“I was born in Istanbul and I lived there for a couple of years. After that we moved to Oxford, to England. My parents are architects and they continued the studies they had started in Turkey. We spent a couple of years in England. It was a nice experience. I don’t remember much, but I do remember greenness, there were a lot of parks in England. Huge parks, where we played football with my father.
I also remember multicultural kids. I fell in love with this girl my age when I was maybe 5–6. Or I really liked a girl in kindergarten, and I said to my mother, “Mum, I like this girl, and she is called Selvi.” My mother was like, “What?! That’s a Turkish name, Ozan.” “No, it’s not,” I said. Then she asked if the girl had sisters or brothers and I told that she had a sister called Reyhan. My mother pointed out that it was the name of my grandmum, and maybe they were Turkish. Later we found out that my mum was right, they were Turkish.
After that we went back to Turkey and my parents divorced. Then my mum got a job offer in Cyprus and she took me and my sister there. She ended up marrying a German man, so suddenly we were a family with a German stepfather. My father met his new Finnish wife and went back to England. All of a sudden we had this family, which was like… I mean we were a normal Turkish family, but we became an international family. My father lived there for a couple of years with my stepmum and then they moved to Finland in 1998 I think.
OZAN YANAR: “I never played in the Finnish national team in any age, so it’s nice to play in a Finnish shirt with your name on it”
I remember that I wanted to get out of Cyprus, it was a small place, I didn’t feel like there were opportunities to do anything. I kept on saying to mum that we should move back to Istanbul. It was a big city, there were opportunities and I wanted to become a football player. My mum was like, “You know Ozan, I have a job here and we can’t just suddenly move.” She said that I could call my father and ask him if it would be alright to move to Finland. Actually, many years later my mum said that it was actually kind of a joke, she hadn’t been so serious. But at the time I took it seriously and I called my father and said, “Hi Dad, can I come to Finland?” He said, “Of course, come on, wow.”
I moved here when I was 14 after having lived in Cyprus for five years. The football was one thing, I really thought that I could be a pro when I was 14. I started playing football in Finland after four days. I was pretty excited about it. I played at B-level, which is the under-17 age group. The top league at under-17. My friend Perparim Hetemaj plays in Chievo in Serie A. There are other players from my time. Roman Eremenko played in Moscow for many years, I played against him. And then yesterday I was watching HJK against HIFK. In that game two players were good friends of mine. Nosh A Lody, the tallest guy on the pitch. I have known Nosh since I was like 14–15. Then Esa Terävä, number 13, in HIFK. He was our captain in that under-17 team, in the midfield, passing to me. I was left-winger. I love football. If I see a ball I will try and do something with it, I love it.
Actually this year I went with the Finnish parliament’s football team to Hamburg, Germany, to play against the German, Swiss and Austrian parliaments. We have the parliamentary tournaments and they are really fun. You play against MPs, you get to know people and score goals in the Finnish shirt. I have been dreaming about scoring a goal in a Finnish shirt since my teenage years. I never played in the Finnish national team in any age, so it’s nice to play in a Finnish shirt with your name on it. This is somehow how I compensate.
It’s not like you just become a footballer, there is a lot of competition. I was a good footballer, but not a star. I was realistic. When I was 18 I remember talking with my father and he was saying, “Ozan, you are good and you can play this and maybe be in Veikkausliiga. But, you know, think about what you want.” The tough thing about being a football player is what will you do after you are 35. I’m 30 and I feel like I am at the start of my political career, or anyway just starting my career. And then you see my friends who are 25–30, but after 10 years they won’t be able to play at that level, what will they do? They have to make decisions. I’m happy with my decision. I was not that good.
