“We need to stop talking so much about ethnicity”

A generation of Danish youth with non-Western parents are coming of age. But while their grades have never been better, they continue to be talked about as a problem in the political debate. To help minority youth succeed despite social prejudices, Niddal El-Jabri has launced a 'think and do’ tank to help them join mainstream society and live up to their potential belonging help minorities advance through society. He argues that minorities need to open up about the challenges they face, and break down the myths and taboos that hold them down

To some Danes, being born in Denmark isn’t enough to make you Danish. High school student Jens Philip Yazdani discovered that during a debate with MP Martin Henriksen from the Danish People’s Party (DF) in September.

“You cannot conclude that just because you are born and raised in Denmark, speak Danish and go to a Danish school that you are Danish,” Henriksen said during the primetime TV debate.

His comments were widely condemned, but they speak to a sense of suspicion among some Danes towards a generation of young people who were born in the country, but whose parents were not.

It’s a generation that is often discussed, but rarely  speaks for itself. And when they are talked about in the media – and classified as “second generation immigrants” – it is often in relation to issues such as poor school performance, lacking labour market participation and social control by their family.

“For more than 20 years we have talked about them as a community and as a problem, which to some extent has just served to exclude and push them away,” says El-Jabri.

READ MORE: Putting a face to the immigration debate

Born Danish
El-Jabri launched the organisation Mino this autumn, with the goal of creating a secular platform and community for minorities in Denmark. This could then bridge the gap to – what El-Jabri calls –  “official” Denmark. By collecting data and facilitating debates and meet ups, from a minority perspective, he hopes to create what he calls a “think and do” tank.

Mino has already made an impact with its Danish Since (Dansk Siden) poster campaign, which depicts minority Danes along with how long they have been Danish. The campaign’s point is straightforward: they became Danish the moment they were born in Denmark, regardless of where their parents are from.

El-Jabri argues it has never been more important to ensure that ethnic minority Danes form a strong connection to mainstream society and decision makers. Around 82 percent of Danes with non-western parents are under the age of 25. This is a group that is entering the labour market and society, and El-Jabri hopes Mino can help them take that step.

“The educational performance of minority boys is still below average, but every year it improves – the curve is only going up. For the girls, it is above average, and they are the top-performing group. And while in the past minorities typically educated their way into the health industry, they are increasingly studying law and social sciences. Over the next ten years we are going to see a massive increase in minority Danes doing journalism, policy-making, and NGO work. With so many minority children getting a good education, we need to stop projecting the problems of the first generation on to this group. We need to stop talking so much about  ethnicity, and instead focus on society and tackling the problems we face.”

Taking the fight
32-year-old El-Jabri grew up in Aarhus and belonged to the only minority family on his block. He enjoyed school and had Danish friends, but his Palestinian parents didn’t always approve of his assimilated values.

“The first conflict we had was because of my first girlfriend. Perhaps I was naïve, but I thought my parents would be excited for me. But when I told my mum she replied that I wasn’t going to have a girlfriend. She said: ‘Niddal, we don’t do things like that’. And I said: ‘Mom, I’m not like you’. I took that battle, and it went well. After that, they knew what was going on, they just didn’t want me showing her off.”

After finishing school, El-Jabri studied engineering and value chain management, before working as a basketball coach and starting his first company during the last semester of university. He has also worked as a volunteer dialogue ambassador for the Danish Youth Council (DUF) to promote intercultural dialogue with countries in the Middle East and North Africa.

It was through his work at DUF that he  gained a more nuanced appreciation for the diversity within the minority community in Denmark. While he saw himself as a minority Dane, he didn’t think he had much in common with his more pious muslim peers. Falling in love with a woman who wore a headscarf seemed out of the question.

READ MORE: Giving voice to multiculturalism

But that changed when he met Natasha Al-Hariri at a DUF conference. She wore a headscarf against her parents’ wishes, as a symbol of agency, not oppression.

“We started talking at that conference, and that conversation just never ended,” he said dreamily of his now-wife.

So it struck a nerve when in 2014, DF MP Pia Kjærsgaard said that Muslim women shouldn’t be surprised if people were provoked by headscarves. He wrote Kjærsgaard an open letter in the newspaper Information, in which he argued that while there were young women who felt pressured to wear a headscarf, such generalisations were wrong. He also pointed out that social pressure and control are not issues that exclusively affect Denmark’s muslim minority – white Danish children also feel this pressure, even if it isn’t as widely discussed.

