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A tricky life for non-Europeans in the Danish capital

Amid a hardening of national identities throughout Europe, recent debate in many countries has focused on integration and immigration. In Denmark, many non-Europeans say this has translated into antipathy towards them.

Two women with headscarves walk down a street

Many non-European immigrants in Copenhagen live in Norrebro

In the Danish capital, Copenhagen, a recent spate of immigrant gang violence has shone a bright light on the place of foreigners in the country. Many non-Danes, particularly those from the Middle East and North Africa, say an in-built antagonism towards them is growing.

The Norrebro neighborhood in the northwest of the city is known as the main immigrant area of town. Metropolitan Copenhagen has just under two million inhabitants, around 15 percent of whom are non-European, and the majority of them live here.

Firemen working under police protection as they tackle the fire in a burning car which was set on fire by unknown men in Norrebro, Copenhagen

Norrebro has seen its fair share of violence

Most of the women walking the streets wear Muslim headscarves, and many of the men have long, full beards and traditional Muslim Taqiyah caps. The area is rundown compared to the rest of this impressive city. Buildings have been poorly maintained, and most shops cater to Muslim customers.

On the sidewalk of the suburb's main street is a man sitting in the rain on a milk crate playing a mini-accordion with a pop tune on loop. His name is Ahmad and he is layered with clothes like an onion to keep warm. He moved here five years ago from Tunisia in the hope of finding work and a better life. All he has found, he says, is more hardship.

"I have worked with many Danes,