branch of the Friendship Society «Finland—Russia», for six months I worked there as a secretary and courier, — says Tatiana.
— Connections are not important in Finland, but recommendations are: if you prove yourself during education or internship, you can be advised, recommended. That is how I got to the gymnasium of Tohmajärvi [50 km from Joensuu and 15 km from the Russian border], taught Russian as a foreign language, went there two or three times a week. I also conducted evening courses at the University for students who studied Russian, — says Tatiana.
Tatiana remembers that in the mid-1990s everyone wanted to learn Russian: active cooperation with Russia began, there were many joint projects. But then it all slowed down, there was less work to do. Tatiana went on maternity leave.
I could not imagine myself not talking to my daughter in mother tongue
Tatiana’s maternity leave lasted for three years. But all this time she did not stop teaching Russian. For this time, however, her student was her own daughter.
— Russians used to organize extracurricular activities for children — music, theatre, drawing, as there were many professionals from Russia — they were given a room in the city center, where different events and festivals were held. I saw children there who were two or three years old: they were sent to kindergarten at the age of one, and they immediately spoke Finnish, and their mothers did not know Finnish, so they could not understand children, — Tatiana recalls. — Also there were cases when mothers did not want their children to learn Russian: a mother spoke bad Finnish as well as her child. I decided that my child should better be a fluent Russian speaker, I could not imagine myself not talking to my daughter in mother tongue. After all, feelings can be expressed only in one’s native language.
Tatiana says that her daughter Masha began to talk quite late, but immediately in two languages: she spoke Russian with her mother, and Finnish — with her father.
This kind of division still remains in the Roivas family: Tatiana and Maria communicate only in Russian. According to Tatiana, they switch to Finnish only in the company of Finns, but when something has nothing to do with the people around them, they speak Russian.
In 1999, state preparatory courses began to open throughout the country in order to help immigrants with entering vocational schools. Tatiana’s former student offered her a job on similar courses in Joensuu.
— I became a teacher’s (or rather, a lecturer’s) assistant. Yes, there is a job like this, — says Tatiana. — For the first two years I was an hourly worker — taught Russian as a native language. Imagine immigrants from Russia learning Russian as a native language. It was a new experience for me — I used to teach Finnish as a foreign language, Russian as a foreign language, and suddenly it was Russian as a native language. At first, the students rebelled, like, why they needed Russian, if they did not learn Finnish, but I tried to use the Finnish approach in my lectures: it was interesting for the students because there was a benefit — we compared Finnish and Russian. In the end, it actually worked out.
Gradually, Tatiana became a lecturer herself: she taught the history of Finland, social studies, gradually she began to teach Finnish. Meanwhile, she earned two more degrees distantly.
According to Tatiana, it is difficult to find a job in Finland without having a local diploma or certificate. Therefore, everyone has to be retrained or to improve their skills: both cleaners and doctors. Tatiana is still in the process of learning: at the moment, she is being qualified as a teacher of Finnish as a foreign language.
Attitude Towards Immigrants
— What I miss is my youth and childhood. But this is some age thing, I guess. I spent my childhood and youth in Russia. I remember those times: it seems that everything was fine, — says Tatiana. — Now I travel to Petrozavodsk only if necessary. My dad is buried there, my mom lives there, so I go, but I don’t really want to. I have spent half my life here, in Finland, so this is my second home.
The second home, however, did not always welcome Russians like now. In the mid-1990s, according to Tatiana, talking in the native language outside could be quite uncomfortable — passers-by looked disapprovingly.
In the early 2000s, when her daughter Masha went to school, Tatiana was still worried about the way the classmates would treat her. In those times, immigrants from different countries, not only from Russia, began to come to Finland, so the attitude towards visitors, according to Tatiana, changed.
— I knew that my students’ children were with my daughter either in the same class, or during some lessons, so I asked, if they were bullied. But she replied that everyone in school was used to different children, nobody seemed to notice. I believe that those who were born here or moved at a young age (no matter what they look like), it seems to me that they are all Finns, not immigrants, — says Tatiana.
Andrey Agapov: When a Journalist Becomes a Chef
The former citizen of Petrozavodsk told «7x7» about in what way exchanging his active lifestyle and successful career in Russia to a quiet and peaceful life in Finland affected him and why he considers the possibility of moving from Finland to another country.
