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Roda Ahmed wants to combine work and family

Roda Ahmed was born in 1975 in Somalia. Her dream was to study medicine, but instead she had to flee her home country at the outbreak of civil war. When she came to Denmark in 1994, she had to leave her family behind. Roda Ahmed has finished her training as a caterer. So far she has not been succesful in getting a job.

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


KVINFO/16.5.2008 When I was a child living in Somalia, I dreamt of studying medicine. My family was middle class, so we had the financial resources for all eight children to pursue an education. My father was the director of transport in Mogadishu, my mother was a housewife. My dream of being a doctor was shattered in 1990 with the outbreak of the civil war resulting from many years of discontent with the president’s undemocratic regime. There was no electricity or water in the city, and bombs were falling close to the building where my family and I lived. During the worst bombardments the ground shook so much that it felt like an earthquake.

One evening our neighbour’s house was hit and caught fire, and my family and I fled Mogadishu in terror. When I see pictures from Baghdad today, I feel as if I’m there, because I see what I went through when we escaped: dying and dead people lying in the streets and we just walked past without helping. In a war situation you’re like a living dead yourself, because you don’t know when you’re going to be hit by a bullet.

I was 14 years old and my only thought was to survive. My parents got separated from one another in all the confusion. My mother and four of my siblings made it to a Red Cross camp in Kenya, while my father and I and three other siblings tried to reach the Ethiopian border. We walked for three days and nights before we got to the frontier. On the fourth night we paid a man to smuggle us into Ethiopia, where we went to a Red Cross refugee camp with thousands of other refugees from Somalia. We kept hoping that we’d find my mother and brothers and sisters in the camp, but no one had seen them or heard any news of them.

We had been in the refugee camp for eighteen months when we received a letter from the Danish Red Cross telling us that my mother and four siblings had been living in a Red Cross refugee camp in Kenya, but they had now been granted asylum in Denmark. We waited two years for our family reunification in Denmark, and during that period my mother sent us 100 dollars every month for food and clothing.

Leaving my new-born daughter
In the refugee camp I met the man who was to become my husband, Ibrahim. We already knew each other a little. His wife had been killed during their escape, and now he was alone with four small children. We got on well, and I was happy to look after his children.

When I was 17, Ibrahim and I got married, and I then had responsibility for four children. Just after our wedding I became pregnant, and in 1992 I gave birth two months prematurely to my eldest daughter. Life in the refugee camp was arduous, and every day I hoped to receive permission to go to Denmark.

In 1994 we were finally told by the Danish Embassy that we had been granted family reunification with my mother, but the reunification did not include my husband and children. The Danish Ambassador advised me to go to Denmark on my own and apply for family reunification from there. The thought of spending the rest of our lives in a refugee camp made me leave my own family and travel to Denmark with my father and three siblings. It was painful to leave my new-born daughter who was only 23 days old at the time.

All the walls were white
It was winter when we arrived in Denmark in 1994, and I saw snow for the first time. At school in Somalia I had heard about Russian snowstorms, but I had no idea that snow sprinkled down from the sky like sugar – I thought it came in big lumps. The cold was the worst, and I was so frozen that I stayed in bed for a week drinking hot tea, but I couldn’t get warm.

There were no colours, no leaves on the trees, and everyone’s home had white walls. Can I survive here, I worried? There were ten of us living in a five-room flat in Tilst, a suburb of Aarhus. I started learning Danish at a youth project for 18- to 25-year-olds, where I also went to classes in maths and English.

After 18 months I passed the final Danish exam. The first thing I had done when I arrived in Denmark was to apply for family reunification with my family from Ethiopia. They finally arrived in 1996. In the meantime, my little baby had grown into a 2-year-old tot. We got a flat in Malling, a small town close to Odder [in Jutland. Ed.], where, even though I now had a family to take care of, I worked as a cleaner and assisted in the canteen at the local school. In 1996 I had my son. After maternity leave I went back to work.

My Danish was by now so good that for the next two years I worked as an interpreter. But my dream was to learn to cook. After I had had my third child, a little girl, in 1998, the local authority helped me get a training placement as a kitchen assistant at an agricultural college in Malling.

