Umayya Abu-Hanna is a Palestinian migrant who after 28 years in Finland has not gotten any closer to becoming a Finn. An outspoken advocate of cultural diversity, a writer, journalist, a single mother and now an adviser for the National Gallery, her appetite for making a difference has not abated.

To call Umayya Abu-Hanna opinionated is like saying Che Guevara was “left-leaning.” A Palestinian by birth and raised in Israel in a virtual mélange of cultures, she has become a highly visible – and vocal – character in her adopted country. Her face is familiar from television, her voice from the radio, and her acute opinions from her writing, her columns and public appearances.

Abu-Hanna apologises profusely for being 15 minutes late for our meeting. It’s only understandable, with the elections less than a week away. She is up for election for the European Parliament for the second time on the Green party roster. With only a few days until election night there’s no sign of nervousness. It’s not the first time her fate has been in the hands of the voters.

“All my life my future has been out of my hands, I’m used to it,” she says. “It’s a job. You either get it or you don’t.”

Never mind that. Her current job is every bit as interesting. As the Cultural Diversity Adviser for the Finnish National Gallery’s Community Relations and Development programme (KEHYS – a mouthful, no doubt!), she is on the front lines of the momentous social and cultural transformation currently underway in Finland. Though much discussed, the topic of cultural diversity in Finland is not very well researched or documented.

“The discourse on multiculturalism here is infantile, it’s terribly vacuous!” she slams. “It’s based on a notion that immigrants are something outside of Finnish society, and there are things you like about them and things you don’t. That ship has already sailed, immigrants are a part of society whether you like it or not! The question that should be addressed is what is multicultural Finland.”

And while experts come in to explain what multicultural societies are elsewhere, the Finnish experience is overlooked. Immigrants, she says, are a scorned and disenfranchised group in the very debate that most affects them.

Identity crisis

The next big conflict, Abu- Hanna predicts, will be between immigrants and the Swedish-speaking minority. The latter now dominate all discourse on minorities, she says. As a group the Swedish language minority are well connected and affluent, and it’s impossible for anyone to compete with them for representation of cultural alternatives.

“In the future the status of Swedish will be the same as other minority languages. They are going to lose out big time, and I don’t think they’ll go quietly.”

Just as the Swedish-speaking minority are afraid of losing their special status, their identity, the Finns’ fear of newcomers is rooted in their fear for their own “Finnishness.” The burning question in the cultural diversity debate is what is left of Finnish identity in a multicultural society?

Sitting in the café at the Ateneum Art Museum, the holiest of shrines for Finnish national culture, the question seems to make little sense. But the artworks and cultural prizes that adorn the walls cover a very short period of time, a tiny window inside which it was decided what constitutes as Finnish and what doesn’t. Outside the museum the world has continued to change.

“I think the most important aspect that has remained strong is the language, a particular way of conceiving the world through it. There should be a strong emphasis on teaching newcomers the language. Not just at a level to get by on, but a creative use of the language.”

 A new Finn

Abu-Hanna and I have lived in Finland roughly as long. I was born the same year she moved here from Israel. “Really, what month?” she asks. January. “Aw, you’re five months more Finnish than I am!” Jest aside, Abu- Hanna’s status as an immigrant outsider has never changed – and it never will, she says. The Finnish self-image is simply far too excluding to allow that.

“I remember some 15 years ago I was visiting my brother, who lives in Amsterdam. I was sitting in a café when this man approached me. We started talking and he asked me who I was and where I was from. I told him I was Umayya from Finland, and he said, ‘wow, you Finns have such interesting names.’ I was so touched I almost cried! Never mind my legal status in Finland, out there I was accepted as a Finn, no questions asked.”

There might be some truth to the old cliché that Finland is so far from everything, Abu- Hanna says, at least in terms of shaping a self-image. European nations with a colonial past have had the constitutive other built into their self-image. The Other has been visibly present in society.

“For example, in England the discussion revolves around matters of citizenship. Not so in Finland. Here we talk about tolerance and human rights. Someone you have to tolerate is someone who is below you.”

People my age grew up seeing Abu-Hanna on TV and hearing her on the radio. But the Finland she first moved to was a different country. She has described her childhood in Haifa with vivid detail in her book Nurinkurin, but that was another lifetime. Moving here split her life in two. It was like a steel gate had been shut, she says, leaving her old life and the rest of the world on the other side. The only means of survival was to adapt.

“There was no internet. I couldn’t call home – a call to Israel was 14 Finnish marks per minute! There were no international newspapers, no books, no music, no food, nothing! Sure, I learned Finnish fast enough, there was no choice: speak Finnish or be cut off. It was like when the Arabs conquered Spain. They landed on Gibraltar, which is named after their commander who burned down the entire fleet of ships and said to his soldiers: ahead of us is the enemy, behind us is the sea. Take your pick.”