It was like a cold shower to me
— That was almost ten years ago. I was building my career in Petrozavodsk, everything was fine, my wife was just finishing medical school, she could have worked as a doctor. But suddenly here it comes: my wife is of Ingrian origin, and she learned about the program for Russian doctors with Finnish roots. Olga just graduated from university and decided to give it a try. We had had no thoughts, no plans about immigration. But she went, settled, then the daughter and I immigrated as well.
— So the main reason to move was your wife’s job?
— Not exactly. At first it was a course for doctors for a year and a half, but then you could stay there and work, if you passed a certain exam. It was just a chance to move there.
— What does she do now? Has she got a job in her field?
— She is a psychiatrist and works in a psychiatric department. She knows the language better than I do, psychiatrist is a doctor of colloquial genre, you know. And she is not just into psychiatry, she works with addicts. This kind of psychiatry is very difficult, there is almost nothing like this in whole Finland.
— Some of my friends from Russia work as doctors in Finland. Is there any demand for specialists from abroad?
— Migrant doctors not from the EU meet many obstacles on their career path, I would not wish this on my worst enemy. Despite the lack doctors here, still it is very hard work, half one’s life can be spent on it. We are not cordially welcomed. You have to prove yourself and your qualifications, and it takes time and money, waste of years. To become a meaningful, approved highly paid doctor here, you have to take it upon yourself.
— Well I see. Your wife’s career is successful though. How was the relocation for you?
— It was like a cold shower to me. My life in Petrozavodsk was very active. In the beginning, we lived in a small village, where the streets were empty even during the day, such a remote place. For the first couple of months I took it as a vacation, but I felt tired of this kind of lifestyle. It was very difficult not to do anything.
— We moved because my daughter had to go to school, we wanted her to study here. Here I found some Russian companions with whom it was possible to communicate. We created a center for children’s creativity. All of my friends had kids of about the same age, 7–8 years, back then. I was involved for several years. At the same time, I joined a political party. I tried to do something there, but since I hardly spoke Finnish at that time, it was difficult for me. So I just left.
— What happened to the center? Was it closed?
— Just a couple of years ago the whole thing died down: first, the children grew up, and secondly, everyone moved somewhere else. But for several years the center meant a lot to us — it united everyone including parents: there were many social activities for the Russian adults, we organized various fests.
— Where did you learn Finnish? Already in Finland?
— Yes, here I took courses that all immigrants take. Of course, the courses help. But to start talking you have to get into the Finnish environment. During the courses you learn the vocabulary, rules. There is no personal experience. Two years ago, I started to study. Only when I came into the group of Finnish students and began chatting with them via WhatsApp, I had a real breakthrough. I deliberately did not take courses for adults, as everyone does at my age, but for school graduates. It was a hunch, but I knew I’d hit the nail on the head. It was the best choice of the last two years. I communicated in this environment, and it seems to me, I was taught differently, given more than the «old men». We learn about a profession, there is an opportunity to get into the student exchange program. I went to Austria, studied in France. It is impossible to do that in an adult group.
From «Vatrushka» to Café «BRO»
— I was unemployed for four years, and then we came up with our business — a café which has existed, let’s see, for five years already. The first three years it was café «Vatrushka» in the village where we had lived. It was open all year round. But it was unprofitable: we live here, the café is in a small village, there are few clients, small income, and it is necessary to go there every day. So expensive.
— So it turns out that business in a small settlement is unprofitable?
— The thing is that the café building belongs to the village administration. And we agreed to cater its sessions and sell food with a discount. The rent was quite small. For two years the money was enough to survive. Then there was some initiative of the government — they tried to enlarge settlements. They started to close, for example, policlinics, schools in small towns. And our village was not an exception. But the people stood up, actively fought for their independence. In this wake, the administration ran out of money, they began to reduce their sessions, the money was not enough for me. That was the key reason to close it down. After all, the village survived, but not the café.
— The new cafe is open only in summer. Judging by the weather in this area, is this a fairly short season?
— The working time is only two months. This business is small. I am just curious, I want to have a little place of my own where I do whatever I want to do. I really liked the place, we decided that we can start with it. Last summer we worked well, I think, it is not the city center, just some outskirts, a place that no one knew without advertising.
