“Be satisfied, the system works”

How is it that a system that prides itself on its fairness, is so frustratingly impossible to access?

Three years in Denmark taught me how far understanding can be from empathy. It started at a visit to the immigration office. I was amazed at the efficiency of the queuing system. You take a number for a quick query at the reception, and they place you into the appropriate waiting section. It is a perfect waiting system. You can’t complain. And if you can’t complain, you must be satisfied.

Having the perfect system guarantees equality, and fair and just treatment – but only if you fit into the system. If you don’t, this equality is not for you.

So, for my first year and a half in Denmark, I tried to fit in. I learned Danish and looked for work, thinking my MA in Conflict Management and my fresh attitude towards making a difference would be in demand. It turned out that both worked against me – there was little interest in my skill set, and much less in my energetic approach to changing the system. Even in the NGO sector, the best candidate seemed to be the person who could keep the system exactly as is. I wrote many emails trying to meet with people working in this sector, and after getting very few replies, I tried to resist the temptation to become cynical.

I met a Dane at a bar one night who, after some small talk, said, “Let me get this straight. You’re from Israel, and you want to do conflict management in Denmark?”

I laughed too, but his question got me thinking. Perhaps I’m in the wrong place to do what I want to do. Perhaps the system is too perfect. It doesn’t need change.

Then I joined the Trampoline House, a community centre for refugees and asylum seekers in Denmark. I didn’t go there to volunteer or to try to help anyone. I just wanted to be in a place where you don’t have to plan two weeks in advance to have a coffee with someone. To meet people who, like me, are somehow outside the system.

It turned out to be my refuge, too. The people I have met there, from Denmark or elsewhere, have all felt the frustration of the closed system. While many of us don’t really know what to do about it, we share an impulse to try and make the conditions more bearable, especially for those who are not outside of the system by choice.

The people I met at the Trampoline House showcase the world’s inequalities, debunking and laying to rest the notion that the system works. Youth workers in Danish NGOs can luxuriously fly to the Middle East and Africa to ‘fix’ and ‘develop’ what is deemed ‘underdeveloped’, but when those countries’ citizens come to Denmark, they need to sit in a classroom, learn Danish and ‘integrate’. They need to smile and be hyggelige and bow down to the democracy that reigns around them.

I wonder if the comforts of such an organised system as the one that exists in Denmark have blocked people’s ability to empathise. I once entered a friend’s collective as they were eating a great big dinner and exclaimed, “Wow, that looks great, I’m so hungry.” They looked up and smiled. On the wall was a list of who was eating dinner that night, with guests included. I wasn’t on the list.

I don’t expect to be warmly invited to every dinner I happen to walk in on. And I would not label any of those people as cold or stingy. I just wasn’t part of the plan. I am pretty sure the topic of “how to bring guests over” had been discussed at a house meeting. Each person would raise their hand to express their opinion. If too many hands are raised, one person would be assigned the moderator’s role, and set an order for people to speak.

In the process of giving everyone a voice, we end up with a series of individual contributions, each expressed in isolation from the next. The meeting ends up being another waiting list. Take a number, wait, speak, next. Equality and fairness is maintained. Uncertainty is avoided, along with spontaneity. An unexpected guest comes along, and there is no need to think about what to do.

The system works.

The problem with such a perfectly organised system is its certainty. The uncertain and uncomfortable moments in life are access points to life’s biggest lessons. The need for answers to every possible future uncertainty kills our natural intuition, our spontaneity. We fall asleep at the wheel as the system drives us around in circles.

The perfect system is best viewed from inside the bubble. Once in a while, someone will come along to remind the people inside that he cannot get in. What will they do? Create another system so that they don’t have to deal with this uncertainty? Or question the borders of the system?

Questioning the borders of the system also means questioning your own internal boundaries. Are you ready for this? M


By Tali Padan

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