Viewing entries in


A salute to the White & Blue


By Laura Palotie

In the U.S., Independence Day is celebrated with streamers and fanfare; in Finland, it’s with the quiet glow of torches amidst the falling snow. The 93-year-old nation’s Christmas traditions distinguish themselves with their preference for quiet reflection – our holiday songs are notably melancholy and each December 24th, an official Christmas Peace is declared. December 6th, the day marking our independence from Russia, fits right into the season. The streets quiet down, the windows become dotted with white-and blue candles, and most families opt to celebrate at home. The day’s flashiest celebration, the president’s Independence Day reception, is greeted each year by a group of loud protesters who view the event (modest and toned-down by most head-of-state standards) as an elitist occasion for the rich and privileged.

Yesterday, my second Independence Day in Finland after 11 spent in the U.S., I braved the blizzard and headed to central Helsinki to observe what my friend coined “the most patriotic tradition a Finn can partake in": a torchlight procession made up of students at the University of Helsinki. Wearing their white graduation caps, the students make their way through the epicenter of the city and congregate on Senate Square where the all-male Helsinki University Chorus sings Sibelius’s Finlandia.


Their singing is a textbook example of the unabashed power of dynamics and intonation, and listening to Veikko Antero Koskenniemi’s lyrics of a small country retaining its footing through years of oppression is the perfect cure for the ignorance that frequently stems from privilege. The sea of torches, made up of individual students who, simply enough, want to be part of it all, is the sincerest way of expressing that our generation hasn’t yet taken independence for granted. No gunshots or fireworks needed.



Arctic Jungle Fashion Gala: Partying for a good cause


A few weeks ago Finland Center Foundation helped to put fun back into fundraising. Some 150 party people gathered at La Pomme club for the The Arctic Jungle Fashion Gala, socializing and dancing the night away. The event, where designer dresses were sold at a live action, was organized to raise funds for the Congolese Panzi Hospital.

TV-presenter Annabella Åsvik served as the master of ceremonies and welcomed everyone to the event around 6.30 p.m. Dressed in a shiny dark brown Stella McCartney dress, Åsvik told the audience the fashion fundraiser was meant to show that “we can be beautiful from both inside and out.” Though the evening had a Finnish and African theme, the atmosphere at La Pomme was undeniably New York chic. Little black designer dresses, sequence bits, beautiful models and a free-flowing open bar all created a true New York club feel.

Before the party kicked off, former UN Undersecretary for Humanitarian Affairs, Jan Egeland, brought the audience greetings from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He has visited Panzi hospital and its founder Denis Mukwege on several occasions, and has witnessed the battered women’s suffering firsthand. Egeland thanked Finland Center for its efforts “to help Mukwege and the world community to change one of the biggest injustices of our time.”


Afterwards singers Dorothy Bishop and Alexandra Alexis brought the party spirit back to La Pomme. While the audience seemingly enjoyed hearing Alexandra Alexis’s new song, it was Bishop’s disco beats that made the crowd go wild and momentarily turned the event into a big dance party. “Crazy!” exclaimed Bishop in her shiny silver dress.

“The event was fabulous. The audience was really fun!” said Bishop afterward. She said she especially enjoyed performing to Europeans, as she was able to sing a song from the Eurovision Song Content. Bishop was happy to be able to lend a helping hand to the women of Africa, having visited the continent herself. “I feel privileged to be able to help through music,” she said.


The evening’s highlight for most people was the glamorous fashion show, led by Finnish supermodel Angelika Kallio, and the live auction that followed. Designers such as Nicole Miller, Anna Sui and IVANAhelsinki had donated clothing for the show.

Professional auctioneer Amanda Ladd got audience members to compete hard for the best dresses. The winners scored such deals as a Nicole Miller wedding gown for $300, her black cocktail dress for $200 and IVANAhelsinki’s summer dress for $275.

Mr. Ljungqvist of Sweden was one of the lucky ones, as he managed to win the bets on quite a few dresses. “I don’t know how many I bought. I’ll give them to my girlfriends,” he said, though quickly ensuring that “I only have three girlfriends!”

The fashion show included professional models like Kallio and Rosa Korhonen, as well as newbies, such as Mia Dallorso. The Finn, who has lived in the US for two decades, said she was initially nervous about modeling in the show. “Everyone had worked so hard for this event,” said Dallorso, who donned a blue Nicole Miller scarf dress, among many others. “But I think it was super!” “The event went incredibly well, the gala was beautiful,” rejoiced Åsvik, too.

But as much fun as New Yorkers had at the event, the biggest joy will undoubtedly be experienced by the Congolese women who will receive the auction’s proceeds in the coming months. Click here to see a collage of the photos from the evening by Stewart of NY. See a video of the event below:



U.S. Immigration at a Glance


By Ceridwen Koski, Associate Attorney, Tooma & Ozisik LLP

In late July, a group of Finland Center members gathered to discuss a wide variety of immigration issues in the parlor of the Salmagundi Club. Amanda Goodman and I talked about visa possibilities in many different contexts but only covered a tiny fraction of the important stuff. Here are some must-knows to consider.

