End of the line

End of the line

Nearing the Arctic Circle, refugees ask: “What is this place?”

Published on November 25, 2015


The buses are coming. No one knows when, how many, or exactly who will be in them, only that they are coming — buses filled with refugees who began their journeys thousands of miles away and will arrive any day now at their final destination, this remote town in the piney forest of eastern Finland.

“I want to know how long they’ve been traveling,” one town resident says, helping to prepare an old empty hospital to house them.

“I was wondering if they have families,” says another, who is fitting gurneys with donated sheets bearing the image of Justin Bieber.

“And the whole situation — the war situation,” says another, who is taping “No smoking” signs in Arabic to the walls. “I want to ask about that.”

Above: Refugees, primarily from Iraq, walk from a bus station in Sweden to Finland. They are en route to a makeshift customs checkpoint in Tornio, Finland.


EXODUS | Desperate migrants, a broken system

This is part of an occasional series examining the causes and impact of a global wave of migration driven by war, oppression and poverty.

Other stories in the series

A Libyan militia confronts the world%u2019s migrant crisis
A smugglers’ haven in the Sahara
A global surge in refugees leaves Europe struggling to cope
Tiny Gambia has a big export: Migrants desperate to reach Europe
The ‘Black Route’ to Europe, and the story of a Syrian family who braved it

There are so many questions, and so far, all that the 22,000 residents of Siilinjarvi know about who might be coming is what they’ve seen on the news: People pouring out of Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and countries in Africa. A little boy who drowned and washed up on a shore in Turkey. Seventy-one refugees suffocated in a smuggler’s truck in Austria. Crowds being tear-gassed in Hungary. A vast, ever-growing line of more than 750,000 people zigzagging all across mainland Europe as far west as France, where on this October day the Paris attacks are still a month away, and in increasing numbers heading north.

Into Germany, where a government that has registered more than 500,000 refugees this year has begun to discuss limits. On to Denmark, where officials began offering free passage north into Sweden. On to Sweden, where officials last month began offering free buses all the way to the northeastern border — a one-way refugee express to the very last place it is plausible to go: Finland, beyond which is nothing except Russia and the Arctic Circle.

“This is like the final stop,” says Jaana Vuorio, director general of the Finnish Immigration Service in Helsinki. “Nobody goes to Russia. This is the end.”

Until now, only about 3,000 refugees reached Finland most years in the orderly processes established by the United Nations, the European Union and Finland itself after World War II. Finnish officials estimate that 30,000 people will arrive by the end of the year, or perhaps it will be 50,000. The number keeps changing, even as a frantic improvisation is underway to send refugees to cities and towns across the country including, soon, Siilinjarvi, whose population includes exactly two refugees, a Somali man and his wife who arrived in 1992.

“We need to have all the rooms ready,” says Eija Teerineva, whose organization has a contract with the Finnish government to prepare the hospital.

“Also we will have guards soon,” she tells the volunteers, who know that refugees have been greeted with rock-throwing protests in some towns.

Will there be rock-throwers in Siilinjarvi? People are wondering about that, and about everything else being debated across Europe as the continent faces its biggest influx of refugees in 50 years. How should a nation balance its obligations to humanity with its responsibilities to its own citizens? Is there a point at which a nation’s identity is lost? How many refugees should a nation, or a town like Siilinjarvi, take in? All of them? Some of them? None?

“They will need lots of clothes,” says a volunteer at the hospital.

“Some will arrive with short pants and sandals, and it’s going to be winter this week,” says another. “Snow is coming from Lapland.”

An Iraqi family with small children waits at a security checkpoint to be taken to a police registration center in Tornio, Finland.

Snow is coming, and meanwhile, thousands of miles away in places where temperatures are hovering around 100 degrees, word is spreading on social media that the place to go at this moment is Finland.

Syrians are on the way, and Afghans, too. But more than any other group, it is Iraqis who are coming, flying to Istanbul, driving to Izmir, boarding rickety boats to Greece, blending into the long march across Europe, making their way to Sweden and the free buses to a final, barely discernible seam in the asphalt that is the border between the Swedish town of Haparanda and the Finnish town of Tornio.

As envisioned by the European Union, this was supposed to be an unguarded border where shoppers could move freely.

Now, though, there are bomb-sniffing dogs and black-booted border guards, one of whom is walking toward a woman from Afghanistan who has just crossed from Sweden with dozens of others on a cold Sunday morning.

“What is the name of this place?” she asks.

“Tornio,” he says pleasantly.

“Tornio,” she says, repeating the name to the man next to her, who types it into his smartphone, and now another man whispers “Tornio, Tornio” as the guards separate people into lines that move into a school transformed into a refugee registration center.

“Valkommentill Finland!” says a sign inside the gym, where on this day more than 550 refugees will be fingerprinted and asked to fill out asylum applications.

