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Malik Hassan - men and women are equal

Malik grew up in a patriarchal society in Africa. In Denmark he had to get used to very different roles of men and women. This particularly applied to his job as a social care assistant where he was the only man with an immigrant background. Today, Malik is so enthusiatic about working in the social healthcare sector that he now tries to convince other men from ethnic minorities to follow his lead.

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

KVINFO/7.2.2008 It’s always bothered me that my parents couldn’t remember exactly when I was born. "You were born that year it rained a lot just before Ramadan," remembers my mother. "You were born at the same time as your cousin Jamal," said my father. They eventually agreed that it must have been in 1965 as Jamal was born in a hospital and his birth was officially recorded. The only thing with this was that my cousin Jamal was two years above me in school. So I was probably born a few years after he was. And there were a lot of birthdays to remember. My father had three wives and 21 children. We all lived close to each other, but in separate houses.

My father owned a transport company and, by African standards, he was a wealthy man. He had a big heart and cared deeply for all of his children, but he could also be tough and very dominating. Sometimes he went too far, like when my sister bought a slightly low-cut dress for the festival of Eid (a celebration of the end of Ramadan: Ed.). My father took a pair of scissors and cut it to shreds. I found his reaction so provocative that I went straight out and bought her another dress. Why should she have to be the only one at the party not to have a new dress? My father was furious and gave me a severe telling off in front of the whole family. "Don’t ever go behind my back and defy me!" he screamed. But once the guests had left, he took me to one side and told me that what I had done had been really good and that we should just forget about the whole episode. My father respected me and I was the one he chose as his successor in the business.

Ran away from my father
However, from an early age, I knew that I wanted to study. I was fascinated by knowledge. When I told my father that I wanted to continue studying after my school leaving exams he refused point blank. "I can neither read nor write," he said, "yet I’m the one who has done the best in this town. What do you need an education for?" And with that, the matter was closed.

For the next two years I worked in my father’s company. Then, I managed to convince him that I would be able to buy a cheap lorry for the company in England and he gave me the okay to go. That was in 1989. When I was saying my goodbyes to my family I knew that I wouldn’t be coming back again. I felt suffocated there. My entire life had been planned out by my father, including who I was going to marry. I didn’t want to become trapped in a life over which I had no control.

Thought Denmark was somewhere in Sweden
After a brief stay in England I moved on to Copenhagen where I was to visit some friends. At that time I didn’t realise that Denmark was an independent country. I thought it was part of Sweden. Then everything started moving on very quickly.

After three months I fell in love with Christine, an English-Kenyan woman who worked as a teacher at an international school in Copenhagen. She had previously been married to a Danish man but now lived alone with her young daughter. We moved in together and were soon married in September 1990. I rang my father and told him that I wasn’t coming back. "Get yourself on the next plane home or else I’ll come up there to get you myself!" he said. He never did – he died shortly afterwards.

The beginnings of my new life weren’t easy. The very first thing I did was go on a course every day in order to learn Danish – a language which, to me, sounded very strange indeed. How on earth would I learn it? The employment situation in the early 1990s wasn’t good and I couldn’t speak much Danish. Early each morning, I would cycle round to different restaurants to see if I could get a job. After four months I got a job in a pizzeria. I worked there for a couple of years while I went to language school.

Inner and outer barriers
Since moving to Denmark my life had taken a completely new course – a new language and new ways of doing things. Very early on in our relationship Christine told me "in Denmark we share everything." This was okay for me, even though it went against everything my father had taught me about women belonging in the kitchen and men not. I was open about doing things in a new way and it felt natural to me to help around the house.

Mailk Hassan at work. Photo: Tine HardenA friend suggested that I apply to become a home help in Gentofte. I went to the interview and got a job in the home-help service. It was strange to begin with. I came from a very male-chauvinistic culture where men would never dream of changing the nappy of their children. As part of my job I had to wash the most intimate regions of elderly people.

To begin with, that was almost more than I could handle. But it wasn’t only my own inner barriers I had to deal with. Outer barriers had to be broken down, too. The elderly people were used to being visited by Danish home helps and now, suddenly, there was a foreigner at the door. One woman actually slammed the door in my face when she saw me, shouting "don't think you're coming in here!” I was in a dilemma. Should I call the office and ask them to send a Danish home help or should I try again? When she opened her door and wouldn’t let me in the second time, I smiled at her and asked why not. She stood and pondered the situation for a moment, then said “Oh, what the heck – you’ve got a nice smile. Come inside!”

