“I’m from Østerbro – if you couldn’t see the colour of my skin, you wouldn’t know I am black when I speak Danish.”
Originally from Uganda, Mary Consolata Namagambe moved to Denmark with her family in 1997 and now feels fully Danish. It’s not been an easy journey, however, and she struggled to obtain a place in a law programme after finishing high school. But then she met a Ugandan acquaintance who understood Denmark’s university system and explained that admittance to university did not only depend on grades, but could also depend on work experience.
Namagambe decided to spend a year working at a law firm in Copenhagen and volunteering in New York City. She also founded and volunteered at the Dandelion House (Mælkebøttehuset) in Greve. It was a free space for disadvantaged young people, especially ethnic minorities, where they could get help with their homework.
She was finally rewarded with a place at the University of Southern Denmark. Without her friend’s help, she isn’t sure she would have been accepted.
“After this experience, I thought, why don’t we have a forum where other students can help each other in areas where their family could not? Because of your background, sometimes you are not fully familiar with the Danish system.”
Help from around the world
Three years ago, she founded the Udlændinge Vejleder Udlændinge (UVU), which literally means ‘Foreigners guiding foreigners’. Based in the World Culture Centre in Nørrebro, it provides counselling to immigrants, refugees and minority Danes who want to enrol in higher education programmes.
The organisation currently relies on 67 counsellors from 216 countries, speaking 35 languages and boasting a broad range of educational backgrounds. Their contact details are available on UVU’s website, enabling anyone to get in touch directly with whichever counsellor suits them best.
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Afrah Al-Lami, UVU’s chairperson, was born in Iraq and relocated to Denmark in 1995 after leaving a refugee camp in Saudi Arabia. She explains that the website was designed to make it easy for people to find counsellors with language and educational backgrounds that matched their own.
“We want to help newcomers, refugees and minority Danes understand that even though you’re not ‘Danish by the book’, you can still be like the Danes, have an education and life,” Al-Lami emphasised.
Both Al-Lami and Namagambe understand what it’s like to not be accepted as fully Danish. The link between immigration and crime is a constant topic in Danish news, as is the negative focus on Denmark’s foreign-born population.
In the 19 years since she moved to Denmark, Namagambe has found that Danish society doesn’t always offer sufficient support to foreigners who want to integrate. She remembers feeling lost amongst the myriad social rules that bind the homogeneous society together – a feeling shared by many immigrants not raised in families who have been accustomed to the system for generations.
“I believe integration can only work in a country where people want you to be there,” she said.
Not that she’s only had negative experiences – on the contrary. Namagambe remembers feeling welcomed by her classmates and teachers when she moved to Denmark, and was offered help and extra hours of Danish language classes to catch up with her peers.
But she thinks times have changed for the worse, with acceptance of immigrants dropping, especially after 9/11. And while the topic of authentic ‘Danishness’ has long been an issue of debate in Demark, its increasing prominence is legitimising the tendency among a subset of Danes to glorify their culture at the cost of others.
“I remember people were more open when I arrived,” says Namagambe.
“The rhetoric today has poisoned people into other ways of thinking, not considering newcomers as people who need help, but rather as people who want to ruin their system and steal their benefits. When people have this kind of a mindset, they won’t welcome you because you’ll be an enemy of their lifestyle. When we came, it was exotic. Now we are a burden”.
‘To them I am a visitor’
Danes often address Namagambe in English, and she believes that many non-white Danes probably have the same experience.
“Danish is white, Denmark is white. Many still do not relate my skin colour with Danishness,” says Namagambe.
“Every time someone speaks English to me, it means they see me as a visitor and not from this country. It is deeper than just speaking English to me. It is as if I’m not a citizen here – that I’m not a part of this society. Can you just imagine that? I have been here for nineteen years.”
Thankfully, Namagambe’s sense of marginalisation by mainstream society hasn’t stopped her from taking action, and now she uses her insights to help others make the most of their lives in Denmark. For while UVU is officially designed to provide counselling on education, Namagambe and Afrah both believe it also functions as an arena where both Danes and non-Danes can be open about all of their issues and get help from people with similar cultural backgrounds.
“We are receiving an increasing number of emails in Arabic nowadays, mostly Syrians resettling in Denmark who wish to start university or continue the studies they interrupted. I think it is beautiful to come to a new country and still use your own language to get access to integration and education.” M