The atmosphere at the training place and attitude of manager is crucial: some make it clear from day one that they don’t think you’re any good. Others bolster your self-confidence and convince you that you can do the job. The kitchen manager at the agricultural college had a positive attitude to me from the very first day, and she took time to show me the ropes. If I was baking bread she would write down how much yeast and margarine I should use. I learnt a lot about Danish food along the way – for example, that rye bread is healthy and tastes good, and today my family doesn’t eat any other kind of bread.

The first time I saw an open sandwich piled high with "filling", I thought it was just for decoration and not something to be eaten. We had to prepare food for 80 agricultural students every day, and after six months I dared take on weekend shifts where I had full responsibility. When I had been there a year, the kitchen manager advised me to train as a caterer because she thought I was good at it and that I had the right touch.

Apprenticeship certificate with credit
In 2001 I started a three-year course in food studies at Aarhus Technical College. A successful foundation course was followed by problems when it came to the trainee period, but with the help of the local authority I got a placement at College of Social Work, where I was given a good report.

The teachers at the Technical College were nice and supportive, and the only subject that caused me problems was Danish. No matter how hard I tried, I got low marks. At one point I got a D for a paper I’d written. I didn’t think this was fair and I complained to the principal of the college, pointing out that if my Danish was so bad they shouldn’t have given me a place on the course in the first place, because it was a waste of my time and energy. From then on he looked through my Danish assignments and at the written examination, with an external examiner, I got a C. In April 2004 I received my certificate of completed apprenticeship – actually, I got the second-highest marks in my class.

I was very proud of my certificate and I wanted to use my training, but I was the only one in the class whose every job application was turned down, I wasn’t even asked to attend a single interview. I eventually managed to get a job on a project teaching Arab and Somali women cookery and food hygiene. I arranged for the women to take a food safety test at the Technical College. Having a food safety diploma meant that they would have the possibility of employment as kitchen or canteen assistants. If I can’t find a job in the catering branch I’ll get work as an interpreter again.

My husband and I often talk about how you might not get rich working in Europe, but you can share in another kind of wealth – knowledge and education, and no one can take that away from you. I don’t agree with Somali acquaintances who say that studying at the Technical College was a waste of time. I have my professionalism and I know how to set up a restaurant, and if I one day returned to Somalia and opened a restaurant it might well attract more customers, because now I know which types of customers I would concentrate on: young people, families and affluent people.

Chef’s cap on top of the headscarf
At the moment I’m on maternity leave, looking after my nine-month-old daughter, but I hope my daughter will soon get a place in a crèche or with a child-minder so that I can get back to looking for a job. My children have always gone to crèche and kindergarten, even though other Somali women have reproached me for spending too little time with my children and using too much time on my studies and my work.

I’ve also been reproached for working with pork, but then I explain that pork export is a source of income for Denmark – and that some of this income is used to pay out the benefits on which many Somali women depend. I have no problem working with pork, as long as I don’t have to taste it, and I have no problem at all wearing a small headscarf at work. When I was doing my apprenticeship, I had a chef’s cap on top of my scarf, which my classmates thought was cool. As I’m a Muslim, I pray during the day, in my breaks, and if we’re busy then I pray later.

I’m deputy chair of the Association of Somali Women, and there I’m often asked when you are sufficiently integrated in Danish society? My answer is that when you have a job or a training, then you’re integrated. I’m tired of hearing comments that Somali women won’t work. I would love to have a job, but personally I’m disappointed that up until now my name and my headscarf have meant that my applications have not been successful. Instead of talking so much about integration, society ought to be making a greater effort to open the doors onto the labour market.

Our children have grown up with parents who are active in the workplace. Having a job is not only good for our finances, but also for our children who can say that their mother is taking a college education and that their father has a job. In Somalia my husband was an English teacher, but he quickly gave up trying to find a job in his field in Denmark. So he trained to be a bus driver instead.

