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Courtesy Finland Tourist and Convention Bureau’s Material )Bank/Niklas Sjoblom

November 2009
Welcome to Finland
While Egyptians in some European countries face racism, Islamophobia and isolation, those in Finland enjoy a warm welcome
By  Dina Basiony

Aside from blonde, Barbie-like women, freezing cold weather and Nokia mobile phones, there is little the general public associates with Finland. Yet, the small country — 338,000 square kilometers — with a population of 5.3 million has a lot to offer tourists and immigrants with an interest in Finnish-Arab trade and cultural exchange.


Among European countries, Finland is remarkable for its tolerance of ethnic and religious minorities, thanks to the government’s clear and strictly implemented laws of equality and the people’s generally curious and friendly nature.

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Clashes over Islamic dress, social welfare and other citizenship issues are common in countries such as France and Italy, which have a large population of Muslim immigrants and are often plagued by tense relations between these settlers, the government and the native population. Following the July incident when a German man stabbed a pregnant 31-year-old Egyptian pharmacist, Marwa Al Sherbiny, 18 times in a Dresden courtroom while he was on trial for charges of slander, the media has increasingly focused on concerns of racism and Islamophobia in Europe. In Finland, meanwhile, Egyptians as well as other Arabs and Muslims say they can’t imagine something like this happening in their quiet, safe country.

Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index ranks Finland number one among 163 countries for the lowest levels of corruption. The country has consistently been at the top of the list, although it fell to number five in 2008, behind Denmark, New Zealand, Sweden and Singapore.

Finland has a long tradition of democracy and women’s rights; in 1906, it became the first country to give women the right to vote and run for office. Voters elected the first female speaker of Parliament in 1994, and in 2000 made current President Tarja Halonen the first woman to hold her position. She was re-elected to a second six-year term in 2006.

The country is also known for its low crime levels and Halonen, 63, is often spotted around the capital, Helsinki, walking, shopping and attending public gatherings unguarded, or with just two guards for more formal gatherings.

Dina Basiony
Tarek El-Said serves Egyptian cuisine to customers at his restaurant, Habibi.

With October marking her first trip to Syria and Egypt, where she met with President Mubarak to discuss the economy and Egyptian-Finnish relations and other regional issues, interest in the country is growing in the region.

Live and Let Live

By law, discrimination against ethnic or religious minorities is strictly prohibited and government agencies are charged with promoting equality and drawing plans detailing how they will promote ethnic equality, according to the Finnish Ministry of Interior’s website. Members of minority groups in Finland say these laws are enforced.

Tara Ahmed, a 25-year-old Kurdish woman, came with her husband to Finland seven years ago to work. “There are a lot of services offered to us here,” she says. “Plus, during my seven years I haven’t had one single harassment, assault or discrimination case in any form.”

Like most immigrants, Ahmed and her husband took advantage of the free Finnish language lessons offered by the government, which pays immigrants 8 per day to attend. The government also provides immigrants with a free home, health care for their family and education for their children. In addition, they get a monthly stipend of 367 per adult to cover expenses until they start earning their own living. The government is able to pay for these services due to a progressive tax rate that can exceed fifty percent of a person’s income. Even so, officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed that Finland needs immigrants and that, in the long run, they are not a burden on society

Dina Basiony
Eduction Minister Henna Virkunen heads Finland’s successful education program.

Kawther Mohamed, 42, who came to Finland one year ago to escape political instability in Iraq says, “All the other European countries locked the door in our face and, to be honest, we tried living in one Arab country and we weren’t treated very well.”

Somalian Abdinasir Mohamed Ali, 41, head of Al-Rabeta Al-Islamia Fe Finlanda (The Islamic Association in Finland), says that as long as Muslims or minorities don’t break the law, they will be treated well.

The association was established in 1987 and regulates Finland’s 40 mosques, providing services such as Arabic and Qur’an lessons with the help of 1,200 member volunteers. According to the association’s records, there are approximately 40,000 Muslims in Finland.

Ali says approximately 2,000 Finnish people have converted to Islam over the past 20 years, the majority in the past two years, and most of them are Finnish women married to Muslim men. Finland native Marika Edom, 44, who converted to Islam a year and a half ago says, “Now that I’m a Muslim, I feel more complete [] I used to feel empty before. I have more friends now than I ever had before. I have strong[er] ties with my Muslim sisters than [those] I had with [the so called friends] I used to hang out with at bars.”