— I am a very small businessman, still I have to insure all the property, to pay insurance on employees, even if there is only one. And I have to insure myself, even if I have personal insurance. And no matter whether you work alone in a trailer, or it is a network corporation, you have to pay all the same. But the corporation affords these costs, and I do not. They say the 14% tax is not that big, but the insurance… it is very difficult. If I want to have a party, for example, I have to get permission to make noise, pay for security, something else. Even though your business is small. That is hard. And the state helps you for the first six months or a year after opening, there are subsidies, discounts, and then that is it, bye-bye, whether you are succeeding or not. For example, if my cooker breaks, a new one costs 300 euros, ridiculously cheap. Any restaurant can buy five cookers at once, and for me it can be a risk of closing. I am balancing all the time.
— What kind of food do Finns prefer the most? Traditional or exotic?
— National cuisine is all about milk and cream, everything contains dairy products. In my opinion, restaurants are strongly influenced by Southeast Asia: ginger, chili, something spicy and piquant. The place where I work now is a Greek restaurant, they completely follow the concept. There you will never see mashed potatoes or macaroni casserole. There are no professionals, they cook like for themselves at home. In spite of this, the number of customers is increasing, people seem to like it, because all the other restaurants are guided by the standard menu, and then hop! — something else.
Blogging. Journalism. Nostalgia
— No longer, but I used to.
— You can start a food blog, for example.
— I had dome thoughts, but I do not want to. Well, I am not sure, as I got older, I started thinking about what I want and can say to people. When I was ten years younger — or even much younger — I thought I’d say something so interesting — and make everyone’s lives better at once. Now I know there are a lot of smart people who know more than I do, but they just keep quiet. What am I going to tell you? What kind of cooking blog? If I were Jamie Oliver [English chef, restaurateur, television host], then I would. Sometimes journalism gave me some topics, and I thought: I like this topic, I shall write about it. But as soon as it came to sitting at the computer, opening a new document — for some reason I had no desire to express my thoughts in writing.
— Do you miss Russia?
— I don’t. I used to: first my friends, then the action. It is so peaceful here. But then you get used to this rhythm of life. I used to chat with my friends in social networks actively, and now there is no need to do it, I do not know why. Maybe, you just get used to it…
— Is there anything left you want to return, or has Finland become home?
—For many years, I have been coming to Petrozavodsk for one or two days. And I probably do not have time to become addicted to Petrozavodsk, to start missing things. In winter, I spent two months in France, in a big city, and there I got this drug, I began to miss the big city. It seemed to me that French people were in some way similar to Russians. At least, in comparison with Finns. Finns are focused on themselves — in the evening after work they go home, and French people strive to go to restaurants, hang out, meet, communicate. You go and see all the restaurants full, people meet, that is what I miss here.
On the other hand, what is the life of an adult? In the morning you will get up, do your chores, get the kids ready, feed them, go to work, come back home, chores again, going back and forth — and the evening comes, time to sleep. Even if I lived in Petrozavodsk, I do not think I’d be hanging out with anyone right now.
— I do. There are many Russians here, and they all hang out in their own companies.
I like my summer café because I am sitting there and sometimes people visit me there. I feel like I am hosting a party. We do hold some parties there. I love this opportunity.
— Do you have any Finnish friends?
— Like I used to in Russia — no, I don’t. There is a friend of our family, he visits us from time to time, we go out together. But he is a very old man, he is almost 90 years old. But very active. He comes to communicate with us, but I cannot call him a friend.
It is difficult to make friends at this age. And I cannot communicate freely with Finns, the language barrier still exists. Some Finns treat you normally whatever you say — a small category of people. Most of them, as you start speaking, look at you with wide eyes, if you say something wrong, and, of course, there can be no communication, no contact, no friendship.
— I cannot say exactly… it was difficult in the beginning, definitely. I came with the feeling that I am the Prince Charming, going to crush everyone in this village. I had ambitions, energy. All problems seemed solvable. Life challenges were compensated by the attitude. Now we just live our normal life here. If we speak about difficulties in my life, they are banal life difficulties not related to immigration.
The most difficult thing is to lose connections, society, communication, and I think the younger you are, the more difficult it is. When you are 50, you can easily not see anyone at all, you live on your own, and you are OK. It is hard for young people.
— Did you want to go back?
— Sometimes I brought up returning to Petrozavodsk: we had an apartment there, it was possible to get a good job. But the wife refused to come back. I think all of my friends who had the opportunity to leave have left. Even somewhere to the middle of nowhere, they come to Petrozavodsk to see their parents once in three years.
— Do the children identify themselves as Finns or Russians?
