Tukikeskus hilma

My experiences in Finland as a foreign student with a disability

I first visited Finland in the summer of 2008 over an exchange visit. It was so beautiful and people were out in the sun having fun. I thought that this is a place where I would love to live.

Fast-forward to 2013, I was thinking about a place to go and study, where I would get inspiration for my work and the thoughts brought me back to the beautiful Finland I had seen in 2008. I decided to come back to Finland for studies. Arriving in autumn, it was a rainy day and I thought, itís just a bad day, it will get better. But it got worse.

People who talked to me about winter before it came didnít help at all, they actually scared me on what I would experience. When winter came, I asked God, where am I? And why did I come here? I had never experienced anything like that. I had so many questions why Finnish people came and settled here. Some of my Finnish friends have made jokes about their own theories on that. And the closest one I could relate with is that probably they came here in summer, like I did, and just fell in love with this land. I donít know what it is about winter, the darkness, the unfriendliness of people, the coldness, the falling in the snow or maybe just the idea of wearing more clothes than I weigh, but I somehow survived it. And I told myself that, I have so much respect for Finnish people, that despite how hard it is to go on with life under those bad winter days, they still push on. To me, they must possess something inside them that is admirable.

The winter was not the only difficulty I experienced in Finland. The language barrier was another problem. And the culture of individualism here is just too extreme for me, it made me so lonely and miss home so much. Sitting on the metro or bus, I observed how people will avoid eye contact at all costs or even saying anything to a stranger. In my country, we are always talking to strangers. Itís not strange at all to start laughing and making jokes with the person you sit next to on the bus. At first I got the impression that Finnish people are unfriendly and antisocial but slowly learnt that thatís just the culture here.

As a person who works on issues of disability and disability rights, back in Zambia, we always have a very heavenly outlook on Finland. And we donít seem to understand what people with disabilities here complain about. We actually donít get it. We even think that maybe people here donít like to admit that they government is doing a great job. Are you serious, you have welfare support? You have the state paying for your assisted help? You have accessibility to most, if not all buildings, on top of that you get paid? Wow, we think this is almost heaven compared to our situation. Just getting a wheelchair is a battle in my country. And if the person with a disability is not working, which is usually the case, then they canít access anything, school, work, or any sort of income for that matter.

Living in Finland as a student with disability started getting real to me slowly. I realized it was not all rosy or heavenly. As a student with disability, I have no access to any of the wonderful benefits provided by the Finnish system. The dumping feeling of being told that you cannot access this service based on your status as a student is quite sad. While the education is free, life here is extremely expensive. There are so many costs of living that make you realize that studying in Finland as a foreign student with disability is very tough. Itís hard to complete the studies. That is topped up with the fact that chances of getting a part-time job as a student with disability are very slim. Many students come to study in Finland and somehow make it through by finding part-time work. This reality is not the same for a student with disability because the available jobs for foreign students which include cleaning are quite hard to do as a person with disability and no one wants to employ you based on that.

Now Iím officially done with my first year of studies. I have a few Finnish friends that have been really supportive of my journey and I sincerely thank them. I look forward to the next two and half years. After surviving the winter and experiencing all that I went through, I feel strong and hopeful. The most important thing is completing my studies.

My lessons in Finland so far are many. Firstly, winter isnít all that bad if you have a job and earn money to buy right clothes and shoes. Secondly, itís important to learn the language, even the basics, to get by every day. Thirdly, always check the weather forecast and Reittiopas before going out, and fourthly, just watch how Finnish people survive and get in their flow. And now its summer, sunny and beautiful, and people are happy and friendly again just like when I first came to Finland in 2008. Itís amazing being in Finland now because of the weather. Plenty smiles.

Yvonne Zimba
is a foreign student with a physical disability. In her home country Zambia she has worked for the Zambian National Association of Persons with Physical Disabilities.

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