It has now been more than a month since I have arrived in Copenhagen, and even though I have only been able to explore a small fraction of what this city has to offer, I’ve loved almost every moment of it (with the exception of my ongoing sickness). I haven’t been able to travel outside of Denmark yet like some of my friends have, but I also haven’t felt the need to because there is still so much here to explore.
A couple of weekends ago I traveled to Kronborg Castle, otherwise known as the inspiration for Hamlet’s castle Elsinore. Coming from the United States, Arizona specifically, where the buildings aren’t more than a couple of hundred years old, I get easily impressed when I see any kind of old building, let alone a castle.
The outside was beautiful, but what was even cooler and rather creepy was the underground tunnels that housed both soldiers and prisoners. I was glad to have been neither because those tunnels were cold, damp and claustrophobia-inducing.
Along with a couple of history lessons, I have also tried to experience Danish culture. One of these cultural events was Fastelavn, which we interpreted as being like a second Halloween. It is typically just celebrated so that small children can have fun and play games, but that did not stop us twenty-somethings from enjoying the festivities. Our Danish residential advisors set up a small afternoon party for us which included a costume contest and the Danish version of a piñata. Their version was of a wooden barrel full of candy with a picture of a cat on it that had to be struck many times before the candy was released. For the costume contest, my roommates and I dressed up as the Spice Girls, with each person being a different cooking spice. We won the costume contest.
Last week I went on core course week, which is where every class experiences a different part of Denmark or a neighboring country in ways relevant to their class. My core course is Cross-cultural Psychology, and we traveled four hours by bus to the Northern Jutland city of Aalborg. With a population of only a little over a hundred thousand people, Aalborg is actually Denmark’s fourth largest city. We were only in Aalborg for two nights, but it is safe to say we collectively ate all of the food that the city had to offer. Each day we either had a fancy buffet or a multiple-course meal. If I forget everything else about Denmark, I will still remember the food.
Another thing that I am also unlikely to ever forget is my trip to an asylum center. I have heard from other students who visited other asylum centers that their experiences were more promising, but my experience at this particular center was frustrating and depressing. I wish I could use the whole of this blog to talk about happy things that have happened to me, but the lives of these asylum seekers are anything but happy, and that is not okay. A lot has been on the news about Denmark taking away valuable possessions from incoming refugees, but that is only part of the problem.
It became obvious that our visit there would only be beneficial for us and not them. We were there to supposedly eliminate our anti-Islam stereotypes, and they were there to be put on display for us like animals in a zoo as we heard their stories and saw where they lived. Once we were able to have small discussions with the English-speaking asylum seekers away from those who ran the center, their desperation and hopelessness soon became clear. I heard stories from men who were well-educated and held high status jobs in their home country until they were shot at and forced to flee for their lives, often having to leave their families and everything they care about behind. They came to Denmark either because they were stopped en route to Sweden or because they heard Denmark would be a good place for them to live. That was before family reunification switched from one year after obtaining refugee status to three years. That was also before it would take a year before getting your first interview to even start the refugee application process. To incorporate the asylum seekers into Danish culture and make it easier for them to get a job once they become a refugee, the center provides Danish language classes. However, the people we talked to conveyed to us that it was pointless to learn a language when their chances of becoming a refugee in Denmark were so slim and when they would be kicked out as soon as the war back home stopped even if the country was still unstable.
The most infuriating part of the visit was my small discussion with the asylum seekers and the people who ran the center. There was such a cultural divide between them that prevented any mutual understanding. Those in charge were obviously well-intentioned, but by trying to make everyone Danish and equal, they failed to understand the importance of other cultures. Actually, I misspoke; they didn’t fail to understand because they admitted that they didn’t even try to understand. Instead they proceeded to invalidate the experiences and cultures of the asylum seekers by adding that they knew more about Middle Eastern countries because they had read a lot about them. When the asylum seekers tried to respond, their voices were drowned out by rhetoric saying that it was best for everyone to assimilate and become Danish. I was at this center for only a few hours, and I was already about to burst. One man I spoke to said that he would rather die back in his home country than live here in madness and depression.
After this, we went for one of our grand dinners and laughed and returned to our normal lives. And they didn’t.