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Güzel Turan - integration is a two-way thing

Güzel Turan was born in Turkey, and moved to Denmark in 1979. She was the first in her family to take an academic degree. Today she works with integration and equality. She met her husband through a meeting arranged by her parents. They have now been happily married for 10 years.

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


KVINFO/16.5.2008 My father went to Denmark for a couple of years to earn enough money to buy a tractor. But two years turned into seven, and that was too much for my mother. She made a decision on behalf of the family and moved to Denmark, taking me and my younger brother with her. I was only five at the time, but I still remember my reaction when I saw Danish people for the first time at Kastrup Airport – they looked like the people we saw in American television series. I was disappointed that Danes didn’t have a more distinctive appearance.

The first 18 months were very turbulent. We moved from the one temporary accommodation to the next. Finally we found a good flat in the Vesterbro area of Copenhagen, and that’s where my three siblings and I grew up. All the while both my parents worked hard. My father was a welder at Burmeister & Wain [B&W – shipyard and engineering. Eds.] and my mother was a cleaner at Copenhagen City Hall – this was before the introduction of strict rules regarding the level of Danish proficiency necessary to undertake cleaning work. I attended reception class for a year and then started in the second form at Enghave Plads School.

Standing up for the new girl in class
I still remember my first day at school. I was very shy and hid behind my father while we waited for the teacher to introduce me to the class. She said to my classmates: “This is Güzel, and she’s starting here today. What lovely hair you’ve got, and look at those beautiful long plaits.” I was alerted to the fact that I was different, but it was done in a kind-hearted way. Looking back at my schooldays, I don’t think my ethnic minority background played much of a role. I didn’t feel particularly victimised in any way – but, it has to be said, there weren’t many pupils from a minority background in the class.

I can only remember one episode where I was teased outright because of my background. A new boy started in the class. One day he called me an immigrant worker. I’d never heard that before, and my classmates took it very badly. The boy flung my pencil case on the floor. I started to gather up the pencils and things. I was very upset, but my distress was offset by a Danish girl giving this boy, Jan, a good telling off: how could he do that, and now he’d better help me pick up all my things. On the one hand, the episode was about someone calling me a name that upset me, but, on the other hand, it was also about someone standing up for me.

Parental support
After primary and lower secondary school, I went on to study at Metropolitanskolen – I became the first in our family to pass the upper secondary school final exams. I was offered a place to read English at the University of Copenhagen – I then became the first in my family to get a university degree.

Were I to highlight something that has contributed not only to my but also to my siblings’ success, it would be our belief that anything is possible and knowing what it is you want to do. My parents have always encouraged their children. Of course, they couldn’t help us with the actual academic part of our studies, and that could at times be frustrating. But if we did well in something, then we felt we had accomplished it wholly through our own efforts.

We brothers and sisters have also always helped one another. Not with homework, but by discussing our educational options – whether or not, for example, it was a good idea to take a gap year, which is what my younger brother and younger sister did – and by making sure we had a social life. But I have never helped them with coursework or anything like that.

It’s also been beneficial to me that there have always been people nearby who have understood and seen my potential. At a parents’ evening when I was in the 9th form of lower secondary school, my class teacher said to my mother and father that of course I should go on to upper secondary school.

The opposite can also be the case. My younger brother’s class went to a careers fair. He asked about admission requirements to the School of Architecture and was told that he should go and look round the other stands because being an architect wasn’t something anyone could just do.
The incident has by no means disheartened him, and now he’s in his final year at upper secondary school. Actually, all my brothers and sisters have done well for themselves. My other younger brother is a qualified engineer and he got a job straight after his finals – as did my sister when she qualified as a teacher.

Networks are very important
Even though I think it’s a fine achievement to have taken a degree when it wasn’t exactly on the agenda, it rankles that it took me so long to complete. And it rankles that I still haven’t found my dream-job. In that respect it would have helped to have known someone who could have prepared me for what university involves – for example, that you have to coordinate your own course structure.

That I didn’t think more in terms of networking also rankles, and that’s something I would do differently today. Networks make for career opportunities. That’s one of the things I’ve passed on to my brothers and sisters – they must build up their networks!

Integration is a two-way thing
It could well be said that I have turned my background into a qualification, but I am very aware that it shouldn’t be my only qualification. I have therefore taken courses at the Centre for Minority Studies, University of Copenhagen, in extension of my degree.

One area that interests me, and which I would like to work with professionally, is the nature of the barriers that hamper integration. The generally very narrow perception of ‘Danishness’ is a big impediment to integration, given that it contributes to the view of refugees and immigrants as being outsiders.

