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Amir Rashid joined the Danish policeforce

Photo: Tine Harden

In his youth Amir Rashid dabbled in petty crime. Nonetheless, he went on to train as a police officer and was one of the first qualified members of the Danish police force with an ethnic-minority background. Amir teaches Cultural Awareness and is also an assistant trainer with the Danish national Taekwondo team.

Amir Rashid tells his story in "New Men in Denmark", a series of portraits of ethnic minority men living in Denmark.

 
 

KVINFO/7.2.2008 "How does someone go from being a petty criminal to becoming a police officer?" That question always comes up when I’m out giving talks to young people. Then I tell them my story. I was born in Nørrebro. At an early age I hung out with a group of second-generation immigrant boys. They were real troublemakers. We were all growing up with a shared feeling of neither belonging to Denmark nor to our parents’ homelands. Our parents didn’t understand us. They were busy trying to make money quickly enough for the family to move back home.

It was a difficult mix of feelings to deal with – on the one hand going around with an identity crisis, not knowing who you are, and, at the same time, harbouring a load of frustration and aggression that you needed to vent. For me, this led to shoplifting and vandalism. I didn’t slip into more serious criminality thanks to my father. He was very strict, and insisted that we were at home by eight o’clock in the evening. It was in the evenings that those other boys would go around breaking into houses or start stealing cars. This saved me from getting a criminal record, which would have made it impossible for me to get a job on the police force.

One day I was caught shoplifting by the local shopkeeper and my father was called to a meeting at my school. It was here that he found out that I was having trouble at school, too. I was disruptive and neglecting my schoolwork. My father had been to all of the parent-teacher evenings at the school, but my sister had translated what the teachers said. And she presented things to him in a much more positive light. So he really didn’t have a clue until this meeting. Out of all of us, I was the one closest to really going off the rails. My brothers and sister did well at school and got good grades. I was the black sheep.

Taekwondo turned my life around
After that meeting at my school, my father decided that we should move away from Nørrebro – to Vanløse. This move marked the beginning of a completely new life for me. Up until then I’d always felt as if I wasn’t good at anything and that I’d never been successful in anything in my life. I was enrolled in a Taekwondo club in Rødovre. It turned out that I had a real talent for martial arts. The sport gave me the opportunity to break away from my former role of a criminal troublemaker. I was able to show a different side of myself and gained positive recognition. People started taking notice of me for the right reasons.

This was the best thing that could have happened to me at that time in my life. To start with, going to Taekwondo was mainly for fun, but later on I began to take it more seriously and started training every day. Suddenly I started winning competitions, getting medals and being invited to contests around the world. After a couple of years I won the Danish national junior title. My two brothers also fell for the sport and, at one time, all three of us were on the national team at the same time. I could put the discipline that I learned from the sport to good use in school. I came to class on time, completed my homework, and learned to read and write properly. This enabled me to deal with a demanding education later on in my life.

Learning to be polite to people
After secondary school in 1991 I took a one-year vocational training course and started as a trainee shop assistant in Copenhagen’s most renowned department store, Illum. Again, my life turned in a new direction. Illum was a prestigious department store where another type of behaviour was the norm. You talked to one another differently, and everyone was well dressed. It was here that I learned to address customers politely and began to wear smarter clothes. Later on, I trained as a manager at McDonald’s and this, too, taught me a great deal.

Both at Illum and McDonald’s, I was one of the first employees with an ethnic background and I was met with a certain level of apprehension. However, my colleagues soon discovered that my Danish was just as good as theirs and that I had no problems carrying out my different work tasks. For my part, I taught them that it was normal for many people not to eat pork or to drink alcohol at a Christmas party.

One day, my sister suggested that I apply to join the police force. She had been at a meeting where the police had encouraged youngsters with a non-Danish family background to apply. "Why not try?" I thought to myself. The first time, I didn’t get in because I failed the entrance test, particularly the General knowledge section. Politics and social studies had never interested me. Now, however, I began to follow closely what was going on in the society around me and I started accumulating a wealth of knowledge. The second time I applied I passed the tests and I was enrolled in the police training academy in 1998.

This was a decision that my father was both pleased with and proud of. My father was originally educated as a teacher. The only thing he could use this for in Denmark was to back up and support the education of his children. Many Pakistani parents opted for the quick solution and bought a corner shop or a taxi for their sons – an instant career. But my parents’ dream was always that their children got good educations. And this has come true: my younger brother is a doctor, my elder brother is branch manager in a bank, and my sister is a journalist and writer. 