— Russians. The younger daughter does not question her mentality, has no problems with the language — she was born here. But her friends… They play together without any problems, but not with her. She feels so… standalone. On the other hand, it tempers her. She used to return from a walk in tears at first, now she understands and does not cry.
— Do you ever feel any rejection from Finns towards Russians?
— I have never faced people shouting «Hey, you, Russian», it never happened to me. Sometimes you are not treated even poorly, they simply do not communicate with you. I am talking to Finns like Moe talks to Curly. It seems to me that I speak Finnish fluently, but I then I see that they do not get my phrase, not at all. And when it happens, I feel uncomfortable and try to avoid such situations. Maybe that is why I do not initiate contact with Finns myself. While Finns are talking, I listen, I understand. As soon as I start talking, I fail it somehow.
— If you were offered moving to another country, would you agree? Or have you become attached to Finland, to Joensuu?
— Life has taught me that it is pointless to plan out your whole life, you need to be ready for changes. Now we are having a mortgage here, have bought a big house, taken strong roots, which are difficult to cut off. But it is possible. The house can be sold, the work can be changed. I came from Toulouse so impressed that I said: the climate there is absolutely crazy! 20 degrees above zero in January. No need to pay for central heating. Here we are running around, lose heat, new windows cost 20 thousand euros, crazy money. There you do not even need a door — the weather is so hot: no winter clothes required. You live in Paradise. Let’s go to France! Let’s learn the French language. Let’s go there.
I have been thinking about it for days.
— And then went back to reality?
— You must live where you are safe and comfortable. A person in the modern global world can and has the right to live wherever he wants and likes to live, wherever he is able to live. You don’t have to get attached to some place, or country, and hold out. You don’t have to be a patriot. I work in a Greek restaurant: we have two Russians, two Iraqis, the owners are Greeks, the dishwasher is Greek, the waiter is half Finn, half Canadian. For example, Russian Olga does not speak Finnish, but she speaks English and Greek, I speak Finnish and English, the Iraqis speak only English. And we talk to each other in some kind of mixture based on English, simultaneously. And that does not stop us from working together. It seems to me that the immigration now, the concept itself, is not the same as it was a few years ago. The world has become so small, the borders are erased — people from different countries communicate.
Matvey and Lyubov Syarki: «Culturally we are much closer to Finns than Finns to Arabs or Africans»
Matvey himself denies it and claims that he made the decision not for a particular reason, but simply because «Finnish roots had begun to dominate over Russian with age», and at some point the decision came itself.
A journalist by profession, after being dismissed from the newspaper «Vsyo» in the summer of 2015, Matvey did not look for a job in his speciality, but started working in a theater as a stagehand and preparing for immigration.
For Lyuba it was more difficult to decide: in the end of 2015, she was offered a good and interesting position in the Karelian office of the Central Election Commission (CEC). Lyuba was ready to start working during the important election campaigns of 2016–2018 and then to «reunite with his family» in Finland. But the offer seemed not very clear, and she could not wait for a real contract, so she said no the CEC administration. Later it turned out to be the right decision: the full time position of a youth work expert was never created in the Election Commission of Karelia.
So they did it. It quickly became clear that it was necessary not only to choose a city, but also to find an apartment to live. And this is quite difficult in Finland. Matvey had some relatives in Espoo who invited a couple for a little while. Matvey says now that he does not regret the choice of the capital region for life, because «you can live without meeting people even in the heart of Finland», for example, he has seen his neighbors at the entrance for the first time only one and a half months after moving.
It is also difficult to find an apartment in Finland because the state is ready to subsidize the rent on the basis of some area and price standards. You can find a two-bedroom apartment in Helsinki that meets the social standard paid by the state (844 euros per month), but it will take some time. Lyuba and Matvey’s current apartment exceeds the standards a bit, so they have to pay extra.
Road Map of Migrants’ Integration
You can start job training only after you have passed the language exam on the B1 level (the employment service pays for training courses up to this level). Finnish is not that wide-spread and easy to learn, so language learning usually takes from one to three years. The courses are held for four hours every day, and homework takes two hours. But Lyuba says that the homework can be done much faster simply because the tasks are designed for a fairly low level of students’ initial training (many people come to Finland from Arab or African countries and are absolutely illiterate).