My religion is important
I feel very well integrated, but that doesn’t mean that I feel Danish in every aspect of life. For example, I wear a headscarf and I’m a practicing Muslim. The first time I met a Christian was when I was in Ethiopia. At the time, meeting someone with a different faith frightened me, because until then I’d thought everyone was Muslim. But I soon learnt that Muslims, Christians and other religions can work together perfectly well. My fundamental attitude is that we mustn’t be scared to mix with each another – and that applies to Somalis in Denmark too.

Our children are having a Muslim upbringing, and we celebrate all the Muslim festivals. At the end of Ramadan all our children got presents and new clothes, we went to the cinema and saw Zorro and ate at McDonald’s. In our culture we don’t celebrate birthdays, but we have nonetheless decided to do so until the children reach six years of age. You shouldn’t just reject everything. On the other hand, we don’t celebrate Christmas, and the children don’t get an Advent calendar or a Christmas tree.

A good education is everything
It was God who decided that my husband and I should have children. When newly-married I resolved that the "flowers" resulting from our love should grow big and beautiful. In the refugee camp in Ethiopia, my husband and I often talked about our future, and one day I told him about my "flower garden". He laughed and asked me “How can you think so far into the future?” Today I’ve got my garden, and I invest everything I have in it.

Our children know that my husband and I expect them to do well at school. Only the youngest of my husband’s children with his former wife still lives at home with us. She goes to upper secondary school, and she gets very good marks. To benefit my children in school I’ve organised our own private homework help: I help the youngest with their assignments, while the older children help their younger siblings. Television and computer games are switched off for an hour while all the children get on with their homework. Although they don’t have any homework themselves, the youngest ones learn to sit quietly with a book for a whole hour. When we went to parents’ evening with my daughter, who is in the first form [6-7 years old. Ed.], the teacher said that he was impressed by her ability to concentrate on her work.

Before my husband and I go to parents’ evenings, I write a list of questions to ask the teacher about how our children are getting on academically and socially. If we are told that our child is doing well and is making progress, then they’ll get a reward in the form of a big present, even if the improvement has only been small. The last time our "upper secondary child" showed us her report book, we gave her a mobile telephone. My children are not going to be among the percentage of young immigrants who leave lower secondary school without being able to read or write properly.

School bags are put away on Friday evenings – we bake and enjoy time together, and the children can go to bed when they want. The same applies on Saturday, but Sunday evening is homework time again – first, however, the school bags have to be sorted out and the tidiest is rewarded with a sweet or two.

I have chosen a life with lots of children and employment outside the home – and that doesn’t leave much time for leisure pursuits and friends. If day-to-day life is to run smoothly, then the children have to lend a hand. All the children have tasks in the home, and they know exactly what they have to do when they get in from school. I might not have much money and I might be at the bottom of the social ladder, but today my son plays on equal terms with a boy whose parents both work at the university.

Happy mother
Now and then, my husband and I talk about going back to Somalia, but we have strong doubts as to whether it would be the right thing to do. Many highly-educated Somalis are currently leaving Denmark and settling in London. Last summer I went to London, and I enjoyed walking along the street without feeling like a stranger – I was just one of many foreigners – but nonetheless I missed quiet and cosy Denmark, and I found out that Denmark is my home. I might occasionally be on the receiving end of some racist comments, especially from older people on the bus who shout that I should go back where I came from. ortunately my children haven’t experienced any teasing or harassment.

I have a good life in Denmark, but I could do with more time. A lot is expected of women in the West, and it can be hard to find the time both for family life and employment outside the home. I hope that ten years from now I have a good job in the catering business, and that I’m still a happy mother.

Translation: Gaye Kynoch

Born 1975 in Somalia  
Fled Somalia at outbreak of civil war and stayed in a Red Cross refugee camp in Ethiopia for three years
Family reunification with her mother in Denmark in 1994, leaving her husband and new born baby behind
Reunited with her own family in Denmark in 1996
Received her certificate of completed apprenticeship as a caterer from Aarhus Technical College in 2004 with the second-highest marks in her class
Deputy chair of The Association of Somali Women in Aarhus

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