Finding a Way Home: Mozhdeh’s Story

 

“Maybe I’m actually trying to flee from…from the feeling that—I don’t know—’of being home.’ Maybe I actually have found my home but I’m afraid of admitting it.  I’m afraid of saying, well yeah, that’s it, because if that’s it, so then, what am I gonna fight for?  It’s like my journey is finished.”

- Mozhdeh.

*We use the term “immigrant” loosely to cover immigrants who are former guest workers, their descendents, and refugees.  As in colloquial speech, we do not include people from Western countries like Europe or the United States in the term “immigrant,” but only those from developing countries, Turkey, and the Middle East.

Mozhdeh Ghasemiyani is a 25-year-old Kurdish woman from Iran who came to Denmark nine years ago as a political refugee.  When we first met this young, attractive, cultivated woman, we found it difficult to imagine that she would have any troubles as a newcomer in Denmark.  We soon learned otherwise, which provoked us to explore Mozhdeh’s experience as a refugee in a new country.  When we interviewed Mozhdeh, it became apparent that her relationship to Denmark is filled with mixed emotions.  She has received, in Denmark, an education and the opportunities for a successful future; however, she has also experienced discrimination based on her background and her name.  We wanted to discuss with her the probability of Denmark ever feeling like a “home” because over the course of the interviews we could sense her frustration with, as she put it, always feeling like an outsider.  Oftentimes, she seemed set upon leaving Denmark to continue her journey to a place where she would be just another face in the crowd.  

In Denmark there exists an idea of what it means to be Danish, a so-called “Danishness.”  This concept can be explained as a common frame of reference that influences the mentality of many Danes.  An unfortunate consequence of this line of thinking is that many times immigrants *are bunched together in a large, homogenous group of kiosk owners and taxi drivers.  When people choose to talk broadly about “immigrant populations” and when politicians advocate policies to curtail immigration, they add to this broad, exclusive idea of Danishness.  There is a danger that they do not consider the effect of this rhetoric on the individual and that this may, in turn, further polarize society into two factions: Danes and Immigrants.  Through our interviews with Mozhdeh a picture began to emerge, and we saw how these abstract concepts of Danishness, integration, and assimilation play a significant role in the formation of one person’s identity. 

The Beginning

Mozhdeh’s story begins in 1979 in Iran, where she was born to Kurdish parents and was given a name that means “good news.”  During the Iranian Revolution, Mozhdeh’s parents were active in the fight for the political and religious rights denied to the Kurdish people under the Shah.  When they gained no influence in the new government, they were forced to flee to Iraq.  There, her family encountered another struggle, the war between the Kurds and the Iraqi government, and they were forced constantly to relocate, to hide, and to change identities.  After the first Gulf 

War, Mozhdeh’s family waited in a refugee camp in the northern part of Iraq for three years before being granted asylum by a Western country.  In 1995, they arrived in Denmark. 

“I didn’t get the best impression,” Mozhdeh recalls with a bittersweet smile.  “Before I came to Denmark, I had an idea that when you come to a Western country it will be like a paradise, a place where human beings are respected just for being human beings and not because they have a specific nationality or a specific way of looking.  And this image was totally damaged from my first meeting with the Danish community.  It was my first day at school actually, when, you know, the first comment, instead of saying ‘welcome to Denmark’ was like, ‘oh, you black pig, go home, you smell, you take all our tax money.’ ”

Today Mozhdeh speaks Danish fluently and studies psychology at the University of Aarhus in Denmark, but when she first arrived she did not know anything about the Danish language or culture.  Everything was new to her, from the brightly colored houses that made her feel like she was living in a cartoon to the way she could not tell the difference between boys and girls because they looked alike to her – blond and white, with the same clothing.  “It was very difficult, it was like being born again, totally,” she says.  In a world where she was treated like an outsider and, at the same time, was faced with the confusion of being a teenage girl, she felt like she was being forced to cement her identity: “people pushing you to make a decision about who you are... Are you an immigrant? Are you a Muslim? Are you a Dane? What are you?  It was impossible for us to make those decisions.” 

Decisions

Yet Mozhdeh, essentially, did make a decision, especially during the first five years, which she describes as the hardest.  When she first arrived in Denmark, she slowly began assimilating into Danish culture out of the simple desire to be accepted and loved.  She struggled to understand what it meant to be a Dane and how she could become one, using copious energy to convince people that she was “okay.”  After the first five years in Denmark, Mozhdeh adopted assimilation for a shrewder purpose.  Mozhdeh is an ambitious woman, and as she puts it, “I wouldn’t be able to live if I didn’t have opportunities or couldn’t do the things in my life that I wanted to...  If you are not accepted, if you are an ambitious person, you don’t have any life.”  To Mozhdeh, there was no choice; she was forced to assimilate, and she admits that it has opened a lot of doors for her.  She describes assimilation and being Danish as a way of interacting, a particular self-deprecating sense of humour—one that she quickly adopted to fit into the society.  She used this humour a lot, making light of her own situation as a political refugee from the Middle East in the hopes that it would make her more approachable and less mysterious in the eyes of other Danes.  During the course of the interviews she still acted this way, often laughing at her own recollections and always speaking with a bemused smile on her face.  