El-Jabri argues that the public debate too often singles out minority groups for scrutiny, when the issues they face are universal in nature. All children have conflicts with their parents, and treating it as a normal part of growing up – rather than as a shameful minority issue – is less likely to make children feel alienated.

READ MORE: Bertel Haarder’s project to preserve Denmark’s spirit

“Every kid with non-western parents will experience coming home to challenge their parents identity and view on life. But these conflicts are not something that we talk about as a society, so we need to encourage youth to open up and realise that this is a normal phenomenon that most of us have gone through at some point. The challenges are greater for some than others. But it’s only through dialogue that we can connect, rather than putting up fences, or banning headscarves.”

El-Jabri is keen for Mino to play a role for discussion about social control, among other issues. But Mino will put its focus on more common everyday and universal experiences, and let the specialised treatment institutions, handle the worst case or extreme situations.

“We want to talk about the cultural meeting that the youth experiences both at home and on the street,” El-Jabri says.

El-Jabri believes that cultural and social conflicts that arise in the public sphere are as important to discuss as those that take place at home. He first came to that realisation after his marriage to Al-Hariri..

“Natasha and I were walking down the street together as a couple on a hot summer day and I realised that people were looking at us. I was in the fashion industry, and was wearing stylish clothes – shorts and a baseball cap – but Natasha was wearing a headscarf, long trousers and a shirt. I realised that people must think I was a douchebag because they thought I could wear what I wanted, but she couldn’t – that she was dressed like that for me when really it was her choice.”

Alternative to political Islam
Creating a forum for all minorities to discuss their experiences is central to Mino’s mission. It is the first professional representative organisation for minority groups in Denmark. Among its its board members are the founder of the Somali Diaspora Organisation (SDO) and the chairman of the minority LGBT organisation Sabaah.

El-Jabri argues that the only other group trying to represent Danish minorities  is the Islamic organisation Hizb-ut Tahrir. Their message is anti-democratic, and at their meetings they call for Muslims to turn their back on Western society and instead peacefully work towards establishing a global caliphate.

“They offer a utopia. But as much as Islam is a part of it, people don’t buy into it because of the religious message. They buy into it because of the social belonging, identity, acceptance, and recognition. So if those are its central values, then we should be able to create something counter to it. We have the same values, we just talk about dialogue, participation, and the importance of being a part of society.”

Encouraging minority Danes to participate in mainstream society is difficult when there are so few role models to look up to, says El-Jabri. And often when they are included in debates, they are placed opposite older and far more experienced debaters – the Martin Henriksen and Jens Philip Yazdani debate was a typical example.

“Martin Henriksen can say whatever he wants and get away with it, whereas the student has to be really careful with his words. That’s why we want to qualify the debate. We have an analytics team that will carry out research about minorities in Denmark, and make sure that influencers have this information when they need it.”

READ MORE: A most modern ambassador says his goodbyes

Happy and confident youth
Mino represents both El-Jabri’s concerns and optimism for the next generation. On the one hand, minority Danes are getting better educated and are increasingly joining mainstream society. But many will get left behind if an extra effort is not made to reach out to those unsure of their place in society – young people concerned that embracing mainstream society could be interpreted by their family as turning their back on their heritage.

Getting young people to realise that it doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive is vital, says El-Jabri. Mino’s values of equality, freedom and responsibility aren’t uniquely Danish after all.

“When you are born here and have lived your whole life here, you will consider yourself Danish in your own way. But the way that politicians insist on making us prove our affection for Denmark is an impossible task. It’s not right that they take away the ownership of being Danish from the youth,” he says.

READ MORE: The counter-citizens

Hundreds of Danes – and a few MPs – participated in the Danish Since campaign, and changed their profile photo to include the Mino logo and the date they became Danish. The positive reception to the campaign suggests to El-Jabri that Danes are ready for a more nuanced and inclusive definition of Danishness – for majority and minority Danes alike.

“I really believe we can create some good changes in society by strengthening coexistence. I really believe we can play an important role in moulding youth who feel a coherent sense of belonging, who are self confident, and believe they can have a long and happy life in Denmark. At least, that’s the ambition.” M


By Peter Stanners

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

Facebook comments