Kubilay Kağan Özkan in Helsinki

“I fell in love with Finland because I tried to find the ‘Finnish thing’ – like ice swimming”

Kagan, Turkey

I was born in 1992 in Izmir, Turkey, but my father used to work in the Turkish military so we moved around the country a lot. As a result, I did not really grow up in Izmir or in any specific place. It was nice to meet different people, but it was tough too, to change routine, friends and schools all the time. In the end I think it benefited me to be able to discover the world and meet more people.

I studied management engineering in Turkey, because I was interested in many different things and I moved to Istanbul in 2010. First I felt like I loved the city, the department and working in a really big company – and I wanted to live there. But then friends went abroad and my cousin also so I started to think I wanted to do that too.

I remember when I was coming from a break in Izmir I met a German guy on the bus and we got chatting, he offered me chewing gum. He was doing Erasmus in Istanbul and he was telling me about his experiences. He told me it would be amazing to go somewhere colder, but Spain or Italy wouldn’t change my life much. Slight differences yes, but it would be more more or less like Turkey. Going somewhere else would be more eye-opening, he said.

I had a friend who tried to come to Finland for Erasmus, but didn’t get in. He was fascinated with Finland because he read a book during his childhood about Finland was built. I got interested in Finland as well. I thought I would like to see a developed country and a very different culture.

KAGAN: With all the negative news reporting from Finland I started to question whether I had made the right choice to come for my master’s.

When I applied for Erasmus, I had already decided that I wanted to do something different; experience something totally new. I also had good recommendations from people about Finland. Despite that, Finland was my last choice because I was still thinking I didn’t want to spend all my family’s money. When I got accepted I was so happy to come here. Tampere had Ryanair so that was good and by that time I really wanted to travel to Europe.

I think everyone has a phase here when it starts to get darker and colder, but coming here was nice to escape from 40 degrees heat, and it was still light and sunny, even if it was colder. I liked Tampere – Istanbul is so hectic, so many people and everything is chaotic after all. But it was also very difficult for me. In Istanbul you have the markets, the smells, lights and everything lively. Here I couldn’t buy alcohol after nine or go to the shop when I wanted. I had to change my lifestyle.

It was a bit hard with the dark period during the first half of the Erasmus and speaking English was tough at the start. I hadn’t had so much experience speaking English, so it was not easy to get along with everyone or to get into the the Finnish society. Sometimes I was feeling pretty alone and depressed. I felt like going back half way through, but I decided to stay and try and enjoy it. It was an opportunity for me to stay and experience something new. The second semester I had a much nicer experience with the people and the weather was getting better so I was getting the energy and the life back. I fell in love with Tampere and the life here at that time.

When I was waiting to come to Finland for my master’s, I was following the Finnish news in English and I saw that the economic situation was getting worse in Finland and the situation of foreign people was getting harder because of the refugee crisis. Friends in Finland used to tell me that people were mixing apples and bananas; confusing refugees with all the other foreigners coming from the Middle East. With all the negative news reporting from Finland I started to question whether I had made the right choice to come for my master’s.

KAGAN: I’m a tutor for some students and I was planning to introduce them to ice swimming. It’s like a snowball effect; I got to know ice swimming through a buddy project and now I’m showing it forward. 

I believe Finland didn’t have any previous experience of a huge refugee flood; thus they didn’t have the policies in place to integrate them into society. The same goes with international talents. I believe Finland does not yet know how to get the most out of the international students coming every year and struggling to find jobs. There should be ways to integrate both refugees and international students into the society and economic system. Everyone who comes here has some talent and know-how and it can be utilised in better ways than becoming cleaners or paper deliverers with university diplomas. While there is no problem on attracting talents, Finland has a lot to learn from other developed countries on keeping the talents in the country because it brings a huge economic potential which is a big loss at the moment in my opinion.

I think the reason I fell in love with Finland is that I tried to find the ‘Finnish thing’ or the ‘typical thing’, so I ended up testing all sorts of outdoors things like ice fishing or ice swimming. Now I’m a tutor for some students and I was planning to introduce them to ice swimming. It’s like a snowball effect; I got to know ice swimming through a buddy project and now I’m showing it forward. Finns are not silent; you just need to overcome a barrier. You also need to know how to approach them. Finns are talkative with each other and they’re also really helpful and kind. I think it’s more that they are reserved and shy when it comes to foreigners.

Sometimes being here is frustrating. I don’t have a big ego and I don’t mind working as a cleaner or something. I applied to be a strawberry picker and I got rejected for a delivery job within a day. That was a bit surprising. I don’t get any feedback when I apply for a job and that’s a bit frustrating in my situation. I would happily make a life here. Getting used to the Finnish culture and finding Finnish friends takes time, but after that I think you can live anywhere.

Other eye-opening stories: 

Andruta: “Seeing other women were so comfortable with nudity in the sauna made me more willing to embrace my own body”

Amjad: “At the reception center, we had an invitation from the sauna society and nobody wanted to go, except me”

Greg: “I feel alive, instead of being stuck in some really monotonous routine”

Interview by Peter Seenan recorded in Helsinki, Finland in 2017. If you wish to support our work in projecting the voices and achievements of immigrants in Finland please like our Facebook page and share Kagan’s story. 

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