In order to understand these concepts of assimilation and of being Danish more fully, we spoke to former civil servant Frederik Wiedemann, as well as the Vice President of the Danish People’s Party’s Youth Department, Morten Messerschmidt.  According to Wiedemann, Muslim immigration and the challenges it has brought have made more Danes aware of what it is to be Danish, to formulate, however broadly, their concept of “Danishness.”  This Danishness, he explains, is typically linked to speaking Danish, to understanding the Danish culture, and to knowing history’s influence on Danish society. Today, Danes are more accepting of conservative symbols as being representative of Danish culture and are more aware of the country’s Christian traditions than they were 30 years ago.  Often, this has led to an idea that Christianity is an essential part of being Danish, even though many Danes are not religious at all.  Muslims, then, tend to be excluded and immediately classified as non-Danish.  

Messerschmidt agrees that being Danish is primarily about an understanding of the history of Denmark and how it has shaped the Danish people; however, he believes that debating the concept of Danishness is less important than understanding the values of the West.  “In basics, it’s a question about human rights, respect of the individual, law and democracy, freedom of speech, the equality of the sexes, and all these general matters,” he contends.  In his eyes, Muslim immigrants are a threat if they do not accept these ideals, and to ensure that they do, he promotes full assimilation of immigrants into Danish culture. “The objective for me is to get them so integrated that every time they go out of the door they behave Danishly, so to speak.  So in the end of the day, they will not shift over when they go back into their homes.  So they maintain Danishness.”  

In Mozhdeh’s opinion, the type of assimilation that Messerschmidt advocates is overbearing and unnecessary, because respect for Western values, such as human rights, can be combined with non-Western traditions.  She says, “It should be possible to come to Denmark and be able to combine your own culture, your own identity, with the Danish culture somehow, without getting the feeling that everything you stand for is wrong or the way you live is just the wrong way of living.”   In reality, though, it was difficult for Mozhdeh to combine being “Danish” with her own cultural and religious traditions.  By assimilating, she felt that she actually began to lose part of her identity.  Before coming to Denmark, Islam was Mozhdeh’s foundation.  In the tumultuous environment around her, God was the one consistently stable factor in her life.  “I needed God, I needed my religion when I lived in Iraq, because I was a refugee, because it was so extreme, because when I was five, six years old I saw my mom being shot 12 times in her face, I saw my brother being shot, I never knew if my dad came home or not.”  When Mozhdeh came to Denmark, she had a more comfortable life and, therefore, did not rely so heavily on God.  “When I came to Denmark, I felt like God was moving away from me somehow, and it felt terrible, really.  I had a feeling like a little child afraid that she’s doing something terribly wrong.”

Culture

Only now, she says, can she begin to go back to this part of herself, the part she was forced to abandon.  Although she doubts that she will ever be as religious as she was growing up in the Middle East, she wants to discover her culture again, to see and read the news in her own language, to be in contact with some Iranian, Kurdish, or Middle Eastern people, because she primarily has Danish friends, none of whom are Kurdish.  Mozhdeh wants to learn to cook like her mother and to ensure that her future children can eat the same food she ate and can have the same traditions she had as a child.  While she wants to pass on these experiences, she also gives us the impression that there is another reason behind her desire to return to her culture, a reason that stems from her frustration with Danish society.  Mozhdeh says that she feels Danish, but this hardly matters, because in Danish society she will never be accepted as a Dane.  “You have to be born Dane, you have to look Dane, you have to think Dane, you have to feel Dane, you have to eat and act and you have to be Dane in every and each way.”  She adds, both defiantly and defensively, “You have to be a copy of a blond, tall girl, and I’m not.  And I’m glad that I’m not.”

Now is the time in her life when she has the confidence to voice such a statement.  Because she has the self-assurance that she is “good enough” as a person, she no longer fights so hard to be accepted and no longer wants to receive sympathy from others simply because she is a refugee.  She does not want her glowing list of accomplishments tainted by the fact that she has had a hard life; rather, she wants her resume to speak for itself.  When Mozhdeh looks at her friends in Denmark, she feels that she has had more achievements, the attitude of a decidedly proud person.  Paradoxically, she sometimes still chooses to remain silent in face of Danes who are strangers, something that she often later regrets.  She is afraid of being labelled an immigrant and afraid that people will take her personal opinions as being representative of the opinions of a larger immigrant population.  Mozhdeh is also afraid of offending Danish people, because she still has a nagging feeling that she owes them something after receiving a somewhat good life and education in Denmark.  This is a feeling that she is actively trying to leave behind.  Up until only recently, she felt that she owed Denmark a lot.  Mozhdeh says that when Danish people used to discriminate against her, she would not complain, precisely because she was in their country, using their money to receive an education.  Now she is more resistant.  As she puts it, “I have been here and working hard.  They haven’t given me more than they would any other Dane.  I don’t need to have the feeling that I owe them anything.”