Bringing a Piece of Home Abroad

Most of the Egyptian immigrants interviewed said they have had few problems adjusting to their new home or preserving their cultural and religious identity and passing it on to their children.

“[The] condition in Finland in comparison to many other countries is quite good,” says Egyptian Ambassador to Finland Maasoum Marzouk.

Mohammed Ahmed, professor emeritus at the University of Joensuu, moved to Finland in 1966 and was surprised by the level of respect he received. “When I first came to Finland [ the university rector] told me ‘It’s an honor for our university to have a person coming from Nasser’s country,’” Ahmed recalls.

The rector’s friendliness was a stark contrast to the relationship between employees and their superiors in Egypt. At the Egyptian Ministry of Trade and Industry, where he used to work, Ahmed says people used to stand up out of fear and respect when the general manager passed by.

Ahmed has four children with his Finnish wife, a psychiatrist and expert in trans-cultural marriages. “I’m proud that due to [being raised in two different cultures] our children have a much wider perspective and understanding of the world.”

Alexandria native Tarek El-Said, 44, traveled with his Egyptian wife to Finland 19 years ago. El-Said was working in the Sheraton hotel when a friend of his in Finland decided to open an Egyptian restaurant and asked for his help.

“When I first came to Finland, the Finnish people weren’t really used to foreigners. Now they are more aware, they have a diverse society and they accept the foreigners more due to knowing them better,” El-Said says.

Today, El-Said today Habibi, a restaurant that serves Middle Eastern dishes including taboula, baba ghanoug and falafel.

A father of three, El-Said says the only problems he faces in Finland are those that he would face in any other country. “Life is quite smooth here, but [] I have a problem in spending quality time with [my children], so they have started to forget their mother tongue.”

Like many others, El-Said has contemplated returning to his country and his relatives, but says: “It will be tough for my children to adapt and I would actually like them to stay here because the education and health services are excellent.”

Fellow immigrant and restaurant owner Mohammed Ali bought his establishment, Grecia, 20 years ago from its Greek owner and has introduced Egyptian fare into the mix. Located a few meters from the Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Presidential Residence, Grecia is popular with diplomats, politicians and foreign ambassadors.

Ali’s tanned skin and Middle Eastern features make some of his customers curious about his origins. When he tells them about Egypt, Ali says they are receptive and he encourages them to visit the mystical country of his stories.

“I think the [aggravation of the conflict] between Arabs and the West is something manufactured primarily by the media,” says Ali, who notes that despite their reputation for tolerance, Finnish people also have misconceptions about Arabs. Ali thinks that the stereotypes that are created by Western movies can’t be corrected unless the individual is educated about other cultures.

Ali’s friend Amro Bassiony, 44, a doctor at Helsinki University Hospital, agrees that in general, minorities are treated very well in Finland.

“The problems I faced when I first came to Finland in the 1990s, though, were the cold weather and the darkness,” says Bassiony, who studied medicine at Helsinki University. “I was planning to finish my studies and go back home. But, until this moment I don’t know what made me stay,” he laughs. Although he had trouble adjusting to the climate, Bassiony cites the equipment at the hospital and the general organization that characterizes the entire country’s affairs as reasons why he felt comfortable settling in Finland. “In Finland, you only do your work and you don’t worry about anything else because everyone does his work efficiently.”

Bassiony takes his Finnish wife and their eight-year-old son and four-year-old daughter to Egypt once a year to enjoy the warm winters in Sharm El-Sheikh or Hurghada.

Although the Muslim Eids are not national holidays in Finland, Bassiony tries to teach his children about the nature of these special occasions and the importance of their Arab and Muslim identities. “I take my children to buy new clothes for the Eid, just like we used to in Egypt. My children get very excited about that, although they’re not quite sure why we do it.”

Ali and Bassiony are old friends and they make sure they gather as family during these times. Completing their group is Fathy Khadr, 60, a well-known businessman.

Khadr is the managing director and a partner of Egico Trading Ltd., a Helsinki-based wood exporter with branches in Alexandria and Cairo. He moved to Finland in 1972 with his Finnish wife, whom he met in France during one of his university’s summer training trips.

Of his 37 years in Finland, Khadr says, “I think I have succeeded here [more than I expected].”

Khadr has two adult children, aged 33 and 26, and says his Finnish wife did not object to Khadr teaching them about Islam and the Egyptian culture.

“I never regret marrying a Finnish woman,” he says. “Finnish women are very wise. They genuinely take care of their children, care about their education and happiness; they care about their households and husbands.”