“I have family,” an Iraqi man says to a guard as he enters the school, pointing to a young man separated into a different line.

“What kind of family?” the guard asks. “Wife? Brother?”

“Cousin,” the man says, growing more desperate.

“You will meet him later,” the guard says without elaborating that later might mean weeks, or months, because no one knows how any of this will play out. Because even as the lines are lengthening in Tornio, Finland’s president is talking about his country’s generosity and “responsibility to humanity.” And even as he is saying that, the head of Finland’s immigration service is saying, “There will be more negative decisions.”

And meanwhile, in Tornio, the Iraqi man stops looking at his cousin and says to the guard, “Okay, okay.”

Volunteers Anne-Marja Nerg, foreground, and Johanna Ihalainenin move beds and mattresses into a former hospital that will house incoming refugees in Siilinjarvi.

Nearby, a man named Magid holds up a left hand missing two fingers. “In market — bomb,” he says.

“In the sea, so many died with us,” another Iraqi man named Wissam says as he enters the new registration center.

“Here is Finland?” someone asks.

“Here is Finland,” a guard says.

“It is very beautiful,” says an 18-year-old from Baghdad.

“Very nice,” says an Iraqi woman from Anbar province.

“I thank God, but we wait about the rest,” says another young man from Baghdad holding a battered suitcase. He looks around.

Cars pass, but the drivers keep their eyes focused straight ahead. A man on a bike stops and watches the long line of people crossing the road.

In a few days, they will all get into buses and leave Tornio, and because everything is so uncertain, no one will know where they are going — not even the driver — until an official radios the destination miles into the journey.

After that, some will keep heading east. The highway will become a two-lane. The two-lane will at times become gravel. Soon, the landscape will become forests of birch trees and skinny pines, a long curtain of green, and six hours after leaving Tornio they will arrive at a faint cluster of lights that is Siilinjarvi, a town of winding roads and neat brick homes where, at the moment, it is late afternoon.

At the old hospital on the hill, a volunteer has finished painting over graffiti someone sprayed in the driveway the night before: “Refugees Out.” Just down the little hill, someone has removed a swastika flag draped on an overpass, and a bit further, people are filing into town hall for a hastily called meeting.

A woman walks her dog past a landmark Lutheran church near downtown Siilinjarvi. Mika Korhonen and Mika Oksman show their dismay at a public forum on the influx of refugees in Siilinjarvi. Jari Karjalainen and girlfriend Riitta Vaananen discuss their concerns about refugees moving into the hospital next door in Siilinjarvi.

“Conversation About Asylum Seekers, 5:30 p.m.,” reads the sign in the lobby of the plain brick building, where employees usually handle health care, day care and the schedules of the local moose-hunting and accordion clubs.

Now a volunteer is handing out fliers that read “What is a Refugee?” A room with blond wood tables is filling up with retirees, young couples, students and a few men with buzz cuts and tattoos on folded arms.

“Everything has proceeded very quickly,” the mayor begins, and some people groan and shift in their chairs. The police chief reminds people that racist speech or acts will be prosecuted.

“Keep yourself calm and don’t panic,” he says, and an elderly man raises his hand.

“Why are we the last to hear?” he says, and some people clap.

“Who will pay for their education?” someone asks, and there is more clapping.

“Why is it only young men who are coming, very strong young men?” another man asks. “Are they real refugees? Also, with young women, there are some issues with rape.”

Soon the only dark-skinned person in the room stands up, an Ethiopian-Finn named Tsega Kiflie, who works at a refugee center in another town.

“You can see I have a lot of suntan here,” he begins in Finnish, laughing nervously. “I understand this issue interests you a lot. The fear is realistic. I also have two boys, and I understand. But as the police say, we have to testify to our values.”

When the meeting ends, a couple named Jari Karjalainen and Riitta Vaananen drive home, where the view through their front window is the hospital on the hill, dark now except a few lights on the fifth floor where volunteers are working late.

They sit at their kitchen table and talk about what it will be like when the hospital is full.

“All males, no females — no hope,” says Karjalainen, shaking his head. “Waiting day after day with nothing to do — it’s bad energy.”

“The situation with women in their culture is so different,” says Vaananen, referring to Muslim societies. “Anna was talking about it — Anna!” she calls to her daughter, and in comes tall, blond Anna.

“Yes, I’m concerned about men trying to rape young women,” the teenager says.

They worry about that. They worry about whether there might be terrorists among the refugees, and how it is almost taboo in Finland to express concern about how any of this might change the country for the worse.

“They say you’re a racist or a Nazi,” Karjalainen says.

Next door, Liisa and Markku Laakkonen are having their own conversation.

“I trust those refugees coming, but I don’t trust our own people,” Markku says.

