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Great Expectations

 

 -Young Danes with foreign backgrounds are faced with the hard choice of balancing between family and society expectations.  

Troublemakers, leeches, fundamentalist, scarf, ghetto, integration … the list of words used in the debate is long. They are welcome but we don’t really want them. They are told to integrate and in the same breath told that they are a problem. We value their multiculturalism …as long as they leave their religion and scarves at home. All they have to do is to dress more like us. Behave more like us….what’s so hard about that!?  

There are 415,331 immigrants and descendants living in Denmark, 7.7 percent of the country’s population. The offspring of those who immigrated 15, 20 or 30 years ago are still negotiating a cultural identity that is ambiguous. Many don’t know if they belong to the world within their families’ homes or to the one that exists outside of them. All are pulled in opposite directions and left in a no-man’s-land of identity. How do they cope with these differing great expectations?

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Double Teenage Identity 

Khadouj Al mohmmadi, 31, came from Morocco to Denmark at the age of 4. Has two children by her Moroccan husband. Is currently working at a cultural center.

A cheerful petite lady, Khadouj reflected with humour on her years growing up: “When I was a teenager I said, ‘oh my god, I have two lives,’ because when I was home I was Moroccan and when I was out I was a different person.” Wearing a snow-white scarf tucked into an ash-grey, embroidered gown, she continued: “This split was definitely worst in my teenage years. I learned to balance these two sets of values as I grew older and more confident of who I was…I would never have worn a scarf and a long dress (a jallaba)  in my teenage years as I do now, though I very much wanted to.” Speaking about her family, she added, “I would never have been able to tell my parents how much I disagree with their traditions, like I do now.” On the double pressures from home and school, Khadouj remembered the conflict vividly: “They (her friends from school) said, for example, ‘how can you not go with us to camp?’…my parents were afraid that maybe I would implement things from their culture. They could not see that you could be Muslim and Danish in culture.” As she reached the awareness of adolescence, Khadouj’s outlook changed drastically: “The more I read books in Danish, the more I got confident that you can be a Muslim wherever you are.” As a result, by the sixth grade, she made up her mind to become a Muslim and took it upon herself to wear a scarf. 

Married and Divorced

Berim Minatovic (requested the use of a pseudonym), 25, came from Macedonia to Danmark at the age of 12. Student. 

With Middle-Eastern pop music blending into the murmur of lunch conversations, an Egyptian bar was the site of our interview with Berim: “I got married when I was 20, which I was more or less forced into, in the sense that the pressure from my family and relatives was more than I could handle. I was very vulnerable. I just got out of a relationship with a girl I loved very much, and people were starting to gossip and look down on me because I wasn’t married. So I got married in Macedonia, and I let them choose for me…she looked nice, and I thought ‘what the hell’.” Only 6 months later, Berim mustered up enough courage to defy family pressure and take action against his unhappy marriage- the result was a divorce before his wife even came to Denmark. The demands of Danish society have also been a source of unbearable pressure for the handsome, engaging youth, who started to have panic attacks two years ago: “I feel that you have to be perfect to live in Denmark. You have to have a good social network, speak the language fluently etc…I remember when I had a panic attack in the street no one helped me because people were afraid and probably thought I was on drugs or maybe they thought, ‘what if I help him and he dies in my arms’… Society takes care of problems- not people.”

Denmark is my Home

Emrah SÜtcÜ, 26, born in Denmark to Turkish parents. Intern at Politiken.

“I think there is a cultural difference between new Danes and Danes in general. We have a greater sense of loyalty to each other- whether it’s in friendship or love. We get more involved on a personal level…maybe that’s why my mother prefers that I marry a foreigner. We’re used to sticking together as a group- maybe because we are a minority. When I go to Turkey I don’t see the same loyalty,” Emrah said in his animated way. The stocky, manila-brown intern also commented on personal expectations: “I don’t care what nationality my future wife is- neither would my parents. However, they would prefer a foreigner because they would feel they had more in common with her.” Despite being firm on which country is his home, Emrah still experienced ambiguity with his Danish identity in the larger society: “Denmark is my home- not Turkey- but I  still register the looks I get, and that reminds you that you’re different.”

A Choice of Self-Exclusion

F.G., 25, born in Denmark to Moroccan parents. Intern at news organization (requested that he remain anonymous).

“There are things that I can’t tell my mother or share with my siblings…but it doesn’t affect my everyday life since I don’t live at home anymore,” he said about his divorced mother’s influence on his daily life. Soft-spoken and thoughtful, F.G. told us about what he described as his self-exclusion from certain aspects of Danish society: “I’ve made a decision to exclude myself from specific parts of Danish society…I do not eat pork…I do not drink, mostly because none of my friends drink…It has just never interested me.” When questioned about the identity of his friends, F.G. informed us that they are mostly “Arabs and Turks.”

