By Ouafa Zaidi, cultural reporter intern at Crossing Borders
March 03, 2022, at 17.00 – Ubuntu Huset
At Crossing Borders headquarters, on March 03, 2022, for the third Food For Thought event, we had the pleasure of welcoming Natasha Al-Hariri, director of DFUNK – Danish Refugee Council Youth -, lawyer, organizer, and debater of Palestinian origin. A well-known face to the Danish public, who know her through her various media appearances where she speaks about gender inequality and issues of acceptance and/or integration of immigrants, but today we are trying to get to know a little more about the lady behind these hot topics and get her opinion on the challenges the refugees face.
With an audience as remarkable as the guest of honor, the event was particularly stimulating and concluded as usual with the healthiest and most succulent of meals, this time prepared by our dear Syrian refugee Manal.
A moment of sharing in which we highlighted what is holding us back, and what should be said and done. But I will let you discover it through an interview without complacency.
Please let's take a leap in the past and tell us a little bit about your family history and your experience in Denmark.
N: My parents fled the civil war in Lebanon and on the way, I was born in the Netherlands. So, they sought asylum in the Netherlands because that’s where they ended up. But during that time my uncle, my father’s brother, came to Denmark and his other brother came to Poland. And seeing their family shredded into so many pieces was hard for them and they wanted to reunite the family, so they came to Denmark and asked for asylum again. We ended up in a municipality just north of Copenhagen, in a very white rich neighborhood with very few refugees. I think for my parents to have that as a home was both very safe but also very unsafe. They had no one to have their morning coffee with. They had no one who understood them, they had no one they could relate to. But at the same time, the people around them, their neighbors introduced them to the local neighborhood and have dinner with them, and so on, which was really important to my parents. Being raised with that hope was pretty interesting. But I was just a kid as any kid at that time. I didn’t put so many thoughts into who I was or the color of my skin, and the people around me didn’t either. At least not in the way we see it today. It wasn’t until I was 13 years old and started wearing the hijab, and that was my first confrontation with society. That’s when I started to feel different, not just physically, because of the way I looked, but also because of the way society treated me. And I had encountered racism and discrimination, whether it was against me or my family. But I didn’t have the tools to deal with it, and neither did my parents. And who could we talk to about it? We didn’t even have language about it. We couldn’t say it was racist, it just wasn’t acceptable to point it out. But my parents always made room for conversations about it at home and it was very important for me to be able to express myself.
R: I understand that your personal experience and your family history have led you to where you are today. But I think that to continue in this field and to keep this will for activism and fight to change the immigration system and integration policy, takes more than some sort of historical or personal connection. Tell us why your work is so important and meaningful to you, aside from the obvious causal links.
N: I think my work with DFUNK is important because DFUNK is a place where one can create change. A space for young people who have fled to Denmark and who can now grab the mic and come to sit around the table where decisions are being made. It’s so important for me because even at the hardest times, even at the most traumatizing times, I have a space where I can come and feel safe. And I think for us it is so important to engage in the local communities, always be looking at who we can engage with and how we can continue to create change in Denmark. We try in our work to be where people need us. And a lot of people in our community want to be in a safe space where they can engage. For example, we have this food concept, where once a week we make food, we eat, we dance, we do whatever we want/need together.
And for a lot of people, their main community is DFUNK. So, it’s really important for them to be where they can feel safe, where they can feel welcome, where they don’t have to talk or do anything they don’t want to. And unfortunately, women are the most vulnerable and the most targeted. So, we’ve done campaigns and we’ve engaged politicians in this. We also have a program for young refugees who want to participate in public debate, so we have people who teach them how to interact with journalists, how to get on a stage, and how to write a speech. All this is to be able to protect ourselves, for our own sake, but also for the sake of what we are here for.
R: In Denmark, the integration of Danish immigrants and their descendants is an often-debated social issue. This debate frequently leads to how to create and/or maintain cohesion in societies, while inevitably becoming more ethnically and culturally mixed. Can you tell us how it is possible to create mutual political and social recognition between the two parties?
N: I think some of it can be created within the law system, so we need good politicians and good lawmakers. But we also need to engage with each other in society, because we do need each other. And I think that is surely just the most important point. Because politicians can do some within the law as we have a law system plenty broken and not fair, so we need to change it, but that is not everything. We also need to change as people. It starts and ends here.
