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Straight Outta Mjølnerparken?

 

On the walk to Mjølnerparken, one of the “ghettoes” of Copenhagen, we pass by the Anatolian Halal Kebab House, a store selling the latest Danish street ware, and a poster of the B-Boys advertising their newest CD, “Hey Yo!” Further down, we pass by Prinsens Bodega, stop for a cheap beer, and speak to the bartender about going to Mjølnerparken. She cringes and says, “You dare to go there?” Across Hothers Plads, one of the streets bordering Mjølnerparken, we stop by an apartment complex and look at the doorway listing of residents. The names: Johansen, Hansen, Jensen. We cross the street, enter Mjølnerparken, and again check the listing: Aslam, Bakir, el Chaik. We see a poster of Minister of Integration Bertel Haarder with his job title scratched and changed—to “Minister of Discrimination.” We hear the squeals of children playing in the courtyard, at first seeming to be the only residents. And later, at the bodega, we talk to Zoran, a Serbian Danish man, and show him a close-up picture of Mohammed Aslam, chairman of the Mjølnerparken residents’ association, which was featured in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten. We ask for his first reaction to the picture, comparisons to Osama bin Laden are made, and he says, “I want to take his head off.”  

Popular visions of the American “ghetto” usually include a pattern of stock images: random drive-by shootings, crack addicts smoking up in the streets, and young black women with too many babies. But what they really mean is that respectable people do not go to the ghetto, that people in the ghetto are causing their own problems, and that those angry young black men are to be feared. In Denmark, it is the young Muslim women who are having too many babies, the young Muslim boys who are creating the next crime wave, and the old foreign immigrants who are too lazy to work: The four small buildings and courtyards that comprise Mjølnerparken are to be feared. But walking through Mjølnerparken, there are white faces, black faces, and Asian faces as well. There are girls wearing headscarves and those not wearing them. There are parking lots filled with the taxis that many of the residents drive. There are flowerbeds that have not been destroyed. There is Mette Koue, co-writer of a series of articles on Mjølnerparken published in Jyllands-Posten, who upon first visiting Mjølnerparken was surprised at how “nice, quiet, and pretty” it was. And there is Baris Bakir, a 19-year-old Mjølnerparken resident of Turkish descent who says the biggest problem in Mjølnerparken is that there are “too many foreigners here.” 

“Foreigners” in Mjølnerparken comprise 92% of the residents—the highest percentage of people of foreign descent in any social housing project in Denmark. Within the municipality of Copenhagen, people of foreign descent make up only 17% of the population. Of these foreigners in Mjølnerparken, the largest percentage is Palestinian refugees from Lebanon (34%), followed by people from Iraq (13%) and Somalia (9%). Yet, these statistics of “foreigners” also include people like Baris, who was born and raised in Denmark—and people like Baris constitute a large percentage of the residents, considering that slightly more than half of the population is under the age of 18, compared to 17% in the municipality of Copenhagen. These kids and teenagers, then, must work between two, or more, cultures, languages, and systems of perception. Caught between a wider “Danish” society, which they must penetrate in order to gain employment, and their own families, which often have difficulty understanding the cultural mixing done by their kids, the youth of Mjølnerparken are caught inside a matrix of conflicting perceptions: the dangerous young Muslim, the uncomprehending foreigner, the “New Dane.” When they perceive that they will be met with discrimination as soon as they step out of Mjølnerparken, but then can only fall back on cultural traditions that seem increasingly, and unnecessarily, prohibitive, what will they do?     

This is what their parents say they should do: Go to building 36 in Mjølnerparken, walk downstairs, and enter “Klub 36,” co-run by a man named Nadim Barakji and several helpers from the community. On the walls, there are words written in Arabic and paintings depicting Lebanese mythical castles. There are numerous computers turned on and a pool table with pre-teen kids running around it. We talk to Nadim, a Palestinian refugee from Lebanon who wears a key chain around his neck with the Palestinian flag emblazoned on it, and he says that they have a good relationship with the parents; the parents want their kids to come in. During the week, they offer tutoring to help the kids with their homework in Danish since many of the parents are less proficient in the language, and they are also available for counselling when social problems arise. All teenagers have problems, Nadim says, not only the teenagers in Mjølnerparken.

