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Cycle Shoppe Talk and Bi-Culturalism in Denmark

January 19, 2017

“It seems that bi-cultural identities are just as common here as they are in the U.S.”

Center for Global Studies FLAS Fellow Henry Milander, an undergraduate student in Business, International Studies, and Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations, used his FLAS fellowships to study Arabic in Amman, Jordan and Fez, Morocco in the summers of 2015 and 2016.  One of the issues he studied while in Jordan and Morocco was immigration to Europe.  In autumn of 2016, he moved from Morocco to Denmark, where he had the opportunity to meet immigrants and refugees who had moved to Denmark from Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan.  He writes:

“I have just returned from Denmark after being abroad for six months, first in Morocco studying Arabic and second in Denmark studying economic development, corporate social responsibility and the European Union. I must say that the greatest benefit I received from being abroad was getting to ask the questions that I was burning to ask and, more importantly, to pose them to the people most capable of answering them. To see the world through their eyes was the true gift of my time abroad.

In Morocco I had discussed with my professor and read articles about the plight of many illegal sub-Saharan immigrants caught in Morocco trying to enter the EU through places such as Ceuta (Sebta). After leaving, I wanted to hear about life for refugees and immigrants in the EU who had managed to complete their arduous journey. Luckily I lived in Nørrebro, the most multi-ethnic neighborhood in Copenhagen (and possibly Denmark), which was how I met the owners of the Tagensvej 69 Cykler cycle shop. What started with a flat tire quickly became a few hours spent in their shop a couple times per month fixing my own bike, helping them with a rusted-tight pedal, and enjoying a cup of coffee with them while hearing about their experiences as either refugees themselves or children of immigrants.

The bike shop is run by Shawanih (pictured), his brother Shaheen, Ibrahim, and Ahmed.  I heard all of their stories during my time in Copenhagen. They reminded me that while there are many European politicians who decry immigration, this isn’t the European Union’s first experience with mass migration in recent history. As Ibrahim tells me, Denmark was actually actively encouraging migration in the 70’s in many countries, including Turkey and Pakistan, in order to increase an insufficiently small labor force. Ibrahim’s father was living in Konya, Turkey, when his family decided to come to Denmark as a result of the job advertisements, and they had Ibrahim in Denmark shortly after. Shawanih and his family come from the Kurdish region of Iran, which they left for Denmark when Shawanih was little due to political turmoil. Ahmed is the third mechanic; he made the arduous journey on foot from Afghanistan through Turkey, the Balkans, Germany, and finally to Denmark in 2008.

While they run an increasingly successful bike shop with more side-ventures in the pipeline, they tell me that the hardest part of living in Denmark hasn’t been finances, but rather trying to live with their own culture, or at least recognize their identity as something more than Danish while still living in Denmark. For example, even though Ibrahim was born in Copenhagen, he identifies as Turkish, because identifying as Danish would ignore a huge part of the culture that he’d been brought up with in his family and supporting community. It seems that bi-cultural identities are just as common here as they are in the U.S.

Hamad bin Khalifa Civilisation Center, Copenhagen, Denmark

Hamad Bin Khalifa Civilisation Center, Copenhagen, DenmarkHenry Milander

They all agree that it isn’t easy when you don’t fit into your country’s dominant culture. Ahmed noted that their demographic group’s lack of political and economic clout is reflected in many things, such as the regulations on future and (some) existing mosques, seen as too conspicuous, and on Islamic banking institutions. While Denmark is considered a very equal country and people point to its low GINI index, inequality is still prevalent when viewed as intersectional (such as between genders and different ethnic groups). According to Shawanih, the good news is that Denmark is moving to greater equality, and minority groups such as Muslims are slowly making more money and acquiring the wealth which will enable them to push for policies that better reflect a broader concept of a Danish citizen. It does make me think, however, of those groups which aren’t close to that goal yet, such as the illegal Sudanese immigrants living at the People’s Park near my apartment. There is clearly more research needed on my part to develop a more complete story of immigrants and refugees’ experiences after coming to Denmark, but I am grateful for my time in Morocco for enabling me to ask questions about these experiences, and for my time in Copenhagen for allowing me to investigate at least some of these experiences.”

Henry was awarded the Scan|Design Fellowship, the Northwest Danish Association Scholarship, and the Fritz Scholarship to support his studies in Denmark.

FLAS Fellowships are funded by the International and Foreign Language Education Office of the U.S. Department of Education.  FLAS fellowships support undergraduate, graduate and professional students in acquiring modern foreign languages and area or international studies competencies.   Students from all UW departments and professional schools are encouraged to apply.  Find out more about the FLAS Fellowship here.