05 May 2010

40 sheep and a house

The following piece is my translation of Barbara Rugholm Gravesen's piece in Bagsværd/Søborg Bladet, 04.05.10.
If it elicits any positive response, I'll let Ms Gravesen know about it. I think it's a fine article and very thought-provoking.

Fra Borgen til Biblioteket

On Monday 19 April, 50 Gladaxse residents braved the cold and met up in the main library to hear Socialist People's Party MP Özlem Cekic tell her story. She had just rushed from a parliamentary meeting, but caught her breath quickly and delivered a fantastic account of how one could find the satisfaction and motivation to change one's life and make a difference.

It all started with 40 sheep and a house
Özlem's father was a sheep herder in Turkey and travelled to Finland when Western Europe was seeking workers inthe 1970's. Özlem and her family followed two years later, when she was two years old. Ahead of them lay a hard existence where her parents worked incredibly hard to fulfil their dream of enough money to retire to their home village and buy 40 sheep and a house.
However the next step for the Cekiz family was Denmark. Several families from the Cekiz's home village lived in Copenhagen, and you could buy Turkish foods and vegetables. So the family moved to a tiny apartment in Norrebro. Özlem's parents worked as cleaners in state schools, and like other 'guest workers' lived a parallel existence to the rest of Danish society. Özlem and her brothers were very alone and eventually the situation became so intolerable that all the children were sent back to Turkey by their parents.
In Turkey they lived for two years with their grandmother, a practical and highly respected woman who knew neither the year of her birth nor how to write her name. She had given birth to thirteen children, seven of which had survived, and had adopted six more. She was a remarkable woman and is still Özlem's idol.

The shoe department in Føtex
Özlem didn't thrive in Turkey and missed her parents terribly. She came back to Denmark as a ten year-old and started in a 'reception' class in a Danish state school. The following years were mostly spent struggling with the Danish language and trying to be 'Danish'. Not being accepted and being bullied awoke her fighting spirit.
A part-time job in the shoe department of Føtex became crucial to Özlem's development. Here she learnt more Danish language (and a Danish sense of humour) than the state school ever suceeded in doing. Føtex was therefore responsible for an important part of Özlem's integration, and is why the supermarket chain has a prominent place in her autobiography. So that's the explanation for why a socialist seems to be praising 'corporate capitalism'.

Marriage as a lottery
After finishing school Özlem was married at the age of 18 - an arranged marriage. As Özlem says, this type of marriage is a lottery - 'a few win, I lost'. The marriage eneded in divorce and the repossession of their house. Fortunately it also produced a son. So there followed a time as a single mother but also a period of commitment to social and political engagement.
After the divorce Özlem thought, 'from now on I'll live as I want to', while she struggled with serious financial problems and worked for a temp agency alongside a job as a child psychiatry nurse in a hospital.
Fortunately as a single mother she found a new quality of life and a burning desire to be actively involved in society socially and politically. She also found the love of her life and had two more children.

Department Christiansborg
In 2007 Özlem was elected to the Danish Parliament as the first woman with an immigrant background. She holds the posts of Danish Socialist People's Party spokesperson for Social Issues and Mental Health. She is extremely active in the ongoing societal debate on poverty, mental health, equality, and integration.
Özlem remembers the moment when her father suddenly realised that his daughter had beeen elected to the Danish Parliament. He said 'Imagine that this has could actually happen, Özlem! We were only cleaners!'

The invisible success
Özlem's story stops here for the moment. A story of how you can change your life and make a difference in spite of cultural and social barriers. If you are given a chance. Özlem's story was gripping and the public asked questions and discussed issues until eventually the library had to close. It was a fantastic debate about being a foreigner in Denmark, about role models, and about Denmark's integration policies.


  1. I hope this gives people something to think about, especially in the light of recent spats on UT about 'racism' and Napoleon's somewhat ill-judged blog (imho) about immigrants. It seems to me that many valid discussions on UT are ignored/dismissed because they're not comfortable enough and everybody wants to be nice to each other and agree with everybody else. That bores the fuck outa me, so I don't bother much any more - you can only get so many backslaps for bashing the fash together, right?

    I think that this purely 'rappportage' piece raises issues about immigration, integration, political representation, socialism, feminism. Does anyone want to discuss these issues seriously over and above the usual soundbites?