OZAN YANAR: “Being an MP in Finland I can still go on with my life normally”
Being an MP in Finland I can still go on with my life normally. I can go out partying and all that. I mean, of course my life has changed. Before I was just a normal guy when I went to the university parties, just like one of us. It was nice too with friends, but right now when I go there to see all my friends at university then people who are a little bit younger, let’s say first-graders, might be like, “Wow, Ozan Yanar is here.” I’m not used to that kind of attention. People are calling me by my full name. It’s also a strange thing – not just at the university, but in the broader society – people might come and talk to you. It’s strange, but it’s nice, I do love it.
The only problem is that some people have an idea about you before you even open your mouth. They see your public profile and they might even think they know you. It’s a new phase in my life. But Finland is a society where we don’t have hierarchies, which is good. I don’t have a car or a driver’s license, so every day I go to my job with the metro or public transport. My Turkish grandmum was a bit shocked that MPs are not given cars, but I told her it’s fine. She doesn’t know Finnish society, so she compares it to Turkey. I love being in the public. Of course it’s a bit tough sometimes if you have a hard day and you want to be with yourself. Like yesterday when I was coming from the football match, chatting with my friend, some guy shouted, “Ozan, I voted for you!” That happens sometimes, people even hug me on the streets.
I think I’m really visible, because I look different. And people might remember me faster if they see me on TV. It has positive and negative effects. I have had a couple of incidents. Those things make me sad, I don’t understand racism. I’m really open to discussion. I think if someone comes to me and says that they don’t see things in the same way then that’s beautiful, that’s fine. I can talk with that person all day long, no problem. But when someone comes and shouts at me and says, “Go back where you come from,” I don’t understand that. Why should I go back? This is also my country. Actually I have said on some Yle interview that it’s a pity if someone thinks that my kind of people, darker Finnish people, do not have a place in this society as decision makers. Pity, but they have to get used to it. I mean, I’m not going anywhere. Like, WE are not going.
OZAN YANAR: “I see identities as layers, you build these layers on top of each other and you have a unique combination in the end”
When I came to the parliament I didn’t want to become this foreigner mascot. I represent everyone – I’m a Finn – not just the minorities. When I moved to Finland I was pretty motivated because I had been living in different countries. I was born in Turkey, lived in England and Cyprus. I didn’t feel like I had a home. So I thought that I have to make this new country of mine home. I felt somehow rootless. My friends were really nice to me, they took me close in class and football. I remember that the first month in school people were speaking English to me, because it was somehow really cool for the teenagers. It was fun for them to have someone who spoke English. I remember in school one time when we were eating someone was telling a joke in Finnish and everyone was laughing, but I didn’t understand anything. I asked one of the guys what it was and he said, “Ozan, you have to learn Finnish, this can’t go on.” It was fun to speak English for one month, but then they switched and said they won’t speak English to me at all. Then I learned Finnish really quickly.
I love my dad, he is wonderful. He has been my everything, he supports me. Without him I would not be here, seriously. He is my idol. He didn’t learn Finnish. One of the reasons is that he told me that when he speaks English he is considered an international person. But then when he speaks Finnish he is… somehow, people look at him as a person who doesn’t have the same value as other people. This is why people with a higher education might not learn Finnish. My father works here and does a lot of things all the time, and has taught at universities. But this is a problem in this country. If your Finnish is not perfect they look at you like a foreigner. And if you speak English you are suddenly an international person.
For me home is now definitely Finland, I have been living here for 16 years. But every time I go to Turkey I feel like a part of my identity is from there and I have to think about my identity again. I was in Istanbul recently and met some of my school friends, a reunion. One of my friends is in Canada, I’m in Finland and a couple are in Istanbul and one in Cyprus. So I think, am I Turkish, what part of me is Turkish? My dad once said to me that identities don’t exclude each other, you can be Turkish and Finnish, or whatever, at the same time. I see identities as layers, you build these layers on top of each other and you have a unique combination in the end.”
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Interview by Peter Seenan recorded in Helsinki, Finland in 2017. If you wish to support our work in sharing the reflections of people who’ve moved to Finland please like our Facebook page and share Ozan’s story.