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One year on, controversial writer says Finland still in denial

Palestinian-Finnish journalist Umayya Abu-Hanna found herself at the centre controversy almost exactly one year ago when the daily Helsingin Sanomat published her account of her decision to leave Finland because of racist attitudes. One year later, Abu-Hanna told Yle News that the vitriol shows that Finnish society has unresolved issues surrounding ethnicity and marginalisation.

Umayya Abu-Hanna
Image: Vihreä liitto
Denise Wall

Writer and journalist Umayya Abu-Hanna describes herself as Palestinian-Finnish - reflecting her country of origin, and the home she chose to live in for nearly 30 years. About one year ago, her second home turned on her when she described how racism directed at her South African-born adopted daughter prompted her resettle in the Netherlands.

"I think the reaction was that 'Don't dare tell us we're not good enough'. And it was basically that our society -- all societies in the world -- are in denial about something," Abu-Hanna told Yle News during a visit to Helsinki. She was back in town to pick up a 'Global Family Award' presented by three NGOs, Liikkukaa! ry, Rasmus ry and Kansainvälinen Suomemme ry for her courage in opening up a painful discussion on racism in Finland.

The journalist speculated that her background as a Palestinian, "born into a position of marginalisation" may have given her the drive to raise her voice and to venture down the path of activism. All the same, she said her article did not claim to speak for any other minority groups in Finland, but was a personal account based on her own experiences.

She described how some immigrants took offence at what they saw as her presumption in speaking on their behalf.

"Who do you think you are?"

"I feel that many immigrants have been very hurt, like,  'Who do you think you are?' and, 'I'm not having a bad time, and now I’m receiving racist reactions because of what you said'," she added.

Abu-Hanna is no stranger to public pressure. Back in the 80s and 90s she had a budding career as a television presenter -- cut short when viewers complained about her decidedly un-Finnish accent.

Now one year after the backlash from her open and candid article, Abu-Hanna says she stands by her piece, although she acknowledged that the reactions - from Finns and immigrants -- show that she hit a nerve.

Race debate ruled by chaos and emotion

And the raw reactions show that there are issues still to be dealt with, Abu-Hanna says. Among them is the media's role in the discussion on race, ethnicity and exclusion, she said, adding that the debate in Finland is still dominated by chaos and emotion.

"The sad thing is that the discussion about racism, inclusion whatever, has not been helped with the structure from the media or the intelligentsia here," she noted, adding,** "**But there's a big taboo - don't dare discuss or even mention the structure under it. The infrastructure that keeps our society segregated."

The writer-turned-activist says those structures include employment practices that reserve the most menial jobs for non-Finns, or even education programmes that encourage immigrants to seek training for certain positions.

"All the young women who come from refugee backgrounds, they get a lot of encouragement to become lähihoitäjiä (practical nurses) -- so we're encouraging people to remember their place," Abu-Hanna pointed out.

Important debates still missing

Abu-Hanna concluded that important debates about real values and equality still need to be aired in Finland. She added that Finland particularly needs to tackle the perception that including other people detracts from what it means to be Finnish.

These bold -- and for some, provocative -- statements have brought down the ire of many who see her as an ungrateful upstart biting the hand that fed her for nearly 30 years. But they have also earned the admiration of others looking for meaningful dialogue on diversity in a nation on the cusp of major change.

The award presented on a rainy afternoon in the December gloom was perhaps a vindication for Abu-Hanna -- wiser, softer, yet still defying the recriminations she suffered just under one year ago.

"I don’t regret writing what I wrote. I might -- I would probably -- change maybe the tone, but I think what came out of that has still not been handled," she declared.

You can watch a TV version of this report here.

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