  • One rule of thumb is that your status is usually dependent on a sponsor until you obtain a Green Card or are simply traveling to the U.S. for a short time to visit.

  • Those visiting for 90 days or less may register for permission to visit the U.S. through the visa waiver program (if your country is listed) or apply for a B visa. But remember, if you enter with the visa waiver program, you cannot change or extend your status. With the B visa, you may do both of those things.

  • Think of the following as sponsors: school, work, and family.

  • Some employers host training and exchange programs applicable to numerous professions and skill sets, from medical training programs to summer camp. If you find a program, you may qualify for a J visa. The sponsor needs to be pre-approved and there are many organizations that facilitate the sponsorship. J-1 visas sometimes have two-year return residency requirements to the home country – so be aware of this when planning. Some will qualify for a waiver to allow change of visa status without returning home.

  • If you are thinking about studying in the U.S, identify a specific school or program and contact that institution’s international student department regarding the F-1 visa. The school will provide the I-20 form and SEVIS registration, which are needed to apply for the visa. If you wish to work while studying, you must have the I-20 specifically endorsed for work. Similarly, after you complete the program, you may benefit from “optional practical training” – a year’s worth of work authorization. If your degree is in Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics, the work authorization may last up to 29 months based on your study program!

  • Things to know about working in the U.S: there are numerous visas specifically for employment – all require planning and consideration of timelines. You need to have a job offer and an employer who will sponsor you. A bachelor’s degree or the equivalent is required for the H-1B visa. If you plan to work for the same employer in the U.S. that you have already worked for at home for over one year, you may qualify for an L-1 visa. If your employer in the U.S. has same nationality as you, may qualify for an E-1/E-2. If you are renowned in your field, look into the O-1 visa. If you are a performer and have a tour planned, you might use the P visa.

  • Working temporarily in the U.S. can result in an opportunity to apply for a Green Card. Talk to your employer about Green Card sponsorship as soon as possible to set expectations and learn about timelines. There are significant waits associated with some work-based Green Cards depending on the category under which you apply. If you do not qualify under EB-1, you may have to wait between three and eight years to apply for your Green Card after the employer’s petition is approved. Some common pathways to work-based green cards include H-1B to EB-3OR EB-2, E to EB-1 or EB-2, L-1 to EB-1 or O-1 to EB-1.

  • If you are an H-1B holder, the process of obtaining a Green Card often involves a labor certification, which is the employer’s labor market test through the Department of Labor. Labor Certification is required for all EB-3 categories and some EB-2 categories. As long as the labor certification is filed by your 5th year in H-1B status, you can stay in the U.S. until you obtain the green card. EB-1 (and some EB-2) allows you to skip the labor certification all together. Plan ahead and make sure that both you and your employer understand the minimum requirements for the position as they determine the work-based category. People who are leaders in their fields or published researchers may qualify under the EB-1 category with very short wait times.

  • Are you married to a U.S. Citizen? Then you qualify as an immediate relative! Your spouse may sponsor you by filing an I-130 petition with the USCIS or directly at a consulate abroad. Filing the petition, your spouse needs to show that he/she has the finances to support you (alternatively, a co-sponsor may file the petition by submitting three years of tax returns). You should have a Green Card in six months to a year. If processing times increase, you should apply for a K visa to enter the U.S. until the Green Card is approved.

  • Other forms of family sponsorship fall into five categories, with various wait times. During this process, a family member has to file the I-130 petition. You should apply for a Green Card when the priority date is current: otherwise you might lose your chance.

Generally, work-based visas depend on your credentials and your employer. Whenever you change sponsors, you will need to file more paperwork.

Some useful websites include (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services), (U.S. embassies and consulates abroad), (immigration inspection at airports and U.S borders) and (e.g. U.S. immigration news, informative blog).

Feel free to contact me at if you have questions.



Q&A with Olavi Hirvonen

Finland Center president Jaana Rehnström recently sat down with Olavi Hirvonen, former Olympic skier and founder of vacation center Lapland Lake in Upstate New York. The two chatted about the Winter Olympics, his connection to Finland and his future plans for Lapland Lake.

Olavi with his wife, Ann.

Olavi with his wife, Ann.

Olavi, you must have been watching the Olympics; what comments do you have on the games, your sport, and the Finnish skiers today? 

Oh, compared with my time, it’s like night and day! Everything is different; the trail grooming, the advances in the equipment, the new suits – our clothes used to be so uncomfortable! And of course the skiers are really professional, also in the sense that once they’re on the team, they get paid. They do year-round training, which means they might travel to ski in New Zealand during the summer here. And freestyle didn’t exist until the 1970s. 