Most in common with people from Jutland
My early days at the police academy were a bit of a challenge for me. Firstly, I’d never met anyone from Jutland before. About half of my group was from there. Many of them came from small villages and knew little about ethnic minorities. They asked a lot of funny questions: "Why do foreigners have so many children?",  "Pork tastes great – why didn’t I eat it?" Once I got to know them more, I discovered that we shared many of the same values, for example, values about close family ties and the way we felt about the older generation. This was a nice feeling.

Equally, I had a lot of strange notions about Danes. I had virtually been raised in my father’s shop in Nørrebro where the only customers seemed to be alcoholics. Day in, day out, I saw people living on welfare benefits come into the shop and buy beer – never food. This gave me a very one-sided picture of what Danes were like and what being Danish was all about. At the academy I got behind the façade of my Danish colleagues and expirienced a new perspective on what being Danish was like.

Inevitably, I met police officers who had worked with criminal immigrants and who had a lot of prejudices. Being the first foreigner in a police uniform, I was always checked that little bit extra. Was I capable of writing a report, spelling and all that? But after a while, being a Muslim among the others there was fine. "It’s nice to know that there are Muslims like you instead of like those other types who run around causing trouble." So I managed to move some boundaries, and in a fun way, too.

Police work isn’t for the faint-hearted. If you are a sensitive person, this isn’t the place for you. In every workplace a certain jargon comes with the territory – and the police force is no exception: A drug addict is called a "junkie", a burglar is an "ass". The common jargon for ethnic criminals in Denmark is "paki".  But 99.9% of my colleagues mean nothing racist by it at all, it’s just a term. Occasionally, though, it can get too much with all the references to "paki", so I ask them if that includes me, too. An apology is usually quick to follow. Humour is the best way at tackling people’s attitudes.

Have you sold your soul to the devil?
It was when I was on the beat in Vesterbro that my diplomatic skills really were put to the test. Being so obviously from an ethnic-minority background, I expected to meet a lot of prejudice from Danes. But this never went any further than to perhaps being called a "pig" by a drug addict. But the reactions from my own community came as something of a shock to me. Young second-generation immigrants had never seen a dark-skinned man in a police uniform. To begin with, they thought that I was adopted. But when they found out that I was a second-generation immigrant myself they assumed that I had defected to the enemy. They looked at me as if I had sold my soul to the devil. I destroyed their image of the police as being a group of white racists who went after them purely because of their skin colour.

There were lots of positive things though, too. Other immigrant Danes would stop me on the street with tears in their eyes. They thought that it was fantastic to see an officer with an immigrant background. I particularly remember an older man who suddenly came up and gave me a hug. My colleague from Jutland was quite taken aback.

The police are really going to great lengths to attract more people to the force with an ethnic background. It’s a positive initiative, just as long as people aren’t brought into the police force purely because of their ethnic background. If that happens, we will end up with an A and a B police. Development shouldn’t be forced. People should be allowed to come in their own time.

Met a Danish girl
Before I started at the police academy, I moved from home into student accommodation. I wanted to stand on my own two feet. This went against all Pakistani tradition and my father saw it as a failure on his part. On top of this, he had just bought a house in Vanløse where he had planned that the whole family should live. In the Pakistani community in Denmark everybody knows everybody else’s business and prying into each other’s lives is the norm. "If you move out, I don’t want to ever see you here again," my father told me.

Nevertheless, I continued to come and visit my mother. And after a month, my father, too, began to enjoy my visits. In fact, they couldn’t do enough for me when I came: "Give him some food! His clothes need washing!" Then I fell in love with a Danish girl. We were both very young and we decided to move in together and get married. Again, this lead to problems with my father, but this time it took him a long time to accept things.

Housework is also my responsibility
While growing up, my sister and my mother did all the practical housework around the home. But my Danish wife ensured that our roles were set out from the start. Naturally, she didn’t want to be solely responsible for the cooking and cleaning – a demand I didn’t readily agree to at first. At one point we split up briefly. When we got back together, she explained how she felt things ought to be. I realised that it was only fair that I too cooked, did the shopping and cleaned around the house – all the things that make a marriage an equal partnership. But it took me a while to get used to.

Our marriage didn’t last. We were very different and had simply grown apart. Perhaps because I had become a police officer and found it difficult not to take my work home with me. If I said yes to overtime, there was hell to pay at home afterwards. After my break-up with my Danish wife, I toyed with the idea of finding a Pakistani bride. But if you marry a Pakistani girl, you are also marrying her entire family. And I really wasn’t up for that.

