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A refugee turned role model

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With Finland turning more to the political right, a Cambodian-born refugee is an unlikely advocate for workers rights and the virtues of multiculturalism

Photo by: NORA LINDSTROM
Activist and trade unionist Sambeau Sam-Koskitanner says that though she considers Finland her home, she would like to see young women in Cambodia enjoying the same rights she is fighting for.

WE NEED TO COOPERATE ... IF WE ROW IN DIFFERENT DIRECTIONS, THE BOAT WILL TIP OVER.

For Sambeau Sam-Koskitanner, helping and serving others is simply second nature.

So it came as no surprise when the Cambodian-born refugee and activist was awarded Refugee Woman of the Year by the Finnish Refugee Council last year, she said.

"I never considered being rewarded, but of course it felt amazing all the same," Sam-Koskitanner said.
"It was funny though - I kept thinking that I've been Finnish for a good 20 years, and now suddenly I'm Refugee Woman of the Year."

Acknowledging her long-term work in trade unions and other grassroots activism in Finland, Sam-Koskitanner, now 30, was described by the panel as a role model and cultural ambassador.

Together with her surviving family, Sam-Koskitanner settled in Finland in 1988, when she was 9 years old. The family's journey through the jungles of northwest Cambodia and refugee camps in Thailand began as the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia in 1979.

Despite having spent most of her life in Finland, the refugee label has been hard one to shake off.

"I've become so Finnish that I can only visit Cambodia as a tourist," she said. "Even though I wouldn't want to be, I think I'll always be a refugee."

Two cultures in one
Sam-Koskitanner may be a refugee, but she is also fiercely and lovingly Finnish.

"You don't necessarily feel like the country you were born in is your homeland," she said. "Finland is my homeland. I get tears in my eyes when I hear the Finnish national anthem," she said in her near-perfect Finnish.

Yet she will never forget her Cambodian roots. In addition to her trade union activism, Sam-Koskitanner has worked with an educational volunteering project to bolster education in Cambodia.

Her job as an interpreter for the 200 or so Cambodians living in Finland means she is in constant touch with Khmer life and culture.

Describing herself as Finnish-Cambodian, she is the embodiment of multiculturalism, something many of her Finnish compatriots see as a threat.
"It is my life's work to convince people that we need to cooperate; we don't have a choice. If we row in different directions, the boat will tip over," she said.

Not everyone understands her message in what for a long time was a culturally homogenous country. Sam-Koskitanner said people found it difficult to understand why she as a "foreigner" would want to work for the benefit of Finland.

"They say I don't have roots here. But my children and grandchildren will live in Finland, and that to me is already quite a good reason to work for the best of the country. Sometimes I've been able to make people understand this, other times not," she said.
Ice blocks in the sky

Though Sam-Koskitanner may have integrated into Finnish life better than other foreigners, her journey was not without anxiety and tragedy.
Describing the hardships she and her family endured, including the loss of eight of her siblings, she is visibly moved.

"That my past as a refugee was very difficult, that didn't stop me. In contrast, it's made me more determined," she said.
"I'm alive, and thus I have the right as well as duty to help others."

She said that when she stepped onto the aeroplane from the refugee camp, she didn't even realise it was a plane. "All I thought was 'What a nice metallic door opened'.... When the door was finally opened again, we were in a country where the trees had no leaves and some kind of flakes came from the sky," she said.

She realised the tok kok falling from the sky were not like the ice blocks she was used to seeing back home, but snowflakes.
Following her award last year, Sam-Koskitanner was invited to the prestigious President's Independence Day Ball.

"Walking in there, it struck me in what a complete opposition that situation was to my life as a refugee, as well as before reaching the refugee camp," she reflects.

Though her work is centred on Finland, thoughts of Cambodia are not far behind.

"I live in Finland as young, modern woman, and I would like to see women in Cambodia to have that opportunity, too," she said.

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