I see integration as a matter of feeling incorporated into social structures – feeling that your interests and your voice are heard and taken into consideration. And therefore it’s also in my interest to take part in society. No one voluntarily chooses to stand on the sidelines and not be part of something that’s pretty good. Integration is a two-way thing, and both parties have an obligation to fulfil.

Prejudices must be put aside
The way in which the concept of culture is used puts up another barrier. Culture is being presented as something static and something that can’t be changed. The media play a major role in this, and I’m particularly critical of all the discussion programmes confirming the view that we are culturally different and that cultural differences cannot be overcome. These discussions help to reinforce an impression that people from a different cultural background are difficult to integrate.

But culture has always changed, and it’s important to point that out. For example, many Danes have some fixed ideas about ethnic food culture. Let me just say that the most "ethnic" food I have tasted has been served by my Danish friends, because they have this idea that my mother cooks seven courses using fresh produce every day. The truth is – we often eat frozen pizza.

It’s the same with the headscarf, which can of course be oppressive to women, but it can in fact also have a very different significance. Some choose to wear the scarf because they have become practicing Muslims and not because their parents want them to. I would define myself as a cultural Muslim, but I have chosen not to wear the headscarf. So look further than the headscarf – and put those prejudices aside!

Together with a fellow student I am currently writing on a book about young women from ethnic minority backgrounds who have taken further education courses. I am also planning a conference on the Middle East, gender and equality, while also working as an Academic Assistant at KVINFO.

I have been good at protecting myself. One of the reasons I ended up spending nine years at university was because it was a very sheltered environment – not exactly a forum for virulent anti-immigrant attitudes. I think I’ve constantly ensured that I was in an environment where I would be least likely to notice any potential discrimination.

Parents can change too
I’m at my happiest when I’m with my family – a family of which I am very proud, of my parents in particular, they have had a hard life with much privation. They have therefore been very concerned that their children should have a different social position in the community, and they have supported us in every way so that we could all complete our education.

When I was reading English at university, I told my parents that I was going to study in the UK for six months and they made no objection whatsoever. There are practically no limits to the cultural waivers available when it comes to education. My order of priority has been such that I forego the things which are of no great importance to me but are of importance to the family, whereas I hold on to the things that are important to me.

We have to be careful not to draw too rigid a picture of our parents’ generation, implying that they don’t make any changes at all. I’d like to tell a story that illustrates this:
It was time for the end-of-exams celebration and I didn’t want to go. But my mother insisted that I went to the party because it was important to round off my upper secondary education in the customary way, and so I had to go to the shops with one of my friends to buy our dresses. I came home without a dress and my mother asked why. I replied that there was only one that had fitted nicely, but as it was very short I hadn’t bought it. My mother thought it was a real shame that I had come home without the dress.

My parents have had the same expectations and made the same demands of their daughters and sons alike – even though I have to say that I’ve probably done more washing-up than my brothers have put together.

Arranged marriages can work
In one essential issue my parents have had influence on my life – that being the choice of spouse. My husband also grew up in Konya, where I was born. We met when our families introduced us to one another. We have now been happily married for 8 years, and it has worked for me. But I think arranged marriages are facing competition. I can see a growing tendency for marriage contracted across ethic distinctions – so, for example, a Pakistani and a Moroccan get married – but I think this will still happen with the parents’ approval.

For example, my youngest brother can hardly speak Kurdish, so it wouldn’t be an obvious option for him to marry a Kurdish woman from Turkey. They would have no common frame of reference whatsoever.

Optimistic about the future
I’m thinking about training as an interpreter in English and Turkish at Copenhagen Business School, with a view to working in Brussels. In that way it would be possible to make a distinction between the private and the professional.

Right now I am extremely content with my life and I’m optimistic about the future. I have my family, from whom I get support, encouragement and security. I am, all in all, very satisfied with the way I have done things. I have never been frustrated about how I live my life or thought that things just weren’t going to turn out well. I’ve been good at saying it would all work out one step at a time/in time.

Translation: Gaye Kynoch

Born in Konya in 1974. Her father came to Denmark to work in 1972. Her family was reunificated in 1979
Married Ömer in 1997 and lives with her husband and son in Copenhagen
Graduated with an MA in English, Turkish and Minority Studies from the University of Copenhagen in 2001
Works as an Academic Assistant at KVINFO's Mentor Network
Takes part in the public debate on integration in interviews and articles

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