Home

When discussing with Mozhdeh the likelihood of making Denmark her permanent home, she seems torn on the issue.  Part of her wants to go to Canada, where she, as an exchange student, felt that she was not constantly stigmatized as an outsider.  Mozhdeh relates to us that in Canada, she actually chose to identify herself as Danish, which we found incongruous with her statements earlier in the interview, where she made it clear that she would always consider herself first and foremost Kurdish, then Iranian, and, finally, Danish.  For the first time, being in a different country, she felt Danish.  It was, moreover, easier to say she was Danish and to end the story there. 

Ambition also plays a role in Mozhdeh’s decision of whether or not to stay in Denmark.  She feels that she has taken advantage of all Denmark has to offer and fears that staying in the country would lead to her oppression and would prevent the realization of her goals, such as becoming a successful practicing psychologist.  This feeling is strengthened when she thinks of her children.  Mozhdeh admits that Denmark is a country with copious opportunities, but she does not want her children to face the prejudice and hatred that she has felt here.  She says that she refuses to make the same mistake her parents made, who chose to fight for something they believed in, the Kurdish people, at the expense of their own family.  “They didn’t think about us, the children,” she says, “nobody heard our voices or asked us what we thought.”  Mozhdeh contends that her children will be the decisive factor in her life and that she will live where they can have the best future.  It is ironic, because many might see Mozhdeh’s personal fight to achieve her own dreams as a victory for all minority women, but this is not how Mozhdeh views the situation at all.  She still feels that she must choose between fighting for what she believes in and having what she wants – a comfortable, successful life.  To add to this irony further, while Mozhdeh does not want to follow the same path as her parents, their decisions allowed her to be in this position today—to be able to weigh her options for the future.  

When we ask her, “By leaving Denmark, are you not just doing what you always do, fleeing, being a refugee?” Mozhdeh is unsure how to respond.  The truth is, maybe Denmark is the best there is in terms of a haven, but this is an idea that Mozhdeh seems unwilling to accept, and thus she looks to Canada for the future.  On one hand, Mozhdeh is attracted to the idea of leading a “normal” life, leaving her refugee identity behind and being just another face in the crowd.  This life might be possible in Canada.  On the other hand, we see her holding onto the refugee identity because it is all she has ever known.  Mozhdeh admits that she will have nothing left to fight for if she finishes being a refugee and becomes a “normal” person.  Her whole life has been a struggle in one way or another, and this sense of struggle has been embedded into her identity; the thought of being “normal” terrifies her.  In the end, however, it is not only a personal choice for Mozhdeh as to whether she will put the refugee identity behind her; her surroundings define her as well.  She often feels that Danes force the refugee identity upon her, from sincere comments inquiring into her background to outright discrimination based on her appearance or her name. “People are pushing me to maintain my identity of a refugee when part of me just wants to move on,” she tells us.  Simultaneously, she feels obligated to inform other people, especially Danes, of a refugee’s life, so that when they meet a refugee in the future they might act differently.  Perhaps there is no choice for Mozhdeh to make.  Her older sister, Mozhgan, seems more rational when she puts in the following terms: “No matter where we go, we will always be refugees; we will never be 100 percent at home anywhere.”   

Mozhdeh’s struggle with identity is hardly a simple subject.  After speaking with her for several hours, it became clear that she is both confused and self-aware, most likely a product of being forced to think about complex identity issues from a young age.  She has been confronted with the majority’s rhetoric about immigrants in the West, rhetoric that is often negative, and with the choices, or lack thereof, of integration and assimilation.  While Mozhdeh’s story is unimaginable to many of us, it is also the more familiar story of a person wanting control over his or her own life.  Mozhdeh wants to be able to redefine her identity if and when she wants in order to achieve her own goals.  She wants to be more than a face in the crowd; she wants to be unique, yet at the same time she is tired of standing out.  In this way she is similar to other people intelligent and aware enough to play with social constructs in order to take advantage of opportunities that come their way.  Mozhdeh’s future is uncertain, but, judging from her cleverness and cognizance, she is beginning to find herself. 

 

References

 

Interviews:

Ghasemiyani, Mozhdeh; 2004 HIA Fellow; June 18, 2004 and June 27, 2004.

Ghasemiyani, Mozhgan; sister of Mozhdeh; phone interview June 27, 2004.

Wiedemann, Frederik; M.Sc.Econ, Partner at Danish e-Learning Center, instructor on “Danish Politics and Society” at Danish International Study Program, June 23, 2004.

Messerschmidt, Morten; Vice President, Danish People’s Party’s Youth Department; June 24, 2004. 

 

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HIA Program:

Denmark Denmark 2004

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