Somalis in Copenhagen: Growing Up as Children of “Unwanted Immigrants”
By Helle Stenum
A large influx of refugees from Somalia arrived in Denmark in the ’90s fleeing civil war. At first they gained acceptance.
Back in 1993, a survey showed that Somali refugees were popular among natives, in comparison with Iranians and Palestinians. However, only a few years later, the perception of Somalis had dramatically changed. According to a 1999 study, Somalis experienced more discrimination than any other ethnic minority group in Denmark. This shift followed aggressive media campaigns and political rhetoric at the time, which systematically portrayed Somali refugees as “unwanted immigrants” who caused “problems.” Today many Somalis feel that they are still associated with negative images and stereotypes.
I spent months interviewing Danish Somali youth who, while growing up in Denmark, saw their parents being singled out as “unwanted.” Their stories—which are part of Open Society’s Somalis in Copenhagen report—are not all filled with experiences of discrimination and bullying. But they all carry insight in the questionable mechanisms of “integration,” power relations, stereotypes, and social blindness. Social blindness occurs when people discriminate without knowing the resultant harm and how it can affect a person, a classroom, and a community.
Here is one of the more extreme examples that I encountered in my research: a 24-year-old Danish Somali woman spoke to me about her experience being the only immigrant child in her class and being bullied because of her skin color. “The teachers did not see very much [of the bullying]. At one point I felt it was normal, that it was not wrong to call me ‘golliwog’ or ‘ape,’ and I was supposed to laugh.”
At elementary school she was the only one who was told that her Danish was not good enough for high school, despite others being at the same level as her. She took an exam to show that she was qualified, while her teacher told her that he would bet a case of beers that she wouldn’t pass. Frustrated and in despair with her Danish school experience, she moved to the UK to pursue her university degree. For the first time, she was not singled out as a problem all the time.
In response to this story another young Somali woman at the same focus group said: “I don’t think the teachers understand what they are doing. They make it look normal, but we feel like outcasts. When I am with my friends I don’t feel that there is a difference between us, but as soon as the media, or others, talk in terms of ‘Danes’ and ‘Somalis’ then we feel that there is a huge difference, even though we have lived here and feel very much like a part of this country. But we still feel that we are pushed aside because we are Somalis as well.”
These young people have important experiences and contributions that society needs to hear. They need to be acknowledged and valued as Danish fellow citizens—just like any young person in Denmark. When bullying and exclusion become socially acceptable, it is a problem for all. It disturbs the development of a coherent society, especially in a national context of harsh and aggressive political rhetoric targeting specific ethnic minority groups.
Educators should commit explicitly to teaching tolerance and sensitivity. Elementary school is a meeting point for people of different ages and different cultural and ethnic backgrounds. From the testimonies of Danish Somalis, pupils and parents, it seems there is room for improvement to transform elementary schools into an inclusive setting respecting differences, preventing ethnic bullying, and creating a language and framework against discrimination and exclusion. As one teacher with Danish Somali background at a higher education institution told me: we need to start by teaching intercultural competence to both our students and teachers.
Dr. Helle Stenum is the lead researcher for the Somalis in Copenhagen report, part of the research series titled Somalis in European Cities.