Typography

Addressing the issue.

UMAYYA ABU-HANNA, a Palestinian born in Israel, lived in Finland for 30 years, working in various sectors of Finnish society. She moved to Amsterdam two years ago with her daughter. Umayya arrived in Finland in 1981, and she graduated from the School of Art and Design (currently Aalto University School of Art, Design and Architecture) in 1992. She is mostly known for her activities in the media as a reporter and writer, and in the City Council of Helsinki as a member of the Green League. She also worked in cultural politics worked as a teacher.

UMAYYA ABU-HANNA, a Palestinian born in Israel, lived in Finland for 30 years, working in various sectors of Finnish society.

Addressing the issue.

UMAYYA ABU-HANNA, a Palestinian born in Israel, lived in Finland for 30 years, working in various sectors of Finnish society. She moved to Amsterdam two years ago with her daughter. Umayya arrived in Finland in 1981, and she graduated from the School of Art and Design (currently Aalto University School of Art, Design and Architecture) in 1992. She is mostly known for her activities in the media as a reporter and writer, and in the City Council of Helsinki as a member of the Green League. She also worked in cultural politics worked as a teacher.

I had a chance to talk to her over the phone recently, and she openly spoke about reasons for moving out of Finland and her new book Multikulti.

What is your new book about and why did you write it?

It is called Multikulti. At first I didn’t want to use the term “multiculture”, because I think it is a term that has been overused and brings out certain negative emotions. It means everything and nothing. I would rather use the word diversity, but it is hard to translate into Finnish. Multiculturalism means either hate, or then you think it is so fantastic and of wonderful ethnic food. There is nothing rational about the discussion of the subject although it is something you cannot avoid in a modern society. Multicultural changes would shift power between different elements of society and that is not easy. They are painful and bring out hatred and resistance. Changes are needed in the way a society functions as well as the way you look at things. The things that we really associate with Scandinavian and Finnish society are democracy and equality. But you cannot be equal if you don’t measure equality for certain groups, for example the unemployed, this also holds true for immigrants.

I was on the core of Finnish society, not on the margins, and I noticed that nobody wanted to say the truth that the whole society is resisting change. That is why I wrote the book. The Finnish intelligentsia suddenly decided that it is against our sense of equality to call racist people racist, so they started to call racist activity immigrant-critical. If you call racist people immigrant-critical, there is no space for criticism any more. The obscenity and violence that was coming out took the space of the real constructive discussion. There is a consensus among those who are in power, i.e. the educated middle class, to keep the status quo as such, because then they can keep their own power. It’s not some poor racist or Perussuomalaiset who decide if immigrants are excluded from society, it is the big political parties, our liberal friends. The biggest problem writing this book was in saying that, pointing to the institutional exclusion of the other. Finland’s multiculturalism might be one of the fastest to grow and on a big scale in a very short time, so it will be painful. Finland has to face the situation, as the Finnish expression goes “Nostaa kissa pöydälle”, but nobody wants to discuss that. Simultaneously we underline that we are the best in the world and have the best schools etc., so why change.

You left Finland for good to settle down in Netherlands after 30 years of living here, what were the push factors driving you out?

They were basically the reasons just mentioned. I had adopted a South-African girl. Although it is internationally known that the world is such that black skin is a very big marker, I didn’t expect it to be that big. The atmosphere in Finland had also changed during that time and become more violent. I was absolutely shocked by the way my daughter was treated. Even with the so-called good people I had to discuss in length why you cannot call someone a nigger or neekeri. I felt like a woman in Saudi Arabia saying that women are human beings too. I was spending my time trying to protect her from the so-called normal people spitting on her and abusing her. At the same time people from her school treated her as strange and exotic. Her black skin was the main issue 24 hours a day. We moved to Amsterdam, which is a more cosmopolitan place.

Now that you no longer live in Finland, has your opinion of Finland changed in any way?

No, I follow the situation. Things are changing slowly. I have some distance now so I can see things more clearly, with less emotion. It was a very emotional decision to move. When you turn 50, it’s very stupid to suddenly leave the country, especially if you’re working through the language, and to come to a country where you are totally illiterate. It is near suicide. I did not want this to happen, but it is how it is.

How do you compare an outsider’s perspective of the Netherlands to that of Finland?

In Finland I tried very hard to belong. It was a big shock when I came here that I realised that I had internalised a certain sense of inferiority, in Finland I knew my place. I was shocked because although here I’m pretty much the basic stereotype of living off the social system: I am a non-working new immigrant, a middle-aged Arab woman who doesn’t speak Dutch, I’m a single mom of a black daughter. Yet I’m treated like a human being everywhere. I was shocked to find that you don’t have to go to a special multicultural place to be treated like a human being. That is basically the reason I am here. There are many other things which are very difficult here, but getting your humanity back is important.

As a Palestinian from Israel how do you see the developments back home? Is that a place to one day go back to?

No, it’s a sick place. My identity lies in many places. When there is war, I’m always in pain. The conflict’s roots are in the Second World War so it’s a problem rooted in Europe’s anti-Semitism. The European solution was to give a country not theirs to a group they had prosecuted. That is the Israeli Palestinian conflict. I don’t think that loyalty should come with the colour of skin, a passport, language or religion. I think loyalty is to life and to humanity. I love the place, and I was born there [in Israel]. I think the only solution would be one state for all its citizens. It’s a future that will happen but it will take a lot of pain and tears. I cannot live there, because that would mean choosing between two things: either you must have a total emotional detachment in order to lead a normal life, or then you go completely bananas and talk about the conflict non-stop. Neither is a healthy way of living. My own home land thinks that as a Palestinian I am the problem. In Finland as an immigrant, I was a problem. I want a home and have normal problems, but I am not the problem and my daughter is not the problem. I might move back to Haifa when I am old and lose all my languages and speak only Arabic, and have to go live with my dementia imagining it is paradise [laughs].

Are there any aspects of the Finnish culture you miss?

I am out of my comfort zone here in Holland. I know how things function in Finland, but I am all the time in trouble with different Dutch systems. I notice that I have become a Finn in the sense that I have become less social. This is a very urban and city-cultured, small country with a lot of people, so relationships and communication are very important. I’ve become more of a Finn: I’m rude; I’m not too excited about making new friends, either. I also miss the Scandinavian forests and functioning showers. But life is about feeling at home and when a place welcomes you, it is hard not to like it back. This feels like home.

Multikulti is out now.

Annika Rautakoura
Photo - Siltala Publishing

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