In mid-June Café Rom in the city of Kotka became the first restaurant in Finland to be owned and run by members of the Romani ethnic minority, according to the National Roma Forum of Finland. The café operates out of an old harbour canteen in the Hovinsaari area.
The café's logo is the international Romani (or Roma) flag, accepted in the first World Romani Congress in 1971, and banners bearing information about Roma history and culture deck the interior. The décor also features a life-sized dummy adorned in a traditional Romani woman's outfit.
Allan Bollström, chair of the local Kaakonkulma Romani association, says the café means to be a place where stereotypes and prejudices about the ancient ethnic group can be lifted, and where relations with non-Roma Finns can be improved. Everybody is welcome, Bollström says.
"Romani have been stereotyped as violent and lazy throughout history. This café is here so that we can show our customers that we are normal Finnish citizens."
Bollström describes Café Rom as a bridge between the Romani and Finland's majority population.
"That bridge hasn't collapsed, but prejudice and misinformation still exist," he says. "Our café is a key to change that. We are prepared to answer any questions our customers might have."
Anti-Roma racism still common
In early summer three separate occasions surfaced of Romani being treated poorly or discriminated against by non-Roma customer service employees.
In May a petrol station in Vantaa refused to sell a Romani family fuel for their car. In early June a bartender in the Iltakoulu restaurant in Helsinki also refused a Romani man service. And just two weeks ago an employee of the Sariola Carnival discriminated against a Romani family, when he played a racist anti-Roma song over the loudspeakers. In two of the three cases a young Roma child was also present.
Ethnic profiling researcher Markus Himanen from the University of Helsinki says that anti-Roma racism has remained socially acceptable to this very day. However, he also says that times appear to be changing in that regard.
Romani man Dimitri Lindeman from the seaside town of Hamina is studying to be a director of Romani culture. He is currently one of Café Rom's three employees, a job he took as part of his academic work placement.
"Security guards follow us around, and some places don't even let us in," he says. "But I've personally noticed a drop in discrimination in many places. I hope that we can change these attitudes for the better."
With a diverse cultural history spanning more than a millennium, it is only in recent years that Roma in Finland have started to organise local communities, as in the region of Kymenlaakso.
Within two years Romani associations have been founded in Kouvola and the Kotka-Hamina area. Ballpark estimates put the number of Romani people living in these places at about a hundred and some sixty respectively.
"The Romani are scattered everywhere at the moment," says Lindeman. "Now we have something tangible that connects us, this place where we can meet and catch up."
The old mess hall is owned by the city of Kotka, which has allowed the association to use it as they see fit. The city also supported the startup café by allocating a 2,800-euro allowance and an interest-free loan of 3,700 euros.