During the weekends, Klub 36 offers classes on Arab culture. Nadim’s cousin stops by and says that in order to integrate into Danish culture, one must know his or her “own” culture first—there must be a foundation to stand upon. But Baris has problems with this club, and in general, with the dominance of Arab culture. Although none of his parents or family is of Arab descent, by virtue of living in Mjølnerparken, he has learned how to communicate in basic Arabic. Hans Henrik Lomholt, the housing social coordinator of Mjølnerparken, says that the biggest problem in Mjølnerparken is equality since some ethnic groups within Mjølnerparken have more of an influence than others. Not all 92% of the foreigners are of Arab descent. Not all of the kids can fall back on what Nadim and his cousin can call “our” culture. Not all teenagers want to be in a club where the coordinators are friends with their parents.

And so this is what the kids want to do: get a job, get some money, get some clothes, get some boyfriends, and get some girlfriends. Go to some clubs. Go to “First Floor,” a youth club located just a few blocks from Mjølnerparken where there are video game systems, backgammon boards, and smoking areas. We talk to Atti, a worker there of Iranian descent, and show her a picture of two girls from Mjølnerparken featured in an article titled “Girltalk” in the Jyllands-Posten. She says that the father of one of the girls was in prison, and when he discovered that his daughter was going to the club, he visited it escorted by two police officers to ensure that there were no boys there to mix with his daughter. When Atti mentions that she works at “First Floor” to her family and friends in Iran, they are surprised and, perhaps, shocked; they envision copious sex, drinking, and smoking—not a suitable place for her to work in. She plans on videotaping the club to show what really goes on in it. 

Simon Prahm, one of the founders of GAM3, an urban basketball and hip-hop program that includes Mjølnerparken as one of its locations, prints brochures with information about the program in Danish, Swedish, Urdu, and Arabic. Still, the parents are sceptical. According to Hans Henrik, despite the copious amounts of flyers handed out in Mjølnerparken, the posters plastered on the walls, and the hip-hop music blaring out of the “Ghetto Blaster” to announce the beginning of the program, participation in GAM3 is still low. He says that to reach the kids, you need to reach the few leaders in the community who know how to reach the parents. 

We ask Baris why the kids in Mjølnerparken are perceived to have so many problems. Like other kids we talk to, he blames the parents. They save all the money up for themselves, for their relatives back “home,” for travel back “home,” for building houses in their “homeland.” And, then, there is little money left for the kids in his “home,” in Mjølnerparken, in Copenhagen. We ask Muhammed, a 19-year-old of Palestinian descent living in Mjølnerparken whom we meet at “First Floor,” the same question. Over a game of backgammon, he talks about the problems of kids in Mjølnerparken. He draws a diagram. In the middle, he draws a circle and writes inside of it, “opdragelse,” upbringing. Lines coming out of the circle are then drawn: “faderens og moderens problemer” (father and mother’s problems), “kultur” (culture), “kvarteret” (the quarter). He draws another line coming out of the circle, writes  “kriminalitet,” (crime) and underlines it. Underneath “kriminalitet” he writes “grådig far giver ikke lommepenge”: greedy dad not giving pocket money. He is the son of one of the most prominent imams in the area. In a few years, he plans to go to Palestine and fight: a martyr for the cause.  

Ask what the national and local governments are doing about the problems of these predominantly immigrant social housing projects, and this is what you’ll get: two action plans, one from the national government and another from the municipality of Copenhagen. The Danish government published a national “strategy against ghettoization” in May of this year, while the Copenhagen municipality has drafted an action plan to deal specifically with problems in and around Mjølnerparken. The main focus of the national strategy is to dissolve the “ghettos” by moving in more ethnic Danes. It suggests giving social authorities the opportunity to allocate apartments in order to encourage socially strong “Danes” to move in. To further attract this population, the government plan suggests combining some of the smaller apartments into larger, and thus more appealing, ones. A scheme to privatize the public housing sector has also been suggested as fundamental to eliminating ghettos. Besides aiming to dissolve the ghettos, the government is interested in solving some of the ghetto problems by encouraging entrepreneurship, renewing neighborhoods, and identifying parents who can be local role models for the new generation. It will also create better opportunities for landlords to punish the bad behaviour of residents. 