    BTW, if the article reads a bit 'clunky', it's only because I translated it quite literally, taking very few liberties with nuance and style. It was a very fine article in the original Danish, so I've not done it justice, but I sacrificed certain things for the sake of accuracy and clarity. I hope it still works emotionally, as it did for me when I read it.

  2. It is an ispirational article and she sounds like an amazing woman, to have done what she has done with the background she has is almost unbelievable.

    It makes me feel ashamed of the advantages I have wasted in my own life, not saying I ever had it in me to become an MP or anything like that but it has made me think (again) about how I have lived my life.

    I know I have only been about for a week or so on the Untrusted but I for one would like to see you around more.

    I am not the most analytical person and I don't have the greatest life knowledge but the idea of me joining these internet forums is to learn so the more uncomfortable ideas the better.

  3. Jennifer, I agree that it's inspirational, but it shouldn't make you feel ashamed, just more driven. And you should continue to contribute to Untrusted. Everybody's views and comments are equally valid there. Don't put yourself down - kick some ass instead!

  4. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/election_2010/england/8663681.stm

    BNP out on the campaign trail !

  5. Sherfig + Jenni

    It is certainly inspirational - many here bemoaning their lot could learn much from it.

    I do wonder about 'given the opportunity '

    How many do we make fr ourselves - and how many do we miss? It seems to me that Ozlem forged her own way - very much against the odds. Her moment of clarity when she resolved to be herself was the turning point.

    It raises , again, the serious question of stereotyping - and our acceptance of them , be it of others or of ourselves. Many use negaive stereotyping as an excuse to underachieve , others to live in a permanent state of futile anger. There are those who form themslves into a charicature ofthe negative stereotype whilst ther use a positive one to gain advantage and position not merited by their actual talent.

    Perhaps themost difficult thing is to be yourself, to escape the tribe, ignore expectations and become yourself.

    Ozlem deserves respect and recognition for her achievments - itis sad to have to say that as our expectation should be that all will reach their potential irrespective of circumsances.

  6. Sherfig

    Meant to ask - how much representation do women have in politics in Denmark ?

  7. scherfig,

    good article with the kernel of truth in the last paragraph:

    A story of how you can change your life and make a difference in spite of cultural and social barriers. If you are given a chance.

    Scherf, what's the state of the whole immigration debate and future of it in Denmark? Last time I looked Rasmussen was in a coalition with the far right Danish People's Party. What's been the long term development in immigration terms with the DPP in power? More Cekic's or less?

    The Dutch General Election is next month and Wilders' PVV (similar to the DPP but with added swivel eyes) appears to be making giant strides although his campaign has faltered of late.

  8. Leni, 38% of MP's are women. They also hold 9 out of 19 minister posts.

    Duke, I'll get back to you regarding the Dansk Folkeparti - currently 24 seats out of 179, but they hold no ministerial posts, so are not a part of the government.

  9. Good piece, thanks for translating it Scherf. My father converted to Sikhism in the late 60s and married my mother in 1968 after an epistolic wooing. The Indian ceremony was not recognised in the UK and they had to have a registry ceremony here, something that made page two of the News of the World apparently.

    Another thing that was not recognised was my mothers degree, so she spent 30 years working in factories. Two of the bravest good folk I know, my ma & pop. ; )

  10. A really inspirational story and a reminder that she is representative of exactly the sort of member of parliament we don't have - A working class immigrant woman! Just the sort of person identity politics claims to support but doesn't.

    Another important point of inspiration for me was her grandmother its obvious to me where her strength came from!

    On racism - well I'm white so I don't know what its like to be on the receiving end. But I do know about sexism yes its nasty to be on the receiving end of that getting shouty doesn't work for me I get angry yes but I express it quietly I find this is stronger, more dignified and more effective.

    The first person you have to convince about your equality with others is yourself.

  11. Scherf,

    cheers. I thought I'd remembered reading that Rasmussen relied on the Danske Folkspartei as part of hs coalition.

    I thought they would have been given the Ministry of Spoons or gingham, something irrelevant to keep them happy.


    The first person you have to convince about your equality with others is yourself.


  12. Duke, a bit of quick info for you on DF (although it deflects somewhat from the thrust of the article.)

    DF are in an 'alliance' or 'voting block' together with the Prime minister's party (Venstre, 46 seats) and the Conservatives (18 seats) and it's these two parties which form the government with DF's support. To be honest, not many people take their rather bizarre views on immigration etc all that seriously. They did once push for a ban on the burqa, but I seem to recall that a government commissioned investigation into this issue a while back found only about half a dozen women in Denmark who actually wore it!

