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Azam Javadi - global citizen in Denmark

Photo: Tine Harden

Azam Javadi was born in Iran and came to Denmark in 1986 as a political refugee. Her heart is in politics and she works for equal opportunities for ethnic minorities in Denmark. Azam Javadi is also a member of the Danish Social-Liberal Party, and one day, she would like to become the next Minister of Equal Opportunities.

Azam tells her story in "The Invisible Success", a series of portraits of ethnic minority women living in Denmark.


KVINFO/16.5.2008  My 10 brothers and sisters and I grew up in a big house in Teheran – so big that I often couldn’t find my mother. I still don’t like big houses. If I don’t know where I’m going I easily get deeply depressed and start looking around for my mother.

My mother was a housewife and my father was a well-known and respected theologian, lawyer and barrister. I didn’t have a strict upbringing even though my parents were very religious, but there were rules we had to keep. It was customary in my family to discuss social issues, and as child number six I quickly learnt how to fight to be heard. I showed an interest in politics at an early age, and when I was 13 years old I was handing out leaflets against the Shah’s regime. Later on I became politically active in opposition to the theocratic government. I moved into a hall of residence a year before I took the entrance exams to the university in Teheran – which was very unusual for a 16-year-old girl brought up in the Muslim tradition. My mother was worried by my decision, but I wanted a private life and so I insisted on leaving home.

In 1976 I was offered a place at the university and I started reading political science, graduating five years later. I then taught history and social studies in upper secondary school, and later got a job as head of a ministerial secretariat. The situation in Iran wasn’t getting any better, but I didn’t just settle for dreaming about a society with democracy and justice, I spoke up! The consequence of my outspokenness was approximately two years behind bars. My father wrote to the authorities during my detention, pointing out that the first page of the Koran stresses the duty of the believing Muslim to form one’s own opinion, but the letter had no effect. My father died while I was in prison.

In 1986 I had to get out of Iran, because as a woman and with my criminal record, I had no opportunities whatsoever, and I was afraid of being sent to prison again. I decided to go to Sweden. In Iran there was a sharp division between rich and poor, and at university I had read with interest about the Nordic model of welfare, a social structure that could support everyone – including those in need.

The ugly duckling
I had to change in Copenhagen on the way to Sweden, and I landed in Kastrup Airport on a cold October day, the very same day that a ban on the admission of refugees was introduced in Denmark [October 3rd, 1986. Ed.], and so I couldn’t fly on to Sweden. An intermediary who had helped me escape advised me either to walk out of the airport along with everyone else or to approach the Danish police and ask for political asylum. I sat down on a bench opposite a red postbox and thought: what now?

I stayed at the airport for four hours thinking about my options as a refugee in the West. All I knew about Denmark was that it was a democratic country and part of the Nordic welfare model, but I suddenly remembered Hans Christian Andersen’s tale The Ugly Duckling, which my father had given me for my seventh birthday. The thought of the tale warmed my heart and I decided to apply for political asylum in the country that had produced such a tale.

My attitude to the authorities, particularly the police, was influenced by horrible experiences during my imprisonment in Iran, and I was therefore afraid of talking with the Danish police, but the meeting turned out to be a positive experience. A young, very tall officer could see that I was trembling with fear and he tried to hold my hand to help. He spent a lot of time calming me down, and he asked if I had any family in Denmark. All I knew was that my brother was in one of the Scandinavian countries. The officer found out that my brother, who had fled a year before, was now living in Næstved, in Denmark.

I was granted political asylum within three weeks, because I had brought documentation with me, including a transcript of my conviction for anti-regime activities, which proved that I had been to prison.

Starting all over again
I lived for a short period in an asylum camp in Jutland. Another young woman and I lived in the same block as some young male refugees. They were very antagonistic and whistled whenever they saw us. We felt very vulnerable and asked the staff to move us to a family unit. "You’re two pretty young girls, you should be pleased to get a bit of attention," was the response. At night the men drank and were so noisy we couldn’t sleep, and when I went out one night and asked them to be quiet they became aggressive. One of the men came up to me threateningly, so I pushed him and he fell down the stairs. While we were at classes next day, they broke in, stole our money and covered our beds with porno magazines. I was then given permission to move to Næstved, where I rented a room not far from my brother.

At first, I thought that having a university degree meant I would soon be able to find work, but I was turned down for every job and every course of education I applied for. I realised that I would have to start all over again in Denmark. I would have to learn Danish quickly and pass the Danish test that was obligatory in order to study at university. But course participants at the language school weren’t assessed in relation to their personal histories, and academics were put in the same class as people who were illiterate.

A week of being taught how to be a good cleaning assistant was the turning point for me. With all respect for cleaning work, it was not the career I was aiming for, and I found the classes humiliating. I complained to the head of the school, who remarked condescendingly: "You can’t start a revolution in Denmark." But I was prepared to make a stand. Therefore I got in touch with the county authority, where they were very understanding and made sure that procedures at the school were changed for the benefit of subsequent language course participants.

