It’s hard to imagine Aydin Soei punching someone.
He greets me with a warm smile at his doorstep and chuckles at my small talk about Danes and their fondness for filter coffee. The sociologist and author arrived in Denmark as a four-year-old refugee from Iran in 1986, so he has an outsider’s appreciation of the quirks of Danish culture. But then he hands me a steaming cup of the stuff, because he is, after all, a Dane.
Not that he felt like one when he was a kid. Back then, Soei was picking fights and throwing punches amidst the tall concrete blocks of Avedøvre, a suburb in south-west Copenhagen with a large immigrant population and a high crime rate. It’s the kind of place, he says, that local kids would describe as a “loser area” with “loser schools.”
“Young men from these backgrounds feel angry because they don’t feel recognised as equal citizens. They feel like they’re born with an additional debt to Danish society because of their stigmatised neighbourhood, their skin colour, their religion and their social status.”
Soei claims these young men are stuck with a feeling of ‘counter-citizenship’ – a rough translation of his self-coined Danish term ‘modborgerskab’. His past works Skyld (Guilt) and Vrede unge mænd (Angry young men) explored the consequences of clustering immigrant families together into ‘ghettos’, which results in alienated youths, who become attracted to violence and susceptible to religious extremism.
“Modborgerskab” is increasingly popping up in the Danish lexicon in the aftermath of last year’s terror attack in Copenhagen, when Omar El-Hussein, a 22-year-old Dane born to Palestinian immigrants, shot two people in an act of Islamic extremism. Denmark is not alone in wondering how the welfare state failed one of its citizens. The recent attacks in Brussels and Paris by local men with Islamic backgrounds has also left Europe trying to tease out the perpetrators’ point of no return.
For Soei it was an act of violence that released him from the destructive social legacy of Copenhagen’s ghettos. When he was 12, he relocated to a new neighbourhood with his mother after his father returned to Iran. In his new autobiographical novel, Forsoning: fortælling om en familie (Atonement – the story of a family), he blows the lid off a dark family secret that was long kept from even his closest friends.
Soei’s father didn’t leave Denmark willingly – he was deported for murdering another man.
‘Stupid ghetto kid’
“I didn’t tell anyone about the murder because I knew I would never be free of that identity. I would be characterised as the ‘murderer’s son’. I sometimes wonder if I had told people, would I have done as well as I have? Probably not. Because people would expect less from me.”
The move from Avedøre to Gladsaxe proved to be a turning point for Soei, as for the first time he was being schooled with children from the Danish middle class.
“For a long time I couldn’t let go of my identity as a stupid ghetto kid from Avedøre.”
In his old neighbourhood, status was achieved through hypermasculinity – being physically strong and good at fighting. Recognition was found in gangs that dismissed the value of academic accomplishment. But in Gladsaxe he was shocked to find that this was not the case.
“On the first day of school I met a nerdy kid who annoyed me. So after a couple of days I walked up to him and hit him. I’m standing there, waiting for him to hit me back, but to my complete surprise he ran away crying. I found it so weird, but everyone looked at me as though I were the strange one. It turned out that in this new world fights didn’t get you recognition – homework did.”
It still took Soei a few years – and two criminal convictions – to shake off the self-destructive impulses and realise he could match the other students academically and go on to university.
“My son is growing up in a different world from mine, because when I was young the only people we knew with immigrant backgrounds also came from ghettos. Now there’s a growing ethnic middle class who has been to university. I myself have moved up into a well-educated class, which has a completely different narrative.”
Irrespective of class, however, Soei argues that anyone who isn’t an ethnic European can feel alienated in Denmark because of skin colour. He points to the polarised political debate about foreigners, particularly those with Middle-Eastern backgrounds, which he argues is the result of immigration being a relatively new phenomenon to Denmark.
“We’re still debating whether my son should be called a ‘third-generation immigrant’ instead of just ‘Danish’, even though he has a Danish passport. In a country like the US, he and I would just be considered Americans. It makes me think ‘wow, are we still considered aliens here?'”
Soei says his cultural capital allows him to feel accepted most of the time. On a daily level, his friends, neighbours and colleagues don’t make him feel like a second-class citizen, but for those with foreign ancestry who are struggling with school and living in poor neighbourhoods, it’s a different story – one third of all young men with immigrant backgrounds end their schooling without being able to read and understand newspaper content.