“They are afraid of something they don’t know,” Liisa says.

“We are thinking in a cosmopolitan way,” Markku says.

“We have to be international,” Liisa says. “Not like an island — we can’t be here in this small little island of Finland.”

Iraqi refugees unknowingly walk past graffiti that had been painted over by officials days prior. Newly arrived Iraqi refugees attract the attention of locals while walking in a grocery store in Siilinjarvi. Refugees use a sauna inside a reception center as a smoking room after arriving in Siilinjarvi.

This is not the first time refugees have come to Finland, but the post-World War II history is short. A few Chileans in the 1970s. Around 3,000 Vietnamese in the 1980s — people selected from refu­gee camps and settled in towns that chose how many they would accept. One town, for instance, took five.

Then in the early 1990s came an unplanned influx of some 4,000 Somalis fleeing civil war, many of whom came via Moscow, which had a Cold War policy of issuing visas to Somalis. Their arrival coincided with a recession and gave rise to gangs of skinheads and the anti-immigration Finns party, an episode that came to be known as “Somali shock.”

Among the 4,000 was Bashir Hassan, who was sent to Siilinjarvi.

He remembers getting used to his ears always feeling frozen. He remembers his first Finnish word, terve, which means “healthy.” It was difficult getting used to how reserved Finns can be, but he felt welcome. After five years, he became a Finnish citizen.

“I learned how to live here,” says Hassan, a metal worker with two sons in the Finnish military. “I think the Finnish people are honest and good people.”

Somali refugee Bashir Hassan trains to become a welder at the Savo Consortium for Education in Toivala, Finland. Hassan fled to Finland in 1992 and ultimately decided to settle his family in the small community of Siilinjarvi.

That is how things can go for one refugee. But now tens of thousands are coming, and once again as Finland is struggling to pull out of a recession.

“How many will stay this time?” asks Siilinjarvi’s mayor, Vesa Lotjonen, who is worried about how the town will afford the influx. “By Finnish law, we are obliged to give municipal services, day care, school, education, health care.”

And they will, he says, because Finland is part of the European Union and “there are agreements. We must take responsibility for those that come to us.”

But how? Claiming to stand for Finnish values, the Finnish prime minister offered his vacation home to refugees. Claiming to stand for Finnish values, a Finns party parliamentarian wrote of the “nightmare called multiculturalism,” vowing to “fight ’til the end for One True Finnish nation.”

In Helsinki, there have been pro-refugee demonstrations; in the southern town of Lahti, people met a refugee bus with torches and rocks. One man dressed in a Ku Klux Klan outfit.

In Siilinjarvi, word is spreading that not only are the refugees arriving soon but that a second refugee center is being set up — this one at a Lutheran camp 30 miles into the woods by a lake.

So there is a second hastily called meeting, this one at a chapel at the camp, where a volunteer hands out laminated lawn signs that read, in Arabic, “Access is strictly prohibited!” Inside, a minister begins.

“It is deep in our values that we always want to side with people who are in trouble,” he says, and now a man with a beard raises his hand.

“What kind of people are expected? Lone single men or families?” he asks.

“Are they Sunni or Shiite?” another man asks.

“A question for the police,” the bearded man says, asking if other towns have had problems with refugees. “An honest answer, please.”

“There have been some arguments, but we should not exaggerate,” the police chief says.

The bearded man raises his hand again. “I have a question about rapes. . . . Who is responsible if something like that happens? I want names of the responsible people,” he says, raising his voice. “We have children, and they walk to school and back every day. If something happens to them . . . ”

“Calm down,” the police chief says.

“No — I won’t calm down,” the man says, his face getting red.

“Is security going to be here all the time?” another man asks.

Yes,” the priest says wearily as people fan themselves with laminated signs, and the bearded man stares straight ahead at a cross, his arms folded.

“I’ve lived in Iran,” a man begins. “We were warned that we should not walk alone.”

“I used to live in East Savonia,” another woman says. “There was a black man walking in the road. I bumped into him. It was dark, and I couldn’t see him. They should wear reflective vests.”

“In Sweden, there are gangs.”

“In Iran, people drive on the left.”

An elderly woman raises her hand.

“They will be more than us,” she says. “We will be a minority here.”

Now the priest looks around the room.

“Are there any more questions?” he asks. “If you have them, you can answer in your own minds — do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

The next morning, an official from Tornio calls the hospital.

A bus is coming tonight, just one for now, 49 people total, 39 from Iraq, six from Afghanistan, two from Syria, one from Morocco, one from an Algeria, no women, no children, all men.

Refugees, mostly from Iraq, walk to a bus to be processed by police upon arrival in Tornio, Finland.

