Omnia Helsinki

‘My mom is from Iraq. She ran away from home when she was 18. She only had sisters and they were called whores, people threw rocks at her house. She moved to Finland, met a Finnish man who promised to become a Muslim. He didn’t. He had a lot problems, and he eventually killed himself. Then she met my dad, who is from Egypt. He came here as a cook. He doesn’t speak Finnish, even though he has lived here for 30 years. My parents speak Arabic with one another. My mum is a translator, from Arabic to Finnish. My dad now hacks mobile phones, even though he isn’t able to read.’

Omnia is 19. She is about to finish her high school.

‘Why are you at an American school?’
‘Because my parents think that it’s best for me to study in Egypt. My father hopes that I’ll meet a nice, rich Egyptian guy there, marry him and stay home. It will never happen, hell no. My last boyfriend was a hippie with dreadlocks. And he was a Christian,’ she laughs. She looks a bit like a hippie herself: faded jeans, a feather as an earring. We’re sitting in beach chairs in front of a hip bar in Meritasama, looking out across the sea. Big ferries travelling to Estonia and Stockholm, and smaller ones bound for one of the many Finnish islands, glide past us.

‘I’m turning into exactly what my parents hoped I wouldn’t become. I want to travel, see the world. See what I’m interested in and good at. And hopefully be able to make some changes, either through charities or by starting my own charity. My dad has got a couple of apartments in Egypt that he wants to turn into orphanages, that would be a good start.’

Sounds like your family isn’t poor,’ I say.

‘He’s been saving a lot.’

And it sounds as if your father isn’t that bad,’ I say, feeling sorry for the man.
‘The thing is,’ Omnia says, ‘he lives for us, for me and my brother, not for himself. Which is bad, because it places a lot of pressure on me.’

‘You’re disappointing him.’
‘Yes, but I’m letting him down slowly. The worst he can say to me is that I’m becoming Finnish – having a boyfriend and holding hands for example. I’m not, it’s just that I’m becoming more aware of what I want. He used to compare me to Egyptian girls, but most of them don’t know what’s out there. They simply marry the guy who comes with the most money. But if they had the options I had, they would do exactly the same. My father is beginning to understand that it’s different. I’m not marrying the guy of his dreams, but the guy of my dreams.’

She sounds rather wise for a nineteen year old, sometimes, until she starts telling me about a dance festival she went to last week, in Bulgaria. She tells me a lot of other stories too, how there was a time in her life when she used too many drugs and had to go to a clinic for ten days. And that she found out she had ADHD. ‘I’m not very punctual; I don’t keep all my promises. That’s my ADHD-side. And my rebellious side. But I’m working on it. I’m in this group therapy thing where I’m with eight other patients. I’m the youngest, the oldest is forty.’

‘What do you think of Finland?’
‘It’s a very good place to live. Well organised. You get your rights if you go after them. Like human rights, they are a big thing here. And the country is diverse: there are people from all kinds of countries and different cultures.’

‘How are they treated?’
‘Well, speaking for myself, I’ve never experienced any racism. But maybe the Somalian people have. They don’t have such a good reputation: they come here, use welfare and don’t work but at the same time they like to show off their bling bling. And the Finns think it is their high taxes that are paying for this.  They’re seen as parasites. Romanian gipsies have a bad reputation as well, they steal. When I worked in the Kioski, I always kept an extra eye on them. Once I didn’t and they stole. But they have this thing about being proud when somebody steals; they brag about how good their sons are at it.’

‘Where would you like to live if not in Finland?’
‘In a tree house, maybe in France. Do they have trees there?’ she asks. ‘I also would like to live in a community.’ With a funny voice: ‘I would like to live in a tree house in the Amazon, talking to monkeys. Married to a giraffe.’

‘You wouldn’t want to go to Egypt?’
‘When I’m in Egypt they see I don’t belong there.’

But you have their face. You have an Egyptian nose,’ I try.
‘No,’ she says, ‘my nose is Iraqi, I don’t have the classical Cleopatra nose. But I don’t know where I belong. Not here, not there. I guess that I belong anywhere,’ she says softly, her show of bravura momentarily flagging.

Then, after a minute or so, she continues: ‘You know, I’m not going to use any more drugs. Bulgaria was the last time.’ She laughs. ‘You can’t really help it when you’re on the dance floor and a guy has a bag of MDMA and puts one in your mouth. You’re only young once. If only my dad knew. He knows I smoked weed. And I got a tattoo. A rather big one. “I don’t want to see it,” he said.’

She lifts her hair and shows me the dragon on her neck.

‘So when your hair is down he can’t see it. ’
‘Yes, but sometimes I have my hair up, especially at home.’