A resource for society
I chose to go to VUC, The Adult Education Centre, to learn Danish. I was impatient to get on, but there was no fun in being put back to square one and having to start at the level of a 9th-form pupil [aged 15-16. Ed.] when I had already taken a long academic education and had had an active career. It was such a waste that my academic background and work experience weren’t seen as a resource for Danish society.

The principal of VUC gave me permission to take a few other subjects at HF level, Higher Preparatory Course level, including Danish. I found the HF teaching methods to be both interesting and different: the students had to take a critical look at a topic and it was their responsibility how much they got out of the course. At the first Danish lesson, the teacher asked us to write an essay about adverts on TV2 [Danish television channel. Ed.]: "Go home and discuss it with yourself," she said. That sounded wrong to me, because how can you discuss with yourself? But I worked hard on my essay and got a good response from the teacher. It was difficult to adjust to a different  educational approach when you have studied in a totalitarian system where you weren’t required to have an opinion, but just replicate what you had read.

In 1990 I succeeded in getting a place on the management studies course at Roskilde University. My degree from Iran was accredited as a "bachelor" and I started additional classes in economics and planning. Even though I was having to start from scratch on a course of education I had already taken, I looked at it as a challenge to accomplish the goal I had set myself: to achieve the same educational status in Denmark as I had had in Iran.

One of the examination assignments I submitted at Roskilde University was a report on the barriers that impede highly-educated refugees from making use of their qualifications in the Danish workplace. The report came in for heavy criticism, the verdict being that my conclusions were subjective, and it was a struggle to get it graded as an average C. I gave up any official complaint about the assessment, but the result of the episode was that I became politically active again. It is an ill wind that blows no good!

Academics for Ethnic Equality
While I was writing the report about highly-educated refugees, I came into contact with a group of highly-educated Iranians who had formed an association for Iranian academics living in Denmark – I later became the chairperson. I became aware that not only Iranians, but all foreigners with a higher education had problems with the Danish labour marked. In 1996, along with some like-minded people, we set up the association Akelin, Academics for Ethnic Equality. We held a series of public debates which drew attention to the barriers that highly-educated immigrants and refugees encounter when seeking employment. We published a pamphlet pointing out that wise heads can be of different colours, and one of our campaigns was to ensure that CVUU, a centre for the assessment of qualifications gained outside Denmark, got up and running.

The problem has not diminished over the years. Well-educated academics from ethnic minorities are leaving Denmark in growing numbers and finding employment in other countries. For example, my brother read medicine at the University of Copenhagen in the 1990s. There were 22 medical students with ethnic minority backgrounds in his year, and today only two of the 22 are still in Denmark. The rest have gone to other European countries. If Denmark isn’t able to hold on to self-supporting and well-educated people from an ethnic minority background, then the nation will be left with the group who has fewer resources. That development is already underway.

In 1994 I completed my university education. My studies had taken longer than I had planned as, in the meantime, I had fallen in love with an Iranian man living here in Denmark studying to be a pharmacist. In 1992 we had our son, Alexander.

Moving on from "the food circus"
With two courses of education under my belt, I first got a job as an interpreter at  The Danish Refugee Council. I was then head-hunted to the post of integration consultant in a large housing association, where my job was to encourage people from ethnic minorities to participate in residents’ activities.

I had long wanted to be involved with multicultural cultural work in a more informed way than what I call "the food circus": I come along with my Iranian saffron dish, and you come along with your Danish meatballs, and then we can eat and clink glasses. In the autumn of 2000 I was employed to lead a project at Museum of Copenhagen, where I arranged guided tours and museum visits in the capital for guests from a multicultural background. I described the process that led to the Danish democratic structure we know today, and I talked about all the places that make Copenhagen a treasury full of history.

Knowing about the history of a place makes you feel more at home. Walking across Gammeltorv [a square in the centre of Copenhagen. Ed.] is a completely different experience today knowing, as I now do, that in earlier times it was a place of execution. And understanding is also helped when events in Danish history are juxtaposed with events elsewhere in the world. For example, while Denmark was going through its Golden Age [c.1800-c.1850. Ed.], Iran was experiencing a similar period of cultural prosperity.

Besides guided walks and guided tours at the Museum of Copenhagen, I made an audio guide for two of the museum’s exhibitions telling stories from and giving information about the period of Danish history from absolute monarchy to democracy. The audio guide is in straightforward and easily-understood Danish and it is still in use today.

Culture is never static
I have personally adopted a lot of the Danish culture – Christmas, for example. My family and I celebrate both Iranian New Year and Danish Christmas, and my son is happy to receive presents several times a year. Every year I buy a Christmas tree that has to be the same height as Alexander. Instead of Christmas carols, we sing Iranian birthday songs. My son needs to know about Danish traditions so he doesn’t feel like an outsider in relation to other children, and therefore he gets both an Advent calendar and a Christmas stocking. But we don’t relinquish our Iranian identity. Many people ask me why I mark Christmas when I’m not Christian. I answer that I want to be happy and in a festive mood when other people are. And it’s lovely saying happy Christmas to people you meet. I don’t practice any kind of religion other than neighbourly love. I believe in my fellow human beings, and that love of your fellow humans is the foundation of every religion.

