Putting a face to the immigration debate

A Facebook page tells the stories of Copenhagen's immigrants with the hope of painting a more nuanced image of its newest residents

Gabriel Saban isn’t happy with what he sees when he turns on the TV. Politicians and other talking heads stand and discuss the problems of the day, and all too often the problem is he – the immigrant.

Instead of tuning out the debate and anti-immigration rhetoric, Saban decided to change the conversation. His course of action was to start a Facebook page, ‘Mød os – Indvandrere I København’ (Meet us – immigrants in Copenhagen) where he posts short interviews with immigrants, accompanied with a portrait.

Similar to Humans of New York (HONY) – a widely popular page that served as Saban’s main source of inspiration – he doesn’t include the names of the interviewees. What’s most important, he argues, are their stories, which he hopes will create a new and more positive narrative about immigrants.

“When I read the posts on HONY I almost always identified with the people, even though I had never met them. So I thought this could be a way to connect Danes and immigrants,” Saban explains over a light lunch in the University of Copenhagen’s canteen.

“There are reasons Danes and immigrants aren’t connected. I know I’m generalising, but the Danish culture is very closed. Danes are curious but shy, so they don’t tend to make the first move. The language barrier is also a problem because Danish is hard!”

Starting a new life
Saban is originally from Argentina, and is married to a Dane he met in Cuba. Her strong family ties brought them to Denmark, but they were forced to spend six months in Sweden until they both turned 24. This is because of a law that prevents family reunification for couples if either person is younger than 24.

“The law makes me so angry. It’s nonsense, you can’t put an age on marriage!” he exclaims indignantly.

When he eventually was allowed to live in Denmark, he found a country with a simmering scepticism towards the intentions of foreigners.

“I kept hearing the same story: that foreigners were coming to Denmark just to claim welfare. It annoyed me, because it is such an oversimplified idea about immigrants. I knew that if they got to know more immigrants they would realise that every single story is different. The fact is few people want to live off the state, and most come here to work and start a new life.”

Saban was discouraged from starting the Facebook page by a number of friends, he says. But he’s glad he didn’t listen, as must the 5,200 people who follow the page – an incredible achievement, given that the page has only been live since December. Some posts have gathered close to 1,000 likes, and he has been interviewed by both metroXpress and on TV2 Lorry about the project.

The stories vary widely. There’s a Lithuanian student who volunteers at an asylum centre and who decided to stay in Denmark two years ago after splitting with her Danish boyfriend. And a Syrian refugee who suffers from PTSD but is now a master’s student and married to a Dane.

Not all stories chime with the readers, however. One post shows a woman, originally from Somalia, who is covered head to toe, accompanied by a very brief interview: “My story is a secret, my hair is a secret and my appearance is a secret.”

A number of people objected, arguing that she was a poor example of integration. Saban disagrees, arguing that the woman is still a member of the community, despite wanting to remain private.

“Her decisions are her own, and all we can do is listen and respect her right to express herself as she wishes,” he says.

Building bridges
Saban ultimately wants to present a nuanced view on immigrants to challenge their overwhelmingly negative portrayal in the Danish media. For while there can be concerns related to immigration, the current narrative completely overstates the issues.

“Negative discourses have a greater weight than positive discourses. It’s easier to use negativity to steer a debate. It’s stronger because we pay more attention to it. Then [the arguments] get repeated and become self-reinforcing,” Saban says, explaining why he thinks curtailing immigration is always high on the political agenda.

It’s unlikely that Saban would make such an effort to affect how Denmark looks at immigrants if he wasn’t invested in the country. With a child on the way, he expresses little interest in returning to Argentina.

He can’t completely escape his roots, however. When meeting a Dane for the first time, he tries to break the ice, but Danes can find the approach too confrontational. Despite this, he still opts for it.

“I left my culture and came here and chose to learn and embrace the Danish culture. Now I’m in a position to pick the things that I like from both cultures. This will, of course, modify culture and create something new. This is normally better, because we are creating bridges between cultures,” Saban says.

“For example, I can now see a bad side of the Argentinian culture. When people have a debate where I am from, it is the person who gets angry faster who wins. That’s because it must be the person who is most emotionally affected who must be right. But it’s not like that here. If you get angry, you lose. You have to give arguments. And I very much believe that.” M


By Peter Stanners

Co-founder and Editor-in-chief. Occasional photographer.

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