It turned out that she and her husband had disturbed a group of young immigrant boys vandalising a bus shelter only a few days earlier. When her husband had tried to talk to the boys they had gone berserk and beaten him up. After that experience, she didn’t dare let any immigrants into her house. I made her a cup of coffee and told her about my background. I told her that I had never hit anyone in my life. Over time, she became so fond of me that when I came to visit, she wouldn’t let me do any housework. She would rather chat.

This was a rewarding experience. And I know it gave her a more balanced view of immigrants. But it was tough to get through these first months – turning up to someone’s door with a smile on your face and being turned away so blatantly. After several unpleasant episodes I decided to ring up beforehand to let them know that the home help that would come and visit them had an immigrant background. This helped to open many doors. Most people were really nice. If you give someone a chance, things will usually work out. Having this attitude has helped me a lot.

Denmark – the land of opportunities
Things started falling into place at work. But one day, without warning, I was fired for no reason after three months. The next day, my colleagues went on strike and demanded a reason from the management, "The elderly people are very happy with Malik, and so are we. Why have you fired him?" It came to light that a new nurse had been hired and she wasn’t happy with the fact that there were "foreign"’ home helps. The conflict ended with my reinstatement.

Today I’m glad that I chose to stay. I could easily have chosen a job which paid more money and gave higher social status. But my job gave me the chance to work with people and I discovered that that was where my heart was. I looked forward to work and coming out to visit the old people every day. I knew they were sitting waiting for Malik to come. They often had a pot of coffee ready for when I came. It was wonderful, and I was getting paid to do it – like a professional footballer getting paid to play with a football.

After a while, I got the urge to take an education within my field, and in 1990 I graduated as a social care assistant. I continued to work in Glostrup (suburb in Copenhagen: Ed.), where I still am on the regular night shift, whilst I studied nursing at University College Øresund in Herlev. I’ll be fully qualified in just another six months. For me, Denmark is the land of opportunities. I’m happy to have ended up in a country where there is such a wide choice of education on offer. Why not take advantage of it? One day I may be able to make a contribution in Uganda, if I ever decide to go back.

Single parent
Together, Christine and I had three children. But, over the years, my life had taken off. The fact that I was constantly busy with my work and my studies affected my family. Our marriage started fallling apart. My wife felt that I didn’t have any time for her. Daily life became miserable and we argued more and more. In the end, we took the difficult decision to separate. The final straw was when my 14-year-old son said that he couldn’t sleep at night because his mother and father were rowing so much in the living room. This made us realise just how much it was affecting our children.

Christine and I spent many happy years together and, someday, we may get back together. At the moment we are only separated. The children take turns staying with us. My new apartment isn’t so big but my children enjoy themselves there. I try to keep their everyday life as normal as possible. Like in every family, breakfast has to be served and packed lunches have to be made for school. There used to be two of us sharing the work, but now it’s all up to me. There’s a limit to how much children of that age help out. They sit at the table waiting for their dad to serve the food.

As a single father, I have probably begun to expect my children to do more and I insist that they help in the kitchen. Just because you are doing a chore doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy yourself. We prepare food together and have some set routines which the children love – for example, going down to Gentofte Lake and feeding the ducks after school. The time we spend together is good. I have noticed how much they enjoy having my full attention. Once the children have gone off to bed, I can study and prepare for the following day. Money is tight but we get by. You don’t need lots of money to be happy and content in life.

Come with me to work!
It’s been easy for me to adjust to the Danish ways of doing things. This has led to many discussions with my African friends. Some of them are out of work and living on benefits. But at the same time, many of them have done nothing to become more integrated, for example, by learning Danish properly. When they hear that I only get paid out DKK 500 more than they do they can’t understand how I can be bothered going to work. "Why not just go down to the social office?" they say. Their attitude really rubs me up the wrong way. "Your lives could be so much more exciting if you weren’t so focused on that DKK 500!" I tell them.