“They’re the group we have to worry about because their low social status prevents them from being recognised as equal citizens. They feel permanently excluded, even within their own immigrant communities. These men find it difficult to find a girlfriend or a wife, because women from the same background don’t want a loser man from the ghetto, as the girls tend to be better educated and want a man with the same social status.”
For those left behind, Soei says that the stakes are higher today than ever before.
“The number of guns is exploding in these areas, and you’ve got a generation of boys growing up believing that guns are normal. There’s a level of gang violence never before seen in Denmark,” he says, adding that these men risk being drawn to religious militantism, which legitimises their status as outsiders.
“That’s why there’s a crossover between gangs in Copenhagen and radical Islamic militant groups, who are recruiting the same alienated men by exploiting their self-narrative of ‘counter-citizenship.'”
Coping with exile
This reality parallels the fate of Soei’s father, who spiralled into violence after moving to Denmark, where he felt like a second-class citizen.
“A lot of men from that first generation of immigrants didn’t have jobs, but also weren’t really there for their families – what the hell did they do with their time?” says Soei.
“They couldn’t handle the realisation that they had to earn respect in Danish society rather than get it handed to them. In Iran my father was a regional leader of the communist party, but in Denmark he found himself at the bottom of the bottom. He reacted by becoming bitter, hateful, an alcoholic who eventually killed a man.”
The situation for his generation would have been much worse if it weren’t for the mothers, Soei argues. While the men railed against the loss of the breadwinner role expected of them, immigrant women pushed themselves to integrate for the sake of raising their kids. His own mother, Farideh, learned Danish, went to university and became an engineer in the wake of the family tragedy.
“It was very important for me that she had a strong voice in the novel so she didn’t just seem like an oppressed woman from the Middle East. My book is the story of two parents who coped very differently in exile in a new country.”
The politics of ‘ghettos’
To prevent the next Omar El-Hussein, Soei argues that the government must stop stigmatising disadvantaged neighbourhoods. Since 2010, the government has drawn up an annual list of especially marginalised public housing estates – more commonly called the ‘ghetto list’ – which suffer from high levels of crime and unemployment. Soei says that the term ‘ghetto’ is counterproductive to integration. He said as much to prime minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen when invited to speak at a conference in the wake of the Copenhagen terror attacks last year.
“I ended the talk by telling him that using the word ‘ghetto’ is a great political tool to make a segregated area seem like a threat. And it’s influencing a whole new generation of young boys in these areas. They don’t have critical faculties yet, so when they’re told their area is a ‘ghetto’, they hear that they are second-class citizens,” he says, adding that housing estates should attract positive role models to move in.
“Social workers see it as a positive when ‘Hassan’ moves away from a stigmatised area to study at university. Where I studied in the US, it’s seen as a negative, because you’re a good role model and you’re leaving. We should instead offer subsidised accommodation to incentivise them to stay.”
As for ethnic Danes, they’re rarely seen in these kinds of neighbourhoods and when they are, it’s usually a transitory space for young students seeking cheap housing before moving on.
“They don’t contribute anything positive when they live there, for them it’s just a stopover. You have to incorporate families with children who integrate into the local community.”
Children from immigrant backgrounds also suffer under the segregated school system, says Soei. More diverse schools would go a long way to integrating children whose parents have foreign heritage.
“We lose a lot of these boys in the schools in poor areas. In Denmark and Sweden – the two Scandinavian countries with the most gang members and highest rates of radicalisation – the kids are statistically more likely to share a classroom with others from the same, stigmatised background,” he says. “Meanwhile Finland has the best immigrant social mobility in Scandinavia, partly because kids with foreign parents are much more likely to share classes with middle-class Finns.”
He also argues that social services and teachers could play a stronger role in helping vulnerable families.
“In Iran my dad would not have been allowed to act the way he did – his family, or neighbours would have said something. But in Denmark the problems were treated with a ‘hands off’ approach. Although my father was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic, there was this idea that his behaviour was the result of his Middle-Eastern culture. So his problems weren’t flagged properly before he murdered a man.”
According to Soei, it’s part of the same narrative that looks at these young men in stigmatised areas and assumes that they’ll do badly in life.
“My point is that this is a false narrative. Society can’t make the choice for them – they must do it. But to facilitate this kind of social mobility we need to look at schools, housing and risk factors in certain subcultures,” says Soei.
“We should have started three decades ago,” he adds, reflecting on his own family history. “But it’s not too late.” M