30 and Still Unmarried

A.H., 30, came from Morocco to Denmark at the age of 4. Student (requested that she remain anonymous).

“It’s hard to maintain the input you get from home. It’s always questioned, and you feel that you always have to defend yourself and what you believe in. On the other hand, you face the same problems at home and within the immigrant community when you choose a different lifestyle. And for me this split is even worse now that I am 30 years old and still unmarried,” said A.H. with a hint of frustration, five minutes into the telephone interview. “In the Moroccan community you are looked down on. In that sense I share the same values as the majority in Denmark who thinks that a good job and education and being outgoing are values that are just as good. It’s emotionally distressing when you don’t live up to the social norms.”

Love and Lies

S.D., 23, born in Denmark to Macedonian parents. Student (requested that she remain anonymous).

After sitting back in an armchair, crossing her legs and lighting a cigarette, this smiling young woman in a charcoal blouse and marine blue jeans disclosed her experiences of life: “A relationship for me is a very concrete example of the worst split. You have to hide it from your parents. He has to be a Muslim.” She then proceeded to tell us about her secret relationship, known only by one of her three siblings. “My mother doesn’t know about it because it will break her heart,” the interviewee said, smiling nervously after blowing yet another cloud of cigarette smoke above her head. After further probing she revealed having had four previous secret relationships, the first beginning when she was 18 years old. “Do you feel a part of Danish society?” we asked. “Yes. I am born here,” she responded. “I am…treated as a Dane because I am light-skinned…until they hear my name…then…they pose questions or reveal they’re prejudiced…they ask ‘why don’t you wear a veil?’” Having transparent sky-blue eyes and straw-colored hair, she also noticed that Danes say she has “dark hair” only after learning about her foreign background.

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Legislation Forces its way into the Living Room

The legislation recently proposed by the Government, entitled, ‘The Government’s Vision and Strategies for Better Integration’, is a 114-point proposal introduced on June 16, 2003. 

The initiatives have implications for the cultural practices of immigrants and their descendants. Ole Espersen, professor of law at the University of Copenhagen, argued against the proposals which included revisions of the Marriage Law.  According to Danish law you are only allowed to bring a spouse from another country to Denmark when you’ve turned 24. The proposal suggests fewer restrictions on spouses coming from Western countries but not Third World countries. About the proposals Professor Espersen commented, “The laws and proposals are an expression of the thought that there exists only one civilization, and that is the white Christian civilization.” 

Is the Government’s legislation of the private sphere the way to make Danes with foreign backgrounds become part of society? According to Emrah SÜtcÜ legislation will not improve the integration process. When asked about what he thought it meant to be integrated, Emrah replied, “I think people should give up trying to define integration. It’s a diffused term. When foreigners hear integration they have no idea of what’s implied because there are so many definitions. If you know the language it doesn’t mean that you are integrated. I know many people who live up to these integration standards but still don’t feel accepted as a Danes. It’s a feeling. You have to feel at home.”

Berad Minatovic, on the other hand, felt that certain ‘integration’ laws, such as the already existing 24 Marriage Law, were a good idea. Based on his own experience of being in an arranged marriage, the young man with a Slavic background said, “If they wait till they are grown up they are better capable of saying ‘no’. When you are young you’re confused, and it’s complicated to go against the family. I think it’s a good rule.” 

Khadouj Al Mohmmadi had another take on the matter. She believed that legislation, such as the Marriage Law, were ineffective. In her opinion, those who want to get married find ways of doing it. Khadouj pointed out another flaw: “Now the minister is saying you have to have your own apartment in your own name. So the immigrants borrow money from their families in order to buy their own apartments,” she told us before chuckling and shaking her head. She said that dialog is the key to solving the issues of integration: “Danes with a foreign background should be more active and see it as their duty to tell other Danes as well as their parents how these contradicting norms affect them.”

Loneliness is no Friend of Mine

Berad talked about the isolation he felt when growing up. He was 8 years old when he came to Denmark with his parents and siblings. A year later he went back to Macedonia alone because he missed his relatives. However, a year later he had to return to Denmark because of the Balkan War. As the murmur of lunchtime conversations subsided but with the Middle-Eastern music ongoing, Berad explained that the isolation he felt was partly due to Danes being difficult to connect with and partly because of his strict upbringing: “I felt very isolated because I couldn’t talk to anyone, and when I learned the language properly I still felt isolated because I didn’t make any friends. My parents didn’t want Danes at home because of my sister. I felt really lonely and wanted someone to talk to. Besides my parents I felt that Danes were difficult to talk to.” 

Two years ago, the muscular young man became mentally ill and started to suffer from panic attacks. He explained that the panic attacks were a result of the stress he felt when he tried to adjust to the norms at home and to the norms of society: “I was stressed with thoughts on how I wanted to live my life and all the expectations from home and society…It was difficult for me because in Denmark you’re told that you have to be independent, and in a sense they give you all the tools to become independent- but not the way to go about it if you have a more community-oriented background.”