It is after 1 a.m. when the headlights of the bus appear at the bottom of the hill. The night is clear and freezing, and Kiflie, the Ethiopian-Finn, and two Arabic translators hurry outside the hospital as the bus comes to a stop.

The door opens, and a man with a backpack walks out. He looks around.

“God help us,” he says.

Another man steps out and puts on a jean jacket.

“Where am I from?” he says, practicing his English. “Iraq.”

“Are we in the middle of nowhere?” someone asks.

“Are we going to stay here?” says a man holding a plastic yellow bag and a backpack.

“I need a doctor,” an elderly man says.

Salaam aleikum,” a man says to the translator, who pats the man’s back and ushers the line inside — “Keep going, keep going,” he says — up five flights of stairs and into what had been a hospital waiting room, where they sit on leather couches and chairs, lean against walls and sit on the floor. Kiflie looks at them in the bright fluorescent light.

Eyes are bloodshot. A man’s bare heels are jutting out of a pair of too-small tennis shoes. Another rubs his knee and groans.

“I have seen from TV that you’ve been alone, that you’ve traveled far and across difficult roads,” Kiflie says before starting to assign rooms. “Now you are safe.”

The first busload of refugees arrives around 1 a.m. at a former hospital they will call home in Siilinjarvi. Most are Iraqi men in their 20s seeking asylum in the country.

Now it is morning. Abbas Rubaee, 32, wakes up at 10 a.m., reaches for his phone and calls his wife in Baghdad. Siilinjarvi, he tells her, trying to pronounce it. A hospital, he says. She says her son wants to talk.

“I miss you, my father,” the 7-year-old says.

“Just be patient — you will come here soon,” Rubaee tells him, even though he has no idea when he might see him or his daughter, who was born just before he left three weeks ago.

He hangs up and looks around his room. White walls. Sheets with the huge pouting face of Justin Bieber. A large window, where he can see a blue sky with pearly clouds, the yellowing leaves of birch trees and the edge of a lake.

What is this place? He wonders about that, and about the people who live in it, and whether anyone will ask about how he came to be here. How he was a lieutenant in the Iraqi police and a Shiite — Will anyone know what a Shiite is? How, in Baghdad, he was under pressure to join the Shiite militias fighting the Islamic State. Will anyone know what that means?

“It means you must kill Sunnis, you must kill Shiites, you must take their homes, you take their cars. And if you don’t, they say you are a traitor, and they kill you,” he says.

Abbas Rubaee, who seeks asylum, assesses what will be his temporary residence in Siilinjarvi on Oct. 11. Rubaee was an Iraqi police officer until he says the political climate became too dangerous.

Maybe he will tell people how he fought during the war, in Najaf and Sadr City, and trained with U.S. forces. Or that he has buried seven members of his family so far, most recently a cousin killed in a bomb blast. Maybe he will tell them that actually, they only buried his cousin’s head, legs and one hand, which was all they could find afterward.

Probably someone will ask, “Why Finland?” He will tell them what he heard on Facebook — that Finland is “generous” to Iraqis, and that when he saw the TV images of refugees flooding into Europe, he thought the time to leave is now.

He may try to convey how it felt stepping into a smuggler’s boat in Turkey — how wobbly it was under his foot, how powerless he felt. He held hands with other passengers and whispered to children not to be afraid, although “in my heart, I thought we would die.”

He might tell them how he made it all the way across Europe, walking, standing on trains, sitting in buses, all the way to Tornio, where he says some police officers laughed at him and said, “‘You will be here for 21 days and then back to Iraq.’”

But now he is here, 6,000 miles from Baghdad. He rubs his face.

He walks into the hallways of the hospital, and the floors feel thick and solid under his feet. The volunteers are kind, but now he needs to find out how the rest of Siilinjarvi will treat him. Will they throw rocks? Will they smile? Will they be afraid? Will he?

“I must go out into the street,” Rubaee says.

So he and his friends go, out the front doors and into the cold and bright day.

Rubaee pulls up the hood of his sweatshirt. He looks at the statue in front of the hospital, a barefooted boy playing the flute. He looks up at the Finnish flag. He looks across the street at the row of apartments. He heads left, down the little hill.

A car passes, and the driver glances at him. Rubaee glances back.

He keeps walking down the hill toward town. He starts walking faster, and faster, and because he is elated, and scared, and safe, and sad, and exhausted, he starts running. And now he is running as fast as he can.

EXODUS | Desperate migrants, a broken system This is part of an occasional series examining the causes and impact of a global wave of migration driven by war, oppression and poverty.

Other stories in the series

A Libyan militia confronts the world’s migrant crisis
A smugglers’ haven in the Sahara
A global surge in refugees leaves Europe struggling to cope
Tiny Gambia has a big export: Migrants desperate to reach Europe
The ‘Black Route’ to Europe, and the story of a Syrian family who braved it

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