Khadr says what he likes most about Finland is the tolerance of ethnic minorities. “A prosecutor here in Finland charged a Finnish person just because his writings are insulting to Islam. The man wasn’t charged by an Arab or a Muslim or a Middle Eastern — he was charged by a Finnish official. This is amazing,” he says.

Khadr is referring to the case last August when Finnish Prosecutor Simo Kolehmainen filed charges against Jussi Halla-Aho for “publicly defaming Islam in his writings and blogging,” according to Finnish papers. While many online activists considered it oppression of freedom of expression, many people interviewed for this story said they were relieved as they think Halla-Aho’s writings could lead to unwanted disharmony in their country.

From Khadr’s experience, it is easy to become friends with Finns, but as a foreigner, “you have to take the first step and prove that you’re good and genuine.”

Khadr says that what he misses the most about his country is el-lamma (the gatherings with family and friends). “Sometimes the darkness of Finland, the cold weather and the isolation of people can be depressing in winter,” he says.

Cultivating Educated Citizens

Officials attribute any success or development in their country to their globally recognized education system. Finland’s literacy rate is 100 percent. Although children don’t start school until age seven, they consistently perform well on international indices. Finland ranked first in the most recent international assessment by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which tests the abilities of a sample of 15-year-old secondary school students in 57 countries, with an emphasis on scientific knowledge and the ability to apply it in daily life.

Education is mandatory and free, as are meals, transportation and school supplies. Jari Koivisto, education counselor at the National Board of Education, says that equality among all students regardless of their age, sex, economic background or native language is guaranteed. “We are doing the best we can to integrate foreign students in our education system,” Koivisto says.

There are 40 religions and 42 languages taught at schools to meet students’ needs, with a particular emphasis on language learning. Foreign students learn Finnish and Swedish, but also get professional teachers to help them master their mother tongues.

The Finnish government spends less than 6% of its budget on education. Yet, Koivisto says that money is not the key to a successful system. He attributes students’ success to the excellent training and efficiency of their teachers. Teaching is a popular, well-respected profession here and teachers must obtain a masters degree in teaching and complete practical training before they start. Once on the job, however, they do not follow a strict curriculum set by the government or the Ministry of Education.

“Our teachers — thanks to their good training and experience — are quite independent at their work,” says Koivisto. “They observe the students’ needs and do the best to meet them. No student is excluded from the teacher’s planning. If teachers notice weakness in a certain student’s performance, they contact the parents and work on finding the best possible way to equate the student with his or her peers.”

Generally speaking, the system does not put a lot of pressure on students. Outside school, there are no further studies, homework or assignments.

Like the other teens her age, 15-year-old Ella-Nea Salovirta, has a deep respect for her schooling: “Education is very important to me. Even if I don’t like school, it’s very important that I get educated very well because I want to have a successful job,” says Salovirta, who is dressed in designer jeans and a tank top and hopes to become a successful designer like fellow Finn Marimekko.

From ages seven to 16, students are enrolled in basic education where they learn foreign languages, sciences and engage in creative, critical thinking and discussions with their teachers. After that, students choose either to continue their general upper secondary education or to enroll in vocational education, each for two to four years. Students who graduate from vocational schools can work in the trade they learn or apply for university after passing an entrance exam. Students who graduate from academic secondary education are not encouraged to work immediately due to their lack of training; most apply to universities and complete bachelor’s and master’s degrees and often PhD’s as well. Students are encouraged to have more than one PhD, and earning a PhD from a foreign university, where they have experienced a different culture, people, and training, earns them more credibility at home.

Education Minister Henna Virkkunen estimates that 20 percent of students study abroad and says the target is for all students to have worked or studied abroad by 2015.

Virkkunen says, however, that it would be difficult to apply the Finnish system elsewhere. “Last year we had 140 foreign experts coming to universities to see how the education system works,” she says. “But, I think it’s very difficult [to copy our system] because our system is good for the Finnish culture and society but cannot move as it is to other countries.”

When asked what advice she would give to her counterparts in the developing world, she says, “It’s always the teachers that you need to look after first; their training, salaries and working conditions.”

Finnish-Arab Bond

Over the past few years, Finnish people have shown an increased interest in Egyptian and Arab culture. According to the website of the Association of Finnish Travel Agents, more than 43,000 Finns visited Egypt in 2008, compared to the approximately 20,000 who visited in 2007.

Finnish businesses are also building partnerships in the Arab world, specifically in Egypt. Established in 1998, the Finnish-Arab Trade Association’s work encouraging and facilitating commercial relations has been growing rapidly in recent years, according to Kari Norkonmaa, chairman of the association’s board. “I believe that there is a lot of potential and possibilities that haven’t been explored yet in Egypt and our future goal is to explore them,” he says.