R: Popular thought would say that feminism and Islam do not fit together and that one cannot go with the other. As a Muslim and a feminist, I would really like to know your experience and if possible, explain the principle, even if everyone lives in these two states in a rather personal way, what does it really mean for you?
N: My first encounter with feminist movements in Denmark was not good. I was not welcome, because I wore the hijab and I was basically told that there was no place for women wearing the hijab in the feminist movement because you can’t be a feminist and a Muslim woman, especially a Muslim woman wearing the hijab. And so, at that point, I was just like, well, then, I don’t need this. I mean, I know what I am, and I can just keep doing my work without calling myself a feminist. The feminism I believe in is feminism where everybody is welcome and where we believe that women have the right to define themselves, to wear whatever they want, whenever they want, how they want, and assuredly live how they want. That is the feminism I support, and my definition of Islam supports that so, at some point I was just not interested anymore in having that talk.
R: Could you tell us about some of the experiences that most impacted you as a Muslim lady that could also be experienced by young Muslim girls today?
N: I only wore the hijab for like 2 months when I experienced my first act of Hate crime: I was walking up at school with my friend and a guy, who was an adult, just walked around the corner, came closer to me, and spat in my face, just like that straight up. I was so shocked and my friend who was white started yelling at him and I just broke down. We called the police, which was a very naive action. We barely even do that today because we know that the police don’t really handle hate crimes the way they should do it. And of course, nothing happened. But that was really traumatizing to me, and I was so grateful that I wasn’t alone and that I wasn’t with anyone from my family because when I came home and told them what happened, even just seeing them hearing about it was heartbreaking to me.
Which also reminds me about the drawings of the Prophet. I was in high school, and people started asking me even more questions about what I thought about this affair, and I was honestly not engaged, I was just a 15/16-year-old trying to have an ordinary life as a young person. But they wanted to hear my opinion and experiencing that was like standing up through that pressure to speak for an entire community. I wanted to put nuances into that but honestly did not have the language to do it and how to do it. My friends and my near community were not Arab and were not Muslim, so what were actually my references? It was just me, my family? I mean, I have had to deal with identity issues about who I am and how do people see me and at the same moment I started having very serious conversations in the public debate about young women wearing the headscarf in society. And at one point, a producer came to me to do a documentary about Muslim women in Denmark and I was very hesitant to do that because again who am I? who am I to speak on this? It was a very interesting experience. But after that, I started reflecting upon how this society treats me and how this society sees me, and that led me to law school. And at that exact moment they passed a law called the scarf law, which prohibits judges to wear any religious symbols, but it wasn’t about the cross, and it wasn’t about the kippah, it was about the headscarf. And I was like, well, now I want to be a judge! because that’s not fair. And that’s why I’m fighting for.
R: It seems that things are getting worse as opposed to being better when it comes to tolerance. So, if the desired outcome is to have a multi-cultural Denmark. What are the barriers that we need to break right now?
N: We need to do more than tolerate. I stopped using that word a couple of years ago because some of my amazing friends said to me that tolerating someone is not a good thing. And I realized that I’ve used that word so much and I was like how could I have asked so far for so little? I don’t want to be tolerated, no! I’m glad he said that because it’s a good correction. And that’s a very important step because we are barely being tolerated. And I want to be respected and acknowledged as a person, as a woman, as a professional, and as a human being in this society. That’s not too much to ask for and honestly, let’s stop asking for it and just take it because nobody is going to give us anything.
R: Gender equality means that men and women have equal duties, rights, and opportunities in all essential areas of life. What have you observed around these subjects throughout your career? Do you think there is a movement towards equity of equal distribution of power and equal opportunities for economic independence or are we still far from it?
N: We’re not there yet and I think, for me personally, being appointed CEO of a youth organization at the age of 30, after having two children, was a great achievement for me. And I’m extremely proud of that, but I’m not doing it because I’m brown or Muslim or a woman wearing the hijab. I’m doing it because this is what I want to do for a living, and I think doing that and paving the way for others makes me extremely proud. And I also feel like it’s a burden. Like I need to do well because if not, I am the one who failed and it’s totally OK to fail no matter who you are! When I go to work, I always tell my employees that they can fail because I fail all the time and it’s totally fine. Who puts that burden on me? Society, me, my parents, I don’t know. But we put it on ourselves, and it is necessary to free ourselves from it to better move forward.