The municipality of Copenhagen’s plan works with similar means to deal with the problems in Mjølnerparken. However, the emphasis is different. The overall goal is to ensure education and labor market participation among the residents. Hence, a range of initiatives—from involving mothers with local schools to the appointment of SSP (social authorities, schools, police) mentors—are suggested to improve educational and internship opportunities. Informational meetings about “being a parent in the city,” held in the mother tongue of the residents, are also suggested in order to build bridges between the predominantly Arab culture and the wider Danish society.   

Sounds good. Basically, the plans involve the dissolution of the “ghetto” by moving in more ethnic Danes and putting more of the residents to work. But Baris mentions a time when around 90% of the residents of Mjølnerparken were ethnic Danes. Then, according to him, there were still problems associated with the “foreign” community: crime, unemployment, and cultural incomprehension. And Baris works a few days a week at Nørrebrohallen, an activities center located just a few blocks and a quick walk along the new bike path from Mjølnerparken. Nørrebrohallen, with its basketball courts, rock climbing walls, and café, is not used much by the kids in Mjølnerparken, Baris says. According to him, the parents use the fees as an excuse for not sending their kids to Nørrebrohallen, but really, the fees are nominal: The parents are just suspicious of the place. Even if you build it, they still might not come. 

In his job as an information desk officer at Nørrebrohallen, Baris works with many ethnic Danes. Most of the time, his co-worker at the desk is Jens, a large and jovial, fifty-something, ethnic Dane. “I like Baris,” Jens says. A little later, he adds that he votes for the Danish People’s Party. We ask him how he feels about foreigners. He sticks his middle finger up. “I like Baris,” Jens says, but “I have to admit that I’m a little bit racist.” The night when we visit Nørrebrohallen, Denmark is playing Sweden in the European Cup. We notice that many of the tables in the lobby of the center, where the café and information desk are located, have a “reserved” sign on them. Baris tells us that he can reserve a table for us and we ask him why they need to be reserved in the first place. Jens, he says, was tired of the Somalis who used to come and sit at the tables to chat and smoke for hours. When we ask how Baris feels about Jens’s claim that he is a still a bit racist, Baris just smile.

Baris also subtly smiles while telling us about the apartment complex across Hothers Plads filled with ethnically Danish names. “I won’t be able to get an apartment there,” he tells us. We fail to ask him whether he has researched apartment policies, anti-discrimination laws, action plans—but his assumptions and perceptions of the situation trump all this research. During the day, Baris attends school to become a mechanic and hopes to soon work at a shop. He tells us about a job application that he recently submitted that was turned down, though. His analysis of the situation is simple: He was turned down because of his name and address.

According to Hans Henrik and Mette, the journalist at Jyllands-Posten, the community surrounding Mjølnerparken is tolerant and open to communication. The area immediately surrounding Mjølnerparken is particularly accepting of different ethnicities, they add. Yet, we talk to the bartender at a bodega, a bastion of “traditional” Danish culture, close to Mjølnerparken, and she tells us to avoid the newly constructed bike path adjacent to Mjølnerparken. We talk to David Buch, one of the police officers who works with Chababen, a group comprised of police officers that functions as a mentoring club for local youth, and he also advises us to stay clear of the bike path at night. It is too dangerous. Yet we walk through the neighborhood, pass the Bentley dealership across the entrance to Mjølnerparken, and pass the apartment building where Baris knows he will not be able to live.

