“My uncle used to study in Mikkeli. He came here from Lebanon in 1996, a long time ago, and it was a difficult time for foreigners to come, especially to study here. He used to tell me a few horror stories. He and his friends had to be in a group to be safe. It was a very difficult time.
I chose to come because of my uncle’s connection to Finland. But of course when I came here in 2009 it was totally different. I applied to Haaga Helia to study business. I was living in Dubai at that time so I moved straight, all the way from Dubai to Riihimäki.
It was funny, for the first month and a half I didn’t know anybody, I didn’t have friends. It was a very small town. Then one day I was at Prisma and there was a bunch of foreigners. They looked like students, I thought they might be studying at HAMK in Riihimäki. So I went and approached them and said “Hey guys what do you do here?” and the dudes they were so surprised. “What, what, what… what is this guy asking for.”
I remember it was a Friday and they were actually making food for a housewarming party. Right there in Prisma they invited me to join them that evening and we started hanging out. If you ask me now, I wouldn’t go up to a stranger in a supermarket because I know how Finnish culture is, how everybody likes their own distance. But at that time I didn’t know, I thought it was normal to approach people like that. Me and my friends used to hang out in ABC gas station during the weekdays, we’d gather there after university and drink coffee. That was the only place to hang out.
During my studies I worked for Posti at night. I would start at midnight, come home at 6am, take a shower, go to the gym, then at 9am I’d have class and I wouldn’t finish till 4pm. I’d work six days in a row and then have two days off. It was difficult. Some nights I would be crying because of the snow and 2010 was the coldest winter, very cold, it snowed a lot. Imagine, -20 and you are full of snow and trying to deliver 500 newspapers to 25 buildings. It was really tough, but it’s good in a way, it’s good… it taught me a lot of lessons, like how it’s not easy to make it in life.
After graduating I realised I wanted to do something of my own. I thought of the food business because I wanted to be my own boss basically. So I tested my ideas on a food truck. At the time I was working as a sales manager from Monday to Thursday and then I was working on the truck from Friday to Saturday at Helsinki railway station and in different events. I got the idea for a food truck when I was in Berlin, then I started asking around in Helsinki. There were only a few trucks in the city then and I would just go up and ask how to get the license and all kinds of other things. We got so much good feedback and regular customers that I have this restaurant now and we’ve been here one year.
I have a dream that one day I will buy my own cottage in Finland because I’m grateful for Finland. It’s given me a lot of things that my own country couldn’t. You start to see things from different perspectives and this is very important. I am grateful for this country, despite the weather. You’ll never have it complete in every way, otherwise you would be in heaven.
Now my friends are telling me “Hey, you should come back to Lebanon”. But I mean, I came here at an early age and I have my friends here, even though I spent my childhood in Lebanon. Still, I’ve spent most of my twenties in Finland and that’s kind of the most important years as a person. So of course it’s becoming my second home country, even though I don’t speak the language.
However, it’s not easy to find Finnish male friends. I had a lot of classmates who were Finnish. In the class you chitchat and everything with a Finnish guy and you feel he is a good person so you propose to have a beer. But the moment you step out of class, step out of university he is a stranger, total stranger to you, you know. But that’s life and I respect Finns in all kinds of ways.
I have one Finnish male friend, close friend of mine. He is actually my girlfriend’s friend’s boyfriend. He doesn’t speak English, but he loves fishing. So that’s the only thing, the common language between me and him. And it’s nice when we go fishing, just me and him. We spend hours together and you know, he tries to speak a bit of English and I practice my Finnish as well. Sometimes I try to help pull out the words from his mouth but often we’re just there in silence. It’s nice.
You know, I’ve got another fishing story. I like fishing a lot and when I came here I wouldn’t dare approach elderly people in English. Well the first time I went fishing was in Arabianranta and there were like 7–8 older people fishing there. I took my chair and just sat down, started throwing my line and everything. I got talking with the guy beside me, a Finnish man in his seventies. We became good friends and he spoke English very well. And you know, every time he goes there to fish he sends me a text message “Hey, I’m going fishing tomorrow, are you coming, should I come and pick you up?” We’ve been fishing together so many times now, it makes me so happy.”
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This interview was recorded in 2017 in Helsinki by Peter Seenan. If you’d like to be involved in this project please visit our contact page and submit the form.