    Strangely enough, a major plank of their political platform is support for the welfare state and improved conditions for pensioners - higher pensions, better home help, better quality retirement homes etc and I suspect that a large amount of their support is due to this (and their anti-EU, 'Danish sovereignty' stance plus thier hard line on law and order) rather than the usual head-banger racist stuff, although this is also a factor, albeit probably much less so than some years ago.

    The major influence they really have on 'policy' seems to be at the annual budget negotiations where they always try and get a better deal for pensioners etc, and this probably reinforces their core working class support. Their stance on immigration etc is pretty hard-line, but I suspect that recent changes here in eg. immigration policy are primarily due to Venstre and Konservative ideology rather than DF's horse-trading. So in short, they're a bit wacky, but not really a major political factor when it comes to realpolitik.

  13. Good article, thanks, Scherf. Agree with Leni that it doesn't sound as though opportunity was exactly shoved down Özlem's throat: she created her own.

  14. scherfig,

    thanks for that. I wasn't meaning to deflect away from the article, I was just interested in the political situation vis a vis immigration considering that Cekic is an immigrant and a politician in the Danish Parliament.

  15. No worries, Duke, it is relevant, I suppose. This guy is also an immigrant MP. Naser Khader
    A decent bloke, and a very effective politician who certainly raised the profile of immigrants and really gave them a positive spin in the minds of the public. He's immensely well-liked here in Denmark, but he's veered a bit to the right lately :0(

    At least Özlem is still a real socialist :0)

  16. Scherfig thanks for posting this.

    interesting article that certainly puts life into perspective and demonstrates the determination of an individual who has everything "against" her: immigrant, working class, single mother etc etc.

    Integration in Italy is minimal, to integrate you more or less have to become "Italian". The minority become part of the majority not by choice but by necessity and even by doing that their possibilities of progress are minimal. There seems to me no attempt to develop a culture or society that is anything but Italian.

    The whole issue of the burqua/ niquab has been used by the extreme right and Northern League here to further distance the muslim community and actually demonise both women and men. One ex woman politician went on national TV and called the prophet Mohammed a pedophile and carried on with their bile unchallenged, another Northern League politico went outside a mosque and burnt a pigs head: two incidents out of many.
    If you are born in Italy but your parents are not Italian citizens you do not automatically become an Italian citizen and at the ripe old age of 18 after you have grown up, been educated and are by all intents and purposes Italian you are then considered a clandestine immigrant and if you don't have the papers to stay deported to your parents' country of origin....

    I predict big big probs here over the next few years....and this is a country that needs immigrants for work, only in the last 2-3 years has the birth rate crept away from negativity and the ratio of young:old is something like 1:2...

  17. scherf

    Great to read something cheerful and inspiring for a change and as thauma says, it sounds as though she made her own chances. And very good for her!

    I don't really understand this right wing shift that Denmark has taken recently. Is it actually more right wing than our neolibs?

    Although i don't know a great deal about Danish politics I do know that during WW2 Danes fought harder than an other European country to save their Jewish citizens.

  18. Did you read the Bunting interview with Salma Yaqoob the other day ? I found her quite compelling. A mate of mine lives in that area (run down, unfashionable) Spark Hill and really rates her. Says she sounds like Old Labourite...

  19. Good article, Scherf, thanks for translating (i think i am the only monolingual poster here, shamedly...).

    Good post from Annetan too, seems a long way from the Guardian type "diversity" we have in our politics - people identical to the current shower in every conceivable way except skin colour and genitalia.

  20. Jay, she gets very pissed off when journalists try to get a soundbite by asking what she feels about X,Y or Z as a 'Muslim' or a 'woman'. She self-dentifies politically as a 'socialist' (no religion, no gender), and has no time for identity bullshit.

    Bitterweed, thx, I'll check that out.

    sheff, Denmark has not really experienced a 'right wing shift'. No more than some other European nations anyway, and probably a lot less than the UK will tomorrow (I assume.) The previous government was left of NewLabour, and the current government is left of the UK Tories. It's not all doom and gloom - the advantages of PR voting and consensus/coalition politics here provide a fairly sensible balance, and a brake on anything too extreme.

  21. Interesting Scherf

    I noted that time on the 'shopfloor' with fellow workers made an important contribution to Ozlem's development and understanding of all things Danish. So many in the UK used to have that kind of experience.