R: Regarding the war that is being played out right now between Ukraine and Russia. It seems to me that it is the first time that war is so mediatized on social networks. In recent days, there are some shocking videos circulating via the hashtag #AfricansInUkraine to expose discrimination against residents of African origin and white privilege in times of war. On various TV shows, we could even hear comparisons between refugees. State representatives even say that through this war they will have high-quality immigration from which they can benefit; circulating the idea that some refugees are more worthy than others. Can you share your opinion on this subject?
N: It’s horrible. We cannot accept this. Anyone fleeing the war should be welcomed in the same way as ethnic Ukrainians. It is as if there was a kind of dissociation. But there should be no such behavior in the middle of a war, where are we going with this kind of behavior! But I actually also think it’s a political thing that has been going on for a very long time, and people are so tired of being treated in such an inhumane way. We are responsible. It is a social responsibility. We can and must change this reality. Because I mean, we can all be refugees tomorrow. You have to actually understand that at some point in life, people were not refugees. So don’t forget that you’re privileged and that at any time this privilege can be taken from you. As is the case for all the refugees of the world. And what we need to keep in mind is that We’re all equal when it comes to a crisis, regardless of where we come from. Full stop!
R: What do you think of the media and political treatment of this war?
N: Well, when they say that this is the biggest crisis we’ve seen since World War Two, I’m so sorry, not even in Europe. Let’s take the example of what happened in Bosnia. So, how can they say that? They are erasing history.
The things that are happening in Europe at the moment are very traumatizing times. And I am deeply touched by how the Ukrainian refugees are being welcomed in Denmark, but we need to talk about how we can use that generosity that is being shown right now for EVERYONE who has to be on the run from their own country and for people who fled and lived in camps during cold winters, not knowing when they could have a life. And to see how the most racist politicians today want to welcome Ukrainians to have a job from the first day is traumatizing in itself. This shows that racism is so real. Even within our law system, we differentiate between people based on the color of their skin and their home country. It’s awful. I don’t even know what to say. Like, it’s just it’s not OK. And at DFUNK we’ve had so many calls, so many emails from big companies and well-known people in this society reaching out to me, saying how can we help? like are we doing something special for the Ukrainian refugees? And my response is: “Everything we do is for young people who flee to Denmark. Our work is extraordinary. We are welcoming EVERYONE and of course, we will be receiving a lot of Ukrainians and we are so ready to welcome people into our society because we have room for EVERYONE.”
At the same time, the image of the Syrian refugees continues to strike me; they were welcomed in Denmark, and then it was decreed to stop integrating these people so that they will return home. Because it is now safe to go back to Syria. And this is not the case at all since the dictator they fled from is still there. So, they live in this insecurity, and how do you prepare people to feel unwelcome? You don’t, but we have to talk about it. And it in itself calls for a spiral of other problems because they are never really settled, which makes them very vulnerable to these volatile changes all the time, which results in breaking them down. So, one of the things we developed last year when Syrians started to have their residence permits revoked, was that we raised money to be able to have psychologists and psychotherapists. And I remember that our psychotherapist said to us: “I can’t make this insecurity go away, but I can teach them how to deal with it.” And I think that’s very important. For example, how to deal with racism, insecurity, xenophobia, and so on. Because it is there, and it is a fact, and we have to know how to cope with it.
Every war is a human case. It’s about all of us. And this is the narrative that we all have a role to play in. Every refugee, just like us, has a career, dreams, home, family, friends and a life to live. No one chooses to leave the world of their own free will. But unfortunately, under the circumstances, they run for their lives while continuing to hope for a better future for their kids. So, it goes without saying that the help that needs to come up, it’s for everybody regardless of where they come from. And we all have the responsibility when we see a comparison to break it down, and say no, you’re talking about human lives that need to be saved.
Each one of us can make the change, each one of us can learn from all the mistakes made, each one of us has the power to turn around and make totally different directions. So, let’s not hesitate, let’s not close our eyes, let’s not wait our turn to react, let’s be human.