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Presentation of Documentary: Black, Muslim & Somali – A Testimony of Life in Denmark

 

Our quest to make this documentary began at the World Culture Center of Copenhagen. We talked to the staff briefly about our aims and ideas, and they gave us the contact information of many of the Somali organizations in Denmark. They recommended that we contact Mohammed Gelle, head of the Somali Network, as well as Niels-Erik Hansen, head of the Center for Documentation and Counselling on Race Discrimination. After making a few calls, Mr. Hansen agreed to sit down with us in order to discuss forms of discrimination felt by the Somali community in Denmark. This proved to be the first and perhaps most important intellectual encounter in our project, because it gave us all the necessary background to the circumstances faced by Danish Somalis. 

Mr. Hansen began our interview by speaking on the role of the media in depicting Somalis in a negative light. He showed us newspaper clippings from publications that specifically targeted Somalis because of their race and religion, perhaps the two most dangerous discriminatory factors involved in the situation. He also gave us a book entitled Oplevet Diskrimination [Experienced Discrimination], a study initiated on behalf of Somalis in Denmark who had requested repatriation or resettlement to another European country by the UNHCR. They felt as if they were being constantly targeted as scapegoats within Danish society, and were bearing the brunt of prejudicial media coverage. The report was initiated by the Council for Ethnic Equality in Denmark and it analyzes the experience of four Muslim groups within Denmark (Somalis, Turks, Lebanese, and Bosnians) both in daily encounters and within the labor market. Not surprisingly, Somalis held the perception that they were, in fact, the most discriminated against minority. The interview with Mr. Hansen, along with the information found in Oplevet Diskrimination, was an integral research component of our project.   

Our contact campaign continued, and Eva Smith, one of our program’s featured speakers, agreed on an interview. Dr. Smith was one of the major figures in publishing the ECRI (European Commission against Racism and Intolerance) report, a documented analysis of steps to prevent discrimination in Denmark. Somalis were featured in one of the reports, and we asked her about her interaction with the Somali community through her work. She offered us many interesting insights, and we were able to record her voice on a portable mp3 recorder. After an informative interview, Dr. Smith mentioned that her son’s longtime girlfriend, Ayan Said, was Somali. Desperate for interviews, we asked Dr. Smith if she would consider mentioning our project to Ms. Said. She mentioned that she would, and two days later we received a call from Ms. Said. She was very interested in our project, and we made an appointment to interview her on the following day. 

Ayan Said turned out to be a wonderful interview, and was able to provide a very interesting perspective on the Somali situation in Denmark. She had been in a longterm relationship with a Danish man, so she could offer multiple perspectives on the issues of integration and discrimination. She had come to Denmark before 1991, when most Somalis fled from the chaos of civil war. She also came from the educated middle class in Somalia, meaning that she was destined to be integrated, while most Somalis are not. She had both of these things in common with Mohammed Gelle, our next on-camera interview, and actually helped to put us in touch with him. 

This was perhaps the most difficult point of creating our documentary, because we were not able to get in touch with Somalis who felt deeply discriminated against. We tried numerous times, and even walked the streets of Little Mogadishu in an attempt to interview ordinary Somali residents. Most Somalis, however, have such a negative perception of the media that they would never agree to sit down and talk with someone they did not know. Thus, even the making of our documentary was affected by the issues Somalis face every day in Denmark, and we were not able to conduct interviews with the entire spectrum of the Somali population. 

Despite our difficulties, Mohammed Gelle was able to speak on behalf of many of Denmark’s Somali networks. Gelle is one of the most influential Somalis in Denmark, and he offered us a very interesting and provoking interview on the Somali challenge of integration. According to Mohamed Gelle, the coordinator of the Somali Network in Denmark, the first two or three years in a new society are the most important. Without proper integration into the labor market, cultural integration can be extremely difficult. By earning wages along with the Danish workforce, Somalis will not feel like outcasts, and they will not be perceived as criminals. Currently, there is a lot of debate within the Somali community regarding issues of labor and integration. The lack of cohesion amongst Somali communities, combined with their relative isolation from Danish society, has led to the proliferation of negative stereotypes. Somalis often view ethnic Danes in a critical light, and vice versa. Somali Networks, however, have been a solution to fostering dialogue, not debate, amongst themselves and with the Danish community. Gelle’s organization, the Somali Network, is based on openness and dialogue with everyone, and allows Somalis to take leadership positions within their communities. Somalis, especially Somali men, have been so marginalized from society that they have lost their voices entirely. Networks have provided a solution to this problem, and are one of the first steps to integration. 

Much of our project dealt with very difficult issues, yet Gelle’s recommendations for the future provided a glimmer of hope. The three of us agreed after the interview that ethnic networks do pave the road to cooperation and reciprocal integration, and that those we had interviewed were key figures in this process. Our documentary is designed to illuminate the difficulties faced by Somalis in Denmark, but also to help people understand that integration is possible. Integration, especially for those arriving in a new country from a war-torn homeland, is an extremely slow process, and we must be patient in order to ensure that it happens. Finally, we have a mandate as a society to further dialogue between communities. Those who are alienated from society are alienated for historical reasons, and this history must be understood in order to build bridges. As Mohammed Gelle said, we must create similarity through understanding difference, and only then can we call ourselves an integrated society.

 

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Denmark Denmark 2007

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