Odense: "We are only Danish on paper"

Odense: "We are only Danish on paper"

Information's journalist Hana Al-Khamri, who is from Yemen and had lived most of her life in Saudi-ARabia, visited Vollsmose and met the neighborhood's residents. She recounts her meetings with the neighborhood in this series.

"I am back in the Arab World. That is my first impression of the meeting with the Odense neighborhood of Vollsmose. However the place doesn't remind me of any other Arab country I know. It's as if Arab Vollsmose is stuck in the way of life that the first immigrants brought with them to Denmark, while the Arab counties continued to develop."


School principal Olav Nielsen made the news last year when he said he would advise Jewish parents not to enroll their children at his school. At the time, blogger Uriasposten pointed out that Nielsen supported the Boycott Israel campaign. In this article, it seems he also has a Palestinian flag in his office. It's unclear whether his theoretical advise to Jewish parents is due to his students' antisemitism, or his own.

Going down the hall at Humlehaveskolen (Humlehave school) in Vollsmose, I meet a girl of at most eight. She's wearing a headscarf. This is the first time in my life that I've such a little girl wearing a headscarf. Even in Saudi-Arabia, where I grew up, I've never seen such a thing. A teacher tells me that the girl's parents are doing everything they can to protect their children from the influences of Danish society.

In Humlehaveskolen, around 90% of the students have an immigrant background. And the girl with the headscarf is a very good example of the battle which is constantly going on in the school and the children's heads. The boys and girls I meet at the school all recount how complicated and bewildering it is for them to live up to the expectations, norms and demands their families make, and at the same time honor the demand of Danish society to integrate and get an education.

The school's principal, Olav Nielsen, is a familiar figure in Vollsmose. Besides his job as a school principal, he also works with young prisoners - several of which were previously students at the school.

"The children from many of our immigrant families come from rough situations. Several have seen their fathers killed before their eyes. Others have parents who were tortured or traumatized by war experiences," he says.

On the wall behind him hangs a Palestinian flag and pictures of his former students. There's also a bird cage with a parrot in the office. Olav points at it with a finger and says:

"This parrot belongs to one of my students. He's serving a prison sentence and I promised him to take care of his bird until he comes out again."

Olav explains that the student's background makes them vulnerable:

"The mothers rarely have any educations, since they were married off at a young age. Most of the families who live here in Vollsmose, suffer from some form of injury: physical, psychological or mental. We even have some young people and older children who fled alone or with their siblings to Denmark."

Olav takes me into a 9th grade class. There are 18 students, not one of them has an ethnic Danish background.

They can all tell similar stories of how they ended up in Denmark. Most came here very young.

I ask why so many of the older boys become troublemakers.

"I think they cause crime and problems because these boys have a difficult situation in their families," says Khaled and adds that he feels he only does what his family wants of him.

His voice is sad. Khaled's teacher says that Khaled has good parents who are interested in their son's future.

Amojgar, who comes from Iraqi Kurdistan raises his hand and says:

"Some have lost their fathers in war. Other comes from divorced families. They cause so much trouble to show that they are strong and can handle what goes on in the streets."

But Khaled interrupts him and says that he thinks that the teenage boys who are causing trouble are reacting mostly against their strict families, which always tell them what they must and should do, who they should hang out with etc.

"All the time they're told no. They always decide for us and therefore there are many young boys who become defiant and disobedient. As a form of protest against their families," he says.

Khaled's family doesn't want him to have Danish friends. He doesn't know why.

"They don't listen to me. They just want to do what they think is best for me."

Several of the boys in the 9th grade wear hip-hop clothes. The pants hang so low that you can see their underwear, and when they go down the corridor, they make hand-signs to each other all the time. I ask them what they want to be in the future.

Five boys immediately say: "I don't know," while three answer that they want to be businessmen or lawyers. Khaled says that he wants to go to university, since then he can realize his parents' dream.

I note that the boys are the ones who answer most of my questions. The girls rarely speak, but I want to know what they think. Even when I directly ask the girls a question, nobody answers. Olav Nielsen, school principal, suggests that the boys leave the classroom.

When I'm alone with the girls, I ask why they didn't want to say anything next to the boys.

"We are shy, and some times we get comments from the boys if they don't like our opinions,and we don't want that," says Asia, a Somali girl with a little headscarf on her head. Six of the girls are veiled, three aren't.

I ask if their families treat them differently than their brothers, but before any of them has a chance to answer, Olav interrupts. He says that his daughter, the same age as the 9th grade girls, asked him one day if she could sleep with her boyfriend. Some of the girls smile, others look surprised and uncomfortable, as if they don't approve that Olav gave his daughter permission to go to bed with her boyfriend.

"It's Danish culture. Parents should say their honest opinion, but we should respect our children's individual choice, and I will respect my daughter's," he tells the girls in the class.

"Maybe your parents will now tell you that my daughter is a whore, and at I'm a bad father, but that's the way we respect our children and raise them as equals in the eyes of the law."

Olva leaves the class and leaves me alone with the girls.

"I'll never be able to say that Olav's daughter is a whore. But Danes are from another culture than ours," answers Asia, when I ask what she they think of Olav's story. "It's true that the boys are treated differently in our families, but if girls got the same freedoms as boys, they could be a few problems, for example, if they get pregnant. We have a lot to lose, that the boys don't," she adds.

But Najah, who is Palestinian, says that "The boys' problems are because they have so much more freedom than we."

Hafsa, a Somali girl, disagrees.

"It's because the family's control gets on the boys' nerves, that they cause all the trouble."

Hafsa presents herself: "I'm from Denmark". But then changes her opinion: "No, that was wrong. I'm from Somalia."

Her friends begin to laugh, especially when she emphasizes again that she's not Danish.

The girls in the class come from Palestine, Iraq, Iran, Turkey and Somalia.

"We are only Danish on paper," says Hafsa. "Not in reality."

Source: Information (Danish), h/t Hodja