Culture is a broad concept which is constantly changing. Today, "my culture" is a mixture of Iranian and Danish. My son knows his Iranian roots and he speaks Farsi. Farsi is the language in which I can tell him how much I love him. Now and then someone draws attention to his Iranian origins, as on the day he came home from kindergarten and asked: “Mum, what does perker mean?” I found out that some of the children called him that, and so I started calling him perker [a term of racial abuse. Ed.] as a pet name in order to demystify the word and remove the negative meaning.

Freedom is precious
Alongside my work I became involved in local politics, and in 2001 I was deputy chair of the integration council at Gladsaxe local authority. Integration councils had been set up in 1999 to provide guidelines for the local authorities. It is not compulsory for local authorities to draw on the integration councils. But if they are to operate as anything other than cosy get-togethers then I think it is essential that politicians give them an official entitlement to a hearing – this would signal that we are taken seriously. In April 2000 I was elected chair of The Council of Ethnic Minorities, a post I held for two years. [The Council is composed of 14 representatives from the local authority integration councils and it is an advisory organ for ministries and other organisations. Ed.]

While I was a member of the Council, I had a discussion with a female politician who had once been active in the women’s liberation movement. She saw "Danish values" such as democracy and equality as being contrary to "immigrant values": "our" men were oppressors and "we" women were the oppressed; "our" values had a negative influence on Danish democracy. I found this rather odd, because it was precisely in relation to issues of democracy and the liberation of woman that I and others on the Council had been tortured and imprisoned in our native countries.

Equality of opportunity is not something I "found" in Denmark, it’s part of my luggage: during my childhood I took a stand against my father and my brothers, and my husband and I have always been equal partners. My husband is a good friend and he probably does more for the family than I do, even though we have shared out the various responsibilities between us. He also takes care of the cooking and the laundry. My female Iranian friends and I often joke that if prejudiced people knew how "oppressed" our husbands are at home they would feel sorry for them. I don’t think it would have been different had I stayed in Iran, married and had a family there. I would have had the same trouble and the same arguments with my husband.

I have never been one to sit back and accept authority, neither in Iran nor in Denmark, and I can’t be cooped up and boxed in. What I cherish most in my life, perhaps more than my family, is freedom. I am prepared to give everything in order to attain freedom, and that is one of the things I value in Denmark: democracy and the democratic process.

Minister for Equal Opportunity
Over the years I have worked as an ethnic equal opportunities consultant within the trade-union framework, running ethnic equal opportunities courses at Esbjerg Højskole [Danish folk high school – adult education courses. Ed.] for employee union representatives. I have also worked with two Danish theatre companies, at one of which, Taastrup Teater, I set up "ambassador groups" of representatives from the local ethnic minorities. We succeeded in attracting a multicultural audience for the productions.

Today I work as a business consultant in a private company, helping unemployed residents in the Copenhagen municipality to get underway with a job or an educational course. I meet the clients with an open heart and open ears, and focus on strengths and resources. We don’t talk in terms of weaknesses – we all have those. I always ask about dreams for the future, and the other day a client broke down: throughout a lengthy life in the social services system no one had ever asked him that question, and he had never believed that he had any dreams for the future – until now.

Even though I am a global citizen, today I consider Denmark to be my country. I’ve unpacked my luggage, and on the personal level I see myself as a swan: I feel at home in my environment, and I am not discontented with my lot in life. As regards my contribution towards better integration and equal opportunities, I occasionally feel like the ugly duckling. It is a sphere in which there has to be some fundamental change in attitude. Today, integration and equal opportunities for ethnic minorities is seen more a matter of assimilation – people from ethnic minorities ought to look like and think like the majority in society. A wise Danish man once said that for a short while we have a life in which we have to work out how to live together, and we haven’t learnt that yet.

I value the life I lead, and I really feel part of the Danish community. If I sometimes get down in the dumps, I try to see the bright side: it can’t get worse, only better! Today I’m a member of  The Danish Social-Liberal Party, a party in which I can recognise my own political standpoint, and I have plans to get politically involved again. Ten years from now I might be a member of parliament! As Minister for Equal Opportunities.

Translation: Gaye Kynoch


Born in Iran and came to Denmark in 1986 as a political refugee
Studied management and economics at Roskilde University and graduated in 1994
Former chair of The Council of Ethnic Minorities
Member of the Board for Ethnic Equality and of the Government's Committee of Equality of Opportunity
Set up the association Akelin, Academics for Ethnic Equality together with others
Works as a business consultant in a private company, helping unemployed residents in Copenhagen

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