Coming from Africa, it’s fantastic for me to get out and about and meet Danes. I am invited into their homes and am given a glimpse into their private lives. You discover what’s behind the façade and it opens your eyes to how other people think. This knowledge is priceless to me – even though I only get DKK 500 more in my bank account. "Come with me to work!" I’ve told my friends. Several have taken me up on this and, today, there are four people in the local home-help service with immigrant backgrounds. They have discovered that it’s better to go out to work than it is to sit at home waiting for the check from the welfare office.

Danish humour
From time to time, they ring me if they are having a problem at work. Often it all boils down to a simple misunderstanding. For example, one person called me up and told me that one of his colleagues had made a joke about Negroes at work. He was very offended by the remarks and took the whole thing very personally. I suggested that he look at it from a different angle. "Perhaps, in fact, your colleague had completely forgotten that you are different. Everyone can see that you are black and the fact that people feel that they can tell such a joke while you are there shows that they fully accept you." He could see my point. 

Humour and jokes are part of the Danish work culture and, as an immigrant, you have to deal with this. But if a joke really crosses the line I will speak up. Normally the surprised response is, "but Malik, we don't mean you!"

Not accountable for 9/11
9/11 changed the Danes attitude to Muslims. Immediately afterwards I was challenged as a Muslim on a daily basis. "Malik, what do you think about all this stuff about Muslims?" What was I to say other than that I am a completely normal person with the same values as Danes? I don’t feel that I should be accountable for what happened in the USA that day. I mean, it had absolutely nothing to do with me!

The fact that Islam is important to me is another matter. And I am happy to discuss this with anybody. My father had three wives, one Christian and the other two Muslim. As a result, my family celebrated both Christmas and Eid. Nor was it a problem in my marriage that my wife was Christian. The only requirement I had was that we kept our meat separate in the fridge as I don’t eat pork.

When they are older, our children will be able to choose which faith they wish to follow themselves. However, my eldest son, who is 14, has already begun to ask questions – "Can you be Danish and a Muslim at the same time?" "Of course," I tell him. The values which I grew up with in Uganda aren’t any different from Danish values. That’s how I see it. 

Caring for my mother in hospital
Not having had the chance to say goodbye to my father was hard. But when I visited my family in Uganda later on I discovered that he had left a message for me. My mother told me that he had been proud that I had moved away and was proud of the fact that I hadn’t stayed at home being looked after by him, like the other "goats" in the family. He had asked my mother to tell me this before he died. My father also told her that his own father had found him a wife. According to our tradition, he couldn’t turn her down; only women may turn down men. Shortly after, he had divorced her and left the town. He had also wanted to decide for himself who he wanted to marry.

His message set my mind at rest. And even though I’m far away, I’m still a part of my family. I help them as much as I can financially. When my mother became seriously ill with a brain tumour I took her to Mumbai in India, along with my sister. The treatment was both cheaper and better than the treatment in Uganda. The operation was carried out by professional, experienced doctors. Whilst she waited in hospital, I took care of her and washed her. It’s usual for the patient’s family to undertake these jobs when a patient is hospitalised in India. But the fact that a son was caring for his mother created a furore among other patients and staff on the ward. The first day, the staff ordered me out of the ward but I insisted on looking after my mother. Even my mother was a bit against it to begin with. However, she was surprised to learn that I could do it well and accepted my help.

The operation only partially helped. Today, my mother still has trouble talking and is unable to walk unaided. But she is alive – and for that, she can thank the operation. I have taught my sister how to care for my mother. In Uganda, children look after their parents as a matter of duty. But progress is going the same way as in Denmark. All of my sisters want to go out to work so that they can afford their own place to live and, perhaps, buy a car. My own worry about this development is that looking after the elderly will end up in the hands of someone other than the family.

I am nearly fully trained as a nurse now and I am looking forward to working in a hospital and learning something new – perhaps on a medical ward where I can use all the skills which I have learned. The hospital will be a big challenge for me and there are still lots of things I can be better at. I’ve now set myself a new goal – to complete a Master’s in Public Health. I feel both happy and privileged. And I’ve recently met a girl I like who is studying to become a midwife. It’s still early days and we’re taking things one step at a time. In fact, I’m waiting for her to call right now.

Translation: Andrew Bell

Born in Uganda in 1965
Visited Denmark in 1989 and settled down
Has worked in the social healthcare sector since 1992
Fully qualified nurse in 2007
Single father of three

New Men in Denmark - read more stories here

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