Helsinki, 14 June 1995.
Finland's Romani, as Gypsies call themselves worldwide,
are 6,500 to 10,000 strong, outnumbering the roughly 2,500 indigenous Samis,
or Lapps. They are largely treated by white Finns as outsiders, though
they have lived in Finland since the 16th century.
During this century, the Finnish government tried to assimilate the
Gypsies into the dominant population. The most extreme methods, including
placing Gypsy children in state-run children's homes, were practiced until
as late as 1970.
Despite 1992 legislation giving all Finnish citizens the right to their
own culture and equal protection under the law, Gypsies are still considered
an aberration among the largely homogeneous population.
Often referred to as mustalaisia, a derogatory term from the
root musta, or black, Finland's dark-haired, olive-skinned Gypsies
have always been on the fringes of Finnish society. Partly due to their
centuries-old resistance to integration and partly because of the prejudice
surrounding them, chances that their relations with society will vastly
improve remain slim.
Gypsies here have been found to be worse off both
economically and socially than other Finns, according to independent research
carried out by the Advisory Board on Romani Affairs under the Finnish Ministry
of Social Affairs and Health.
Many Gypsies live on welfare or early retirement pensions, and their
education and living conditions are far below the national average, the
Board reported. Although a handful of Gypsy artists are well-known, few
Gypsies in Finland have skilled professions and they are more likely to
be jobless than other Finns.
"Most Finns say that the mustalaisia are lazy, that they don't
want to work, and that they are not able to perform ordinary jobs. They
say they're dishonest and irresponsible," says Yrjo Kalliokuusi, director
of the Finnish Gypsy Mission, a Christian organization that helps Gypsies
gain access to housing and education.
Stereotypes in code
Finland forbids ethnic discrimination in the workplace,
and a recently adopted law mandates that newspapers cannot identify people
by race. But if a Finnish newspaper writes that a "22-year-old pensioner"
was involved in a petty crime, readers know that is code for a Gypsy, says
Antti Seppala, the government's Ombudsman for Aliens.
But people like Astrid Bollstrom, resent such insinuations. The divorced
mother of five blames the state for the problems Gypsies face. Politicians
"take everything away from the poor people, and now the new government
is taking benefits away from the kids."
Ms. Bollstrom, who depends on state subsidies to support her family,
says she is too busy taking care of her children to work outside the home.
"I have tried to move to a new house, but the government doesn't give
us anything," she says at the Mission, where she came for assistance.
Few Finnish Gypsies are nomadic these days, although they tend to change
residences more often than other Finns. About 15,000 to 20,000 Gypsies
live in the Nordic countries. Finland's Gypsies arrived when this nation
was still part of the Kingdom of Sweden, and about 3,000 Finnish-speaking
Gypsies still reside within Swedish borders.
Traditions in peril
Most Gypsies in Finland prefer to wear their national
dress: dark suits for men, and luxurious hoop-skirts with velvet aprons
and silk ruffles for women. But other traditions have been lost: most are
now members of the Lutheran Church, like the majority of Finns, and speak
Finnish as their mother tongue.
The Romani language, which has its own dialects, has weakened in Finland
over the past 20 years. The development of the written language did not
begin until the 1960s. While Romani is now taught in some schools, lobbying
to make it the third official language after Finnish and Swedish has fallen
on deaf ears.
Many Gypsies pin their hopes for national revival on the new generation.
"I want my daughter to marry a Gypsy because that's her culture," Bollstrom
says. Her eldest daughter Soraja prefers Western clothing, but says she
will don the Gypsy costume when she gets older. "I'll throw her out of
the house if she marries a white boy," Bollstrom says.
Others counter that women have it hard in Gypsy families. "White people
earn more money than we do, so they can take care of their families better,"
says Iida Blomerus, whose late husband was a well-known tango singer. With
seven children, 20 grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren, she has
been forced to supplement her income by selling handmade lace.
"The men don't work so much, so the women have to sell handicrafts to
support themselves," she says, a basket of tatted lace tablecloths and
collars in her lap.