    Sitting by nellie wasn't all about learning the skills of the job. For many in the working class in the UK, and elsewhere, it often seemed an important starting point (depending on who nellie was) in developing political and economic understanding.

    Was there any more information about the vehicle of Ozlem's progress - trade union/ local constituency/party activist etc. Local continuing education or perhaps fell in with a crowd of activists?.

    Wish we had many more stories like this to tell.

    I sometimes wonder what places like Ruskin/ Northern/NewBattle Abbey/Coleg Harlech etc Colleges have been turning out for the last 15-20 years.

  22. anne

    Lest we forget: the Welsh Assembly was the first in the world to achieve 50% female representation, in May 2003; women took 35.7% of the seats in Scotland the same year. In 2005, the Westminster parliament managed a paltry 19.8%.


    Thanks for this, although I haven't got time to comment much on this tonight. Denmark has some pretty good policies for women, though.

  23. "she gets very pissed off when journalists try to get a soundbite by asking what she feels about X,Y or Z as a 'Muslim' or a 'woman'. She self-dentifies politically as a 'socialist' (no religion, no gender), and has no time for identity bullshit."

    So good to read this Scherfig, she's my kind of person. It's great to read about some people who rise above all the crap and at the same time it shames those, like me, who have almost given up. Well represented, sir!

  24. Yeah, habib, we could do with a lot more like her, but the UK seems to be right out of socialists of any kind at the moment.

  25. Scherf,. I ahve read the article an there is sometihng very positve about it. I can't beleive she was the first Danish MP of immigrant descent, and only elected in 2007. Hope she gets her sheep. In Britain to much of our immigrant population is nearly always urban cnetred (excpet for seasonal farm workers) I feel this is a great pity as the countryside has a lot to offer, altthough with the Tories probably getting in, the countryside may well be just as inaccessible for the majority,

    Remember that 'black farmer' who is a Tory candidate. Turns out he is not a farmer, but a former PR man or something, he doesn;t farm he buys pig meat off real farmers and then brands them as 'black farmer'. What an eejit

    Also, why have I suddenly been labelled as anti immigrant type? All I wanted to do was challenge the fearmongering article that 'no immigrants means no NHS (the cif article).

    I hate the Tories as much as everone on here, but such scaremongering is a load of bollocks. Assume under whichever party wins, low skilled immigration stops, yes, but we would never kick out anybody. Those low skilled jobs could be filled by British workers, me included, if the working conditions were acceptable,as we discussed on here a few days ago,

  26. Montana, why do we now have to enter a code?

  27. "but we would never kick out anybody."

    Who is the "we", Napoleon. Sounded most sinister.

  28. habib.

    We, as in the British politcal establishment. Anyone who is already here legally is entitled to stay. There may well be a change of policy which means that the criteria for immmigrants may be raised to only highly skilled workers, but nobody except the BNP would dream of kicking out lower skilled workers who have already settled here.


  29. Ah oui, Napoleon, maintenant je sais.

    Two in the eye for you: muslim woman elected for parliament. Another muslim woman elected for parliament. And here's one for your third eye: Griffin slaughtered by voters.

  30. Are you insinuating that
    a) I object to women being elected to parliament, and b) that I support the BNP?

    If so, please Fuck Off

  31. Excellent, scherfig - really inspirational woman.

    Ozlem is very keen on positive action measures for gender and race equality eg: championing a Racial Equality Policy for ethnic minority nurses, who are subjected to harassment & discrimination at work; promoting ethnic minority women's participation in political life; and her work with an immigrant women's centre.

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  33. Scherfig-

    Very interesting article.And to be honest with
    you i,d never heard about Ozlem Cekic before.
    But she was well worth reading about.

    I would however be interested in your take on
    where she stands with regard to ethnic minorities in Denmark conforming to Danish
    norms.The reason i ask is that 4000 Danish
    Somalians came to the UK because they were
    resistant to Danish attempts to get them to
    conform to Danish norms.And they were especially
    resistant to the pressure Danish feminists were
    putting Danish Somalian women under to have
    fewer children,work outside the home and be
    less dependant on welfare payments paid for
    by the Danish taxpayer.

    Most of these Danish Somalians are also unemployed and claiming welfare payments
    paid for by the British taxpayer.And some say that if the women as well as the men don,t
    make themselves available for work they should
    return to Denmark.

    In your opinion what do you think Ozlem,s advice
    to these Danish Somalians would be?