Contacts, Enthusiasm and `Diversity´

Posted on January 24th, 2008 by Edward Dutton in Employment

65 Degrees North interviews Ildiko Hamos-Sohlo, a Hungarian who has found work as a project manager in Oulu.

Photo:Isabela Ion

Ildiko Hamos-Sohlo seems to brim with enthusiasm and maybe it’s this – along with her ability to speak Finnish – that has helped to get her a job in Oulu relatively quickly.

‘Be active!’ she advises expatriates looking for work in the area. ‘Nobody will help you! You can fill in forms until you die!’

The thirty year-old former teacher arrived in Oulu in summer 2005 and managed to find work through a combination of luck and pro-active networking. There’s a ‘long story’ behind how she got here.

‘My husband is a Finn and we met in 2000 when I was teaching in Oulu as part of an EU project. I got the job because they wanted people from what was then the periphery of the EU!’ she laughs.

Ildiko is an ethnic Hungarian who was raised in Austria but whose family now live in Hungary. She studied Hungarian Literature at the university in Vienna and part of this involved learning Finnish. ‘I don’t know why,’ she adds.

‘I met my husband at the school,’ she continues. ‘He was working as a substitute teacher there.’

Women’s Project in India
As the relationship progressed, the couple did various jobs in various places. Ildiko was a freelance journalist in Austria, she worked for a Hungarian language radio station and after her husband did a Masters Degree in environmental management she went with him to India for the development job he got there.

‘We travelled over land,’ she recalls wistfully. ‘We went through Hungary, Serbia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Iran . . .’

While she was in India – specifically in Rajasthan – Ildiko managed to pick up some of the local language and she also participated in a project dealing with micro-finances of local women.

Upon return from India – also by land – the couple needed to look for jobs. ‘We needed a base for it where we could live cheaply so it was either Hungary, where my parents are, or Oulu. We intended to look for jobs anywhere in the world.’

They chose Oulu. Ildiko’s husband is now studying a PhD at Oulu University on development in northern India while Ildiko works for the ‘Sinni’ resource centre.

Lacking a Network
‘We lack a network,’ Ildiko tells me, of expatriates. ‘Slowly we build up a network. So that was the idea. In October 2005, I felt very lonely. I had nothing to do. So I rang-up a friend of mine – the woman I had stayed with when I was here in 2000 – and she said she was busy because she was going to a presentation at the Women’s Club. She asked if I wanted to come and I said, ‘Yeah!!’’

One of the groups presenting was Sinni, which aims to promote female spheres of life in Oulu. They needed somebody to do PR and training planning. ‘I introduced myself to the lady, I put my papers in. And I just thought, ‘Forget about it!’ but they contacted me to say they needed my thesis and then on the 1st November they asked if I could come and start. I started the next day.’

Ildiko now has her own project on promoting diversity in businesses in Oulu through organising training and presentations.

Diversity Training
‘A lot of Finnish companies say that they want to become more international. But if you really want to employ a foreigner the question is ‘How?’ It’s not racism. They lack basic knowledge of how to deal with a foreigner. They lack sensitivity in particular.’

Ildiko’s courses often involve foreigners teaching Finns, ‘so they realise that they can learn something from them.’ However, those that attend ‘already have the spark’ claims Ildiko. In Finland, she says, you cannot be forced by your employer to attend a course whereas in Hungary you can.

Certainly she feels that her diversity training could stop some recent misunderstandings of foreigners by Finns. ‘Look at this article in Kaleva about attracting more foreigners. It was the same old guys. They probably don’t speak English! Why don’t they read their emails? That forum was such a huge slap in the face for foreigners if they say that they want to attract foreigners! There are so many highly qualified foreigners unemployed and already here!’

‘Look at France!’
Ildiko is convinced that ‘diversity’ is ultimately a good thing even if some dismiss it as a modern mantra.

‘Look at France!’ she gasps. ‘They got in all these foreigners with no idea how to deal with them and they are ghettoised. Finland is in a unique situation. It can see what’s happened in other places and can learn from the mistakes that other countries have made.’

She tells me that the former Finnish city of Viipuri – now in Russia – was very diverse and ‘for this reason it was appealing’ and talented people wanted to go there.

The lack of ‘diversity’ in Oulu is something that Ildiko has found hard to get used to. ‘It’s like people are trained to be the same,’ she speculates, ‘and not to be different. Even some of the newspapers don’t give both points of view. They remind me of newspapers in Communist Hungary.’

Missing Fresh Bread
She’s also been shocked by the lack of small businesses in Oulu. ‘They cling to these chains like K-Market. There is no bakery. I miss fresh bread in the morning! I miss the market! The indoor market here is just sterile and clean. People don’t talk and I can’t do ‘people watching’, which is one of my favourite hobbies!’

‘It’s difficult to get a contact. It’s difficult to get to know Finns. There isn’t the culture here of talking. In my apartment block I made a point of doing ‘smile overkill’ until my neighbours finally talked to me. At first they thought I was from Mars! It’s strange. But they can’t do small talk.’

‘Take up something voluntary’
In many ways, though, Ildiko is positive about Oulu as a place to live. ‘It’s a small city so you can get your name around easily . . . and I love the nature, especially in summer. It’s amazing.’ She also feels that though Finns might seem difficult to get to know they can become very reliable friends if you do get to know them.

But her advice to unemployed expats is to get to know people. ‘Tap into already existing networks. Try to take up something voluntary’ she suggests. She also admits that her ability to speak the language was ‘a big plus. Be active at speaking the language,’ she suggests, ‘try to insist on speaking it with your Finnish friends.’

One of the funniest things that even happened to her in Oulu related to her Finnish. ‘A woman serving me in a shop said, “You have an interesting accent. Are you from Karelia?” I said “No.” She said, “Oh, are you from the USSR then?” I said, “To the best of my knowledge there’s no such country.” She just couldn’t understand so I said, “Look . . . I’m from Hungary . . .”’

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