I find that the Finnish skiers have less sisu than they used to in the past. Perhaps the whole doping scandal a few years back lowered the morale for everyone afterwards, or perhaps they just don’t train as much. 

Do you go back to Finland nowadays? Has it changed a lot?

Yes, we have gone back from time to time, particularly to the Finnish Lapland to ski after we close here for the season. The last time I was in Finland was six years ago. Lately we have preferred to travel to a warmer climate – the Bahamas – in the spring. Finland has changed a lot, particularly Helsinki, which has become such an international city. Even the language has changed; there are so many English words inserted into speech now. 

You are almost 80 years old – what are your plans for the future of Lapland Lake?

I continue to work here every day, and it seems like people expect me to go on forever…sometimes I’m reminded of the joke that President Urho Kekkonen supposedly made in his will “IF I die…” We have been trying to sell the property for several years now. But we want it to continue more or less as it is today, and have turned away some offers we felt didn’t respect that vision. I’m still looking for the right buyer.



Olavi Hirvonen: an Unofficial Ambassador for Finland

By Jaana Rehnström

On a recent winter weekend, I drove with my family from up New York to Lapland Lake, a Nordic Ski Center in Upstate New York that former Olympic skier Olavi Hirvonen has been running since 1978.  A Finn immediately feels at home here: the whole character of the place reminds me of my youth in what was then a less prosperous, but in some ways more wholesome Finland. 

Lapland Lake’s eclectic row of flags reflects the international mindset of its founder, Olavi Hirvonen.

Lapland Lake’s eclectic row of flags reflects the international mindset of its founder, Olavi Hirvonen.

The little rental cottages (tupa in Finnish) are simultaneously unpretentious, clean and comfortable, and they all have Finnish names like Pulkka and Poro. The ski trails, groomed each morning by Olavi himself, are called Vasa, Sisu, Eräpolku, etc. They run from one’s cottage door through the beautiful and peaceful scenery of the woods and offer different levels of difficulty for different skill levels. There’s a real Finnish wood-burning sauna, and the restaurant offers, among other things, lohilaatikko (salmon casserole) and cabbage rolls.

Olavi Hirvonen moved to the United States in 1949, at the age of 18. He was actually born in Montreal, Canada, but it was the Depression, and his parents separated; his mother, unable to care for her child by herself, sent him home to Finland to live with his grandmother when Olavi was only eight months old. His grandmother, apparently a resourceful woman, took him under her wing despite having several of her own children still living at home. This home was located in Koivisto, an island about 50 km east of Vyborg in Karelia. 

In 1937, Olavi’s mother came back to pick him up and take him to America, but soon afterward, the war intervened. At eight years of age, Olavi had to be evacuated along with the rest of his family, and still carries sad memories of the family dog they had to leave behind. Later, when Finns gained back this area of land, the family moved back and rebuilt, only to be evacuated quickly for the second time. 

At 17, Hirvonen completed a six-month military service and became a Finnish citizen. Soon afterward, however, he followed his mother to the United States and got drafted for the Korean war. Having learned to ski in Finland, he was recruited into the Army Arctic Indoctrination School, where he learned and taught arctic survival skills. As a result, he became a U.S. citizen.


This past weekend, Hirvonen celebrated the 50th anniversary of his participation in the U.S. Olympic ski team. In 1960, when the Olympics were held in Squaw Valley, Utah, he was working seven days a week at a ski lodge in Vermont, sneaking in some practice time in the evenings. He was invited to take part in the tryouts for the U.S. Olympic team, and ended up being picked for the 15 km and 50 km races. In the latter, Kalevi Hämäläinen of Finland won the gold, while Veikko Hakulinen, also a Finn, came in second. The U.S. team didn’t win any medals, perhaps in part because Hirvonen accidentally snapped his ski early in the 50 km race and lost valuable time as he searched for a replacement ski.

In 1977, Hirvonen’s son Esa, who was a promising skier, died in a tragic accident. Needing a positive change in his life, Hirvonen decided  to do what he had been dreaming of doing for a long time: open up his own ski center. In 1978, he purchased the area he now calls Lapland Lake. He now runs it with his wife Ann and a staff of 30.

In addition to the flags of Finland, Sweden, and Norway that hang outside, signs of Olavi’s Finnish heritage are visible everywhere in a natural, unforced manner: the little signs that advise visitors to do this or that end with 'Kiitos!'; the shop sells Fazer’s famous “blue” chocolate and Panda liquorice;  kids are invited to interact with pet reindeer. In the past, Finlandia Foundation organized group trips here, but nowadays it’s hard to visit the place in large groups, as it’s become very popular with both locals and tourists. The rental cottages get booked up early, particularly on weekends.