“When the values at home clash with those in your environment, you are bound to be confused,” said Mrs. Anita Barfod, a cigar-smoking but motherly former senior consultant at The Social Development Center (SUS). An author of several research projects on municipalities’ management of integration, the heavily tanned lady also added, “We have social counselors, psychologists and physiatrists who express frustration when they deal with Danes who have a foreign background. Some psychologists have expressively said that they don’t want to deal with people from a different background because they demand more time…whatever that means.”  Berad’s own psychologist was a Pakistani who, he argued, inspired greater confidence from the young mans perspective not because of the doctors greater competence but due to Berad’s perception that his counselor was more familiar with his plight. Mrs. Anita Barfod mentioned that frustrations are great on both sides. The authorities in the municipalities that she had been in contact with were frustrated because, they said, they didn’t have the necessary training to help immigrants and their descendants to overcome the difficulties posed by mental illness.

According to Mrs. Barford, immigrants were just as frustrated because they were not understood. This was especially the case in the provinces, where immigration from Third World countries was a rather new phenomenon.      

Talk to Each Other 

So what is the solution to the cultural alienation of these new young Danes? In Mrs. Barfod’s view, the response should be more dialog among the authorities in the municipalities. As she stated, “No one should be isolated with his or her problems. Dialog is the key element- not legislation; legislation only creates resistance.” However, A.H. explained why Danes with a foreign background, especially girls, were less communicative about their situation. “There exists a certain social control that causes you to be more careful with what you tell people. You are always worried about rumors… so are my parents. My parents would be more liberal if they knew that people would mind their own business, but they don’t, so if I am out late my brother will pick me up because they know that people will start to gossip if the see me on the streets at night.”  This was one of the explanations we were given for why some of the interviewees wanted to remain anonymous. When we talked to Khadouj about this kind of social control she explained: “It is important that different lifestyles are made acceptable, and as a Muslim I believe that only God can judge.” In addition, Khadouj explained that she thought the lack of dialog and existing prejudice is within the immigrant community, as well as among Danes. The tiny, vivacious lady then recounted a powerful anecdote. For the purposes of running a recycling project in her local area, the home to 27 nationalities, Khadouj was called upon for help: “The Danish organizers called me to translate a letter to Turks and others of the 27 countries represented in the area…of course I cannot speak Turkish or Urdu etc… I spoke Danish to a Turkish woman who did not speak Danish by using only gestures and by showing her where to put what. I also communicated with a Pakistani woman by talking Danish to her children who translated what I was saying to their mother…why couldn’t the organizers have done that themselves?... maybe we have the same religion but everything else is different.” Khadouj continued forcefully, “it is the same with the parliament I hate it when Parliament talks as if we are the same. We aren’t. Our traditions are different.” 

Ester Larsen, MP from the governing Liberal Party (Venstre), brought a different perspective to the table. We confronted her about whether or not her party considered the impact that their immigrant laws- such as forced day care- had on that community. She responded, “Every country has different ways of accepting immigrants in the U.S. for example, it’s the hard way. In Denmark we have another social system. There is no need for the immigrants to feel less worthy.” 

Time Changes

Do these laws targeted at immigrants and their descendants have a constructive effect in the long run? According to Professor Espersen these laws, which only apply to a separate group of people, will eliminate the power and will to integrate, even for those born in the country, “Because the laws don’t consider people’s cultural patterns.” What could be done then? Emrah argues, “It’s a question of time before these problems are eliminated. The next generation will have fewer problems. Our being caught between two cultures is inevitable because we are the second generation. The majority within a culture will always win; it’s just a matter of time.” F.E. similarly noted that only time will be able to solve integration. “There has to be a change of mentality within the society,” F.E noted. 

He stated that in the end, foreigners are a resource- but added, “It doesn’t matter if we immigrants are a resource if they’re not thought of as one.” Berad, on the other hand, didn’t believe in the balancing act and letting time solve the problems of this generation of new Danes. He compared his own situation with the hippie generation of the 60s: “I am like the ‘68 generation who rebelled against both their families’ and society’s norms in order to live their lives the way that they wanted. I take action now by defying family pressure.  You eventually have to choose one side.” But regardless of the choice, one of the two parties is always left unsatisfied.  

 

References

 

Statistical yearbook of Foreigners in Denmark 2002

Interview: Mrs. Anita Barfod, Former Senior Consultant, Center for Social Development

Interview: Emrah SÜtcÜ, Intern, Politiken

Interview: Ole Espersen, Professor of law, University of Copenhagen

Interview: Ester Larsen Member of Parliament, Venstre

Interview: Khadouj Al mohmmadi, Co-ordinator, Karens Minde Cultural Center

Interview: Berim Minatovic (pseudonym)

Interview: F.G (anonymous) intern, news agency

Interview: A.H, (anonymous), student

Interview: S.D (anonymous), student

 

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