Mette explains that many of the problems associated with the youth of Mjølnerparken arise because they are bored.  There is not enough to do; there are not enough places to go.  On top of it all, the media constantly refer to them as “bandits”—media like the Jyllands-Posten, which recently published a series of articles, co-written by Mette, about Mjølnerparken—a “Rapport fra Mjølnerparken” (Report from Mjølnerparken).  Here are some selected headlines from these articles: “Derovre er Danmark – her er Libanon” (Over there is Denmark – here is Lebanon), “Affald plager Mjølnerparken” (Garbage is plaguing Mjølnerparken), “Flasker og skidt fløj ned I haven” (Bottles and rubbish flew down in the garden), “En ny generation af rødder er på vej” (A new generation of “troublemakers” is on its way), “Handlingsplan lagt på hylden” (Action plan put on the shelf). Another article: “Hvad er integration” (What is integration?). In this article, 40-year-old Ali Alacddin says, “We are not born here and can never become 100 percent Danish. We have another background. We feel safe and comfortable by being with people from our own culture.”

Mjølnerparken is not a place where most ethnic Danes feel safe and comfortable, and as for Baris, who was “born here,” where he feels safe and comfortable is a relative concept. David Buch, of Chababen, says that most of the people that go the Chababen club are from the ages of 15 to 20. For the 10- to 12-year-old kids in Mjølnerparken, particularly the young boys, this is what they see: the younger kids going to Arab school on the weekends, to Klub 36 where their parents still hold sway. They see some of their older brothers robbing people in order to get some money, which they think their greedy parents are withholding from them. They see the articles in the newspaper proclaiming that a new generation of “rødder” is rising: they have become the centre of attention.  

By the time these Mjølnerparken teenagers go to Chababen, most of the kids have already had a criminal record, crippling even further their chances on the labor market. Of course, only 25 boys go to Chababen. In Mjølnerparken, with a population of 2,340, half of the population is under the age of 18. All teenagers have problems, but teenagers in Mjølnerparken, according to Buch, have more. These “semi-Muslims” complain all the time about discrimination. They blame their problems on racism, on being treated differently. So when they speak about falling back on “our” culture, the fall back is also a move forward towards another model of resistance: martyrs for a cause.

Baris also mentions this feeling of being treated differently, for when he walks inside of Mjølnerparken, he is treated differently. He is treated differently, for instance, by his mother, who hasn’t learned to speak Danish and still associates primarily with people inside Mjølnerparken and from Turkey. The Arabs treat him differently since he identifies more with his Turkish descent. He is treated differently when in Turkey since he identifies more with his Danish identity. And when he walks outside of Mjølnerparken, he is still treated differently. Ali Alacddin says, “We are not born here and can never become 100 percent Danish.” We walk out of Mjølnerparken using the infamous bike path. Along the way, we pass by a pair of ethnically Danish graffiti artists spray-painting a wall along the path. A group of 10-year-old boys from Mjølnerparken surrounds them. They smile and we take a picture of them. We continue along the path, on the way home. A simple sentence for us to write, but for others, it takes longer to explain. 

 

References

 

Interviews

Mette Koue, journalist Jyllands-Posten, Kongens Nytorv June 21st   

Bartender, Prinsens Bodega, Hamletsgade 4, June 21st 

Zoran, guest in Prinsens Bodega, Hamletsgade 4, June 21st  

Hans Henrik Lumholdt, Social Housing Coordinator, Mjølnerparken, Projektkontoret, June 22nd and 24th  

Jens “Grande”, information desk officer in Nørrebrohallen, June 23rd and 24th  

Baris Bakir, resident in MP. Informal meetings June 20th, 22nd, 23rd and 24th 

Simon Prahm, manager of GAM3, June 24th 

Muhammed el Chaik, in First Floor, youth club, June 24th 

Atti, First Floor youth club, June 24th 

David Buch, Police officer, co-founder of ”Chababen”, June 25th 

Nadim Barakji, Klub 36 and Sjakket, June 25th  

Jalal Hemade, Klub 36 and Sjakket, June 25th

Articles and Reports

“Raport fra Mjølnerparken”, article series by Eva Plesner and Mette Koue, JP København, June 10th to 21st.  

“Regeringes Strategi mod Ghettorisering” of May 2004. Available from www.oem.dk

”Handlingsplan for Mjølnerparken”, Københavns Kommune, Økonomiforvaltningen, May 17th, unpublished. 

 

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United-states United States 2004

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