Everyone has two options: to try to start learning immediately after the language courses or to study for another year on the career guidance courses, where it is possible to try different professions and intern in different places. Since the training is conducted in Finnish, this is a great chance not only to learn about professions, but also to improve one’s language to the level required for further study. At the same time, you get important knowledge about the legislation and other features of life in the country.
— The courses were initially created for those who had left school after the ninth grade, but could not decide where to study. Now they are most often reformatted for people like us, coming in large numbers, — laugh the spouses. So, the Syarki family have spent their third year of living in Finland looking for a new profession.
A Plumber and a Merkonom
— Of course, you can refuse to study like that and become whatever you want, because the education is free. But in that case you will receive a scholarship from the social service Kela, not the unemployment benefits from the Employment Service. So it will be necessary to deal with student loans, which we do not want to do right now, — says Lyuba.
The scholarship is twice lower than the unemployment benefits, and no one guarantees employment in the chosen specialty.
— I wanted to study to be a carpenter-cabinetmaker, — Matvey continues. — And I was told that it is possible, but I should go to the North, to Savo, there is production that needs specialists, but Helsinki doesn’t.
The family was not ready to move so far away. Therefore, Matvey had to choose «the best of unloved» from the list of the Employment Service. As a result, Matvey is going to be a plumber.
— It is not that kind of plumber who attends private apartments and repairs cranes, — Matvey explains. — You can study to do that, too, but it is called differently. And I’m studying to be the one who sets water supply systems in houses under construction.
Lyuba studies to become a merkonom. This is a special Finnish term meaning basic economic education. Among the «merconomic» specialities you can find any, from an accountant to a librarian.
— It was possible to choose several directions of training. There are only three required basic courses for all students of Merconomics, you can choose everything else yourself from a long list. The teacher helps to determine the curriculum. The main thing is to get an exact number of points during the training, —Lyuba explains. She chose a specialization related to project activities and organization of events.
One year of studies remains, after which the Employment Service will try to help them with employment. Despite the chosen specialities being in demand, it will not be so easy to find a job, according to Lyuba and Matvey, because of the suspicion and caution of employers towards immigrants.
— We were told about the research which showed that Finnish employers prefer Finnish workers. So, if there are two candidates, one is Finnish, and the second is an immigrant, the employer usually chooses a Finn, even if his competences are somewhat lower than those of an immigrant, —Lyuba says.
— True, and it often happens that, if there is a vacancy, the boss firstly asks workers, whether they have acquaintances suitable for this position, and only then he contacts employment services, — adds Matvey.
Elements of discrimination and everyday nationalism — either towards immigrants in general, or towards Russians in particular — according to the Syarkis family, are frequently seen both at work and in day-to-day life. For example, bus drivers often greet Finns only. At the construction site, where Matvey was an Intern, one Finnish worker called one of the Russian workers «ryssä» (the derogatory Finnish word for Russians) modified by some obscene epithet.
— He was immediately punched in the face for that, and then there was a trial, and that Finn was fined and transferred to another construction site. However, since then some Russian-speaking Finn had always been next to Russians. Maybe he wanted to catch them in disrespectful commentaries towards Finns, — says Matvey.
Lately, against the influx of immigrants from Arab and African countries, Russians are felt to be treated better.
— And yet, culturally we are much closer to Finns than Finns to Arabs or Africans, — thinks Matthew.
— Since we know the language better, there are not so many moments like this, or we just stop noticing them, — Lyuba agrees with her husband.
It is difficult for her, an experienced activist, to understand how people living in another country can be so separate in social and political issues. Russians in Finland still poorly enjoy not only the right to be elected, but even the right to elect. During the spring elections to the Parliament of the country, there were only seven Russian-speaking candidates. And despite the fact that the state broadcasting company of Finland YLE has made a lot of efforts to promote the elections among the Russian-speaking voters of the country, their electoral activity remained low.
Lyuba and Matvey find it really strange: there is such a huge Russian-speaking «crowd», at least in Helsinki.
— We have one friend who says explicitly that Russians must not get together, that it is very bad. You would think that he promotes integration of Russian speakers into Finnish society, but he doesn’t. He himself does not speak Finnish fluently despite many years of living in Finland, and is not involved into the social life, — says Matvey.
Gradually, Lyuba and Matvey are beginning to feel more comfortable in Finland, but still worry that the process of their adaptation to the new society and vice versa may take too much time.
This story is originally posted on the 7x7-journal.ru and re-published as part of Eyes on Barents, a collaborative partnership between media organizations and bloggers in the Barents region