A girlfriend on the force 
My current girlfriend is a police officer like myself. Both being officers makes things easier. As does the fact that we share a common interest for the same exciting jobs. Having a shift where not one call comes through on the radio is dead boring. We both like being at the scene when something is happening that puts our abilities to the test. In our lives, we have both gone through great changes, and we have a deep understanding and respect for each other. I love her for everything that she stands for. Especially her big heart and generous way with me as well as my son.

We moved into a lovely house outside Copenhagen and there is no doubt in my mind that she is the love of my life. Right now we are planning our wedding - on a beach in Thailand with palm trees and the sun setting. Naturally, many new things have come into play, and we have had to get used to each other’s way of living. Whether it be the fact that not being Danish I won’t eat pork. Or that I have so much respect for my father. Something quite extreme would have to happen before I disobeyed his wishes, even when he's wrong. He has sacrificed so many things in his own life because of his love for his children. Over the years, he has however come to accept our choices and not take notice of the Pakistani community.

Teaching cultural awareness
Since completing my training as a police officer in 2000, my career has taken off. Today I am halfway through a management training programme within the police force. It’s a challenge to push yourself and see just how far you can go. If I’ve spotted a chance to move up within the ranks, I’ve taken it. I am dead set on being promoted to some form of management position. It would be fantastic to become the first chief constable with an ethnic background.

I have always viewed my background as an advantage, also within my work. It’s true to say that I know both sides of the law. And I know the psychological mechanisms which make young immigrants act the way they sometimes do. I use this knowledge when I’m out teaching cultural awareness as part of advanced police training courses. I offer my opinion as to how an officer can tackle these youngsters. One way to do this is to look at the signals you give out. Friendly body language and a positive tone can prevent many a conflict from developing.

Role model
Alongside my police job I go out and hold talks and teach. Among those I talk to are bus drivers and metro personnel. In their lines of work they often face abuse from angry young men from the ethnic communities, and they are often accused of being racist – an unpleasant word which many react strongly to. Racism means treating people differently but sometimes it’s more about finding someone’s weaknesses. If it’s someone with red hair, call him "carrot top". If it’s someone with dark skin from an ethnic minority, call him "black bastard". And if it’s a bus driver telling you that you need to buy a ticket, call him a "racist".

The best thing about my job holding talks is that it gives me the opportunity to speak with youngsters with ethnic backgrounds in schools. It’s good to let them know that even though they face hurdles and opposition in Denmark it’s possible for them to become something. For many of them, talking with someone who understands, and has experienced their problems, and can give them advice to help them get back on the right track is a big thing. Some of the positive feedback I have had from College students has, on occasions, almost brought me to tears.

It feels good to be able to pass something on to young people. And that’s something I also do as assistant coach on the Danish national Taekwondo team. As long as I have something with which I can contribute, I will continue to do so. And I’m a competitive person by nature. My son is mad about Taekwondo, too, and shows a lot of promise in the field of martial arts. He often comes with me to competitions. And he also accompanies me when I’m out coaching the national team. This is something both of us enjoy very much.

My mother was buried in Denmark
I feel lucky when I look back upon my life. It could so easily have gone off in the wrong direction. Most of my friends from Nørrebro have calmed down now and settled down as taxi drivers, green grocers or pizzeria owners. But a number of them have ended up as drug users, and others have shot each other or crashed while joy riding. One or two are still in the criminal world and have moved quite high up in the criminal hierarchy.

The only shadow over my life is the fact that my mother is no longer with me. She died two years ago. It’s painful to lose one of your parents, particularly in her case where her illness was both long and painful. I was very close to her and she was without doubt the person that held us all together. My mother had wanted to be buried in Pakistan but my father convinced her to be buried here in Denmark. "This is our country," he told her. "It is here that our children will come and visit our graves". "It is here they will pray for us." My father has bought the grave plot beside my mother. For me, this is the ultimate sign that my parents have adopted Denmark as their first home.

Translation: Andrew Bell

 
Background:
Born in Pakistan in 1972
 
Moved as a child to Nørrebro, Copenhagen, an area with a high population of ethnic minorities
 
Finished training as a police officer in 2000
 
Lives with his Danish girlfriend outside of Copenhagen
 
Dreams of promotion to a management position within the police force one day
 
New Men in Denmark - read more stories here



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