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After Four Centuries in Finland, Gypsies Still Live on the Fringe

SLIM, dark, and classically handsome, Heikki Lampela worked as a part-time fashion model to finance his law degree, his aquiline features advertising menswear and cologne on the pages of Finland's national newspapers.

In his student days, Mr. Lampela's face was familiar in almost every household in Helsinki. But because of his Gypsy heritage, he was not always a welcome sight in the capital's eating establishments.

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"In restaurants where I had never been before, people told me, 'Get out of here. We don't like Gypsies,' " says Lampela, whose late father descended from mixed Gypsy blood. "They said, 'We've had your kind in here before, and you've made troubles for us.' "

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.

"People in Finland hate Gypsies," says Lampela from his office on one of the trendier streets of Helsinki, where he practices law. With his blond, blue-eyed mother, he began to think of himself as part Gypsy only when he began to experience racial discrimination, he says. "They don't want Gypsies to come into society because they don't like them. And Gypsies have their own society. The Finnish lifestyle and the Gypsy lifestyle are like day and night."

He ran unsuccessfully for parliament twice and plans to run again in 1999, although he says the press took more interest in his ethnicity than his politics.

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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.

But for people like Lampela, all this talk about ethnic roots is meaningless. "If we're talking about a dog, does it matter what pedigree it is? Why should it matter with people?" he asks angrily. "People use their eyes here, they don't use their brains. They don't ask how you feel inside."

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