IIkka Lakaniemi, head of Global Political Dialogue and Initiatives at Nokia, one of the Finnish companies affiliated with the association, says, “We have particular interest in Egypt due to its strategic location and position in the Arab world. [] We think we can both benefit from [our Egyptian partners, and they can] benefit [from us.]”

Regarding cultural exchange, the Finnish-Arabic Society, established in 1963, works on increasing awareness of the Arab world in Finland. Chairman of the Board Jarno Peltonen says that the society produces a book every year, which is distributed in libraries, museums and schools, to educate Finnish society about the Arab region. The 2008 book, Marhaba, included articles on Ancient Egyptian medicine, the historical evolution of Iran and the history of the Palestinian cause.

“I have a feeling that the interest in Arab [and Egyptian] culture is increasing now more than ever,” Peltonen says. “Tourism to [these countries] increased and Finns started to fall in love with the culture. Even the various stories about [Arab politics], we hear people here find them [interesting] and wish to travel to [Arab countries] to see for themselves what’s going on.”

The Egyptian Antiquities Information System (EAIS) launched in 2000 is a joint project between the Egyptian Ministry of Culture and Finnish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The project, which is managed by the Supreme Council of Antiquities and Finnish Environment Institute, aims to preserve Egyptian antiquities and improve Egyptian cultural heritage management. Riita Teiniranta, geographical information specialist at the Finnish Environment Institute, says that the project has gathered information that has helped the Supreme Antiquities Council preserve many monuments, tourist areas and sites that were threatened by misuse, lack of awareness and lack of recent documentation and mapping. Finland has invested 2.9 million (LE 23.8 million) and Egypt 390,000 (LE 3.2 million) into the project.

The Egyptology Department at the Institute for Asian and African Studies at the University of Helsinki is also growing. The institute, established in 1973, has 10 disciplines, yet Egyptology, Arabic and Islamic Studies Departments are the most popular. “It’s the fascination and mystic nature of the Egyptian culture that made students interested,” says Patricia Berg, PhD student and secretary of the Finnish-Egyptology Society, which organizes events, trips and seminars related to Egyptology for its 600 members.

The Egyptian-Finnish Musical Bridge is another cultural organization that is narrowing the gap between Finland and Egypt. Conceived by well-known Finnish pianist Ralf Gothoni in collaboration with the Cairo Opera House, the musical bridge includes workshops, master classes and shared performances between Finnish and Egyptian musicians and opera singers.

It’s not only Egypt that Finland is trying to boost relations with; this tiny European country is constantly tackling global issues by building positive, close relationships with nations with similar interests. et

Tervetuloa Sumomeen! (Welcome to Finland)

Finland strikes visitors with its unique historical and cultural heritage and its capital, Helsinki, is characterized by neo-classic and national romantic architecture, the works of Scandinavian sculptors, ancient cathedrals and elegantly dressed people. Its official languages are Finnish and Swedish, but at least 80% of the population speaks English, according to the National Board of Education. Approximately 83% of the population follows the Lutheran religion.

Part of the Swedish Empire since for centuries, Finland became a Russian grand duchy when Sweden handed it over to Russia in 1809 and then got its independence in 1917 when Grand Duke Nicholas II abdicated. The blue lines in the Finnish flag represent its lakes —which number 187,888 — and the white represents the snow that characterizes its winter.

The country’s natural beauty and its historical sites draw visitors both during the cold winter and the temperate summer. You can walk the 715-square-kilometer coastal city of Helsinki in just a few hours, but despite its size, the capital offers plenty of diversions: there are 80 museums, 1,150 restaurants and nearly 100 other popular sights and parks. Among the city’s well-known attractions is the Havis Amanda (Lady of the Sea), a shy nude female statue in a fountain, which is a symbol of the rebirth of Helsinki, and the Uspenski Cathedral, the largest Orthodox Church in Western Europe, with its red bricks and golden cupolas.

You can easily get a detailed schedule of the events taking place in the various cities, the exact locations, departure times and transportation options at any of the Tourist Offices located throughout Finland.

Outdoor activities including boating, cycling, fishing or hiking around the frozen lakes are all popular. Cities outside of Helsinki, such as Lappeenranta, Imatra, Puumala, Anttola, Mikkeli, Savonlinna and Punkaharju, make for interesting road trips.  et

 
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