Abu-Hanna took her pick. She had a choice, in fact. She was also accepted to Canada, where most of her mother’s relatives had already moved. “I thought, what the hell, Finland or Canada, it’s all the same. It’s the West, it’s peace. Little did I know!”

Life offside

“My identity now is first and foremost that of a migrant Palestinian,” Abu-Hanna says. With her daughter she speaks English, because she feels their common world is the fringe realm of migrants in Europe. Raised by atheist communist parents, her cultural background stems from Islamic and Arabic history. She attended a Catholic school and a Greek Orthodox middle school, and for three years she went to an Israeli university – where she was the only student who didn’t don a military uniform.

“Those were minor things in a country where people kill each other over matters of identity. Israel is built on ethnic purity that excludes me in every way. I’ve always thought it’s probably one of the reasons I have adapted to life in Finland so well. I was born into exclusion, I’m used to it.”

Whatever the reason, Abu- Hanna has fared better than some. She is a tough single mom with a remarkable career in the media and in politics. If only she had been the product of social integration, she would be paraded as a triumphant example.

“People say I’ve succeeded in Finland, but I’ve always felt I was in the margin of the margin. Wherever I go it’s a field of conflict, and that’s tough. Nobody should live in a state of endless conflict. People want to help you, but only as long as you know your place. I got much more help when I couldn’t speak Finnish. Now that I can and I want to participate in the debate as an equal, I face pure aggression.”

 Media matters

In the 1990s Abu-Hanna worked as a reporter for Finnish national broadcaster YLE. She gave up television work when she applied for a position as a culture reporter and was offered a job in a programme devoted to multicultural matters instead. “I was furious!” she says. “It was obvious I didn’t know my place.”

As an insider to the workings of Finnish media, she has seen the multiculturalism debate unravel in familiar stale patterns. When dealing with immigrants the media, she says, goes for the stereotypes: the victim that everybody loves to save, the almost successful who has done his best to become a member of society but is still not quite equal, and the villain – the “Imam who wants to marry 13-year-olds.”

“That’s the gallery of characters they pick from, and people who don’t fit into the stereotypes are difficult, they’re dangerous. A foreigner has to be either grateful or evil. The Finnish media is so condescending. It says there are racist Finns, but that’s not us. And yet there are no immigrants working within the media!”

That condescension is also evident in the way the media wraps a field in society that is fraught with problems into a celebration of culture, when in fact it boils down to a question of power.

“A lot of the talk about multiculturalism in Finland today revolves around celebrating it. That’s bull, what’s there to celebrate!” Abu-Hanna fumes. “You can’t celebrate someone who wants to come and compete with you. The least acknowledged group of immigrants is the middle class, because we want to come and compete for your job. There’s nothing to celebrate in that. But it’s no more frightening than any other phase in the development of democracy and equality.”

  Umayya Abu-Hanna
  Date and place of birth:
17 March 1961, Haifa, Israel
Place of residence:
Kamppi, Helsinki
Master of Fine Arts, University
of Art and Design Helsinki
two-year-old daughter
Reema Aphiwe
As a child I wanted to
be... an archaeologist.
In five year’s time I will
be... living abroad.
I love... laughter and dance.
I hope… to love and be loved.

Another topic the Finnish media seems to eschew is EU politics. YLE does little to dispel the image that has been created of the European Parliament as bureaucratic and too complex for a human brain. Sure, it is complex, Abu- Hanna admits. But it wields more power than the Finnish national parliament. Its decisions are all felt in Finland and, even more importantly, it is vital for Finland to promote decisions on global issues with ramifications far beyond national borders.

“Finland is to such an extent a part of the world that when you make the right decisions, they’re always good for Finland,” Abu-Hanna says.

 European future

The week after Europe’s Super Sunday, Abu-Hanna is still working at the National Gallery. Though she did not make it to the European Parliament, her party doubled their seats to two and increased their share of the votes.

“The results of the elections were similar to those in the rest of Europe,” she says in an email the week after the election. “Ideology in a global world is growing in two arenas: you can either go back in search of a mythical national identity with ‘family values’ (read: strictly heterosexual, turning a blind eye to brothels) and religion – or you embrace globalisation as a challenge and deal with wholesome politics.”

In these elections the first alternative was represented by the True Finns-Christian coalition, and the second by the Greens. Both ends of the spectrum increased their support at the expense of the big three – the Social Democrats, the National Coalition and the Centre Party.

“The results are interesting because they shed light on our society and challenges. If Europe really believes in democracy, it has to set a target of immigrant representation among commissioners also,” she writes. “The game has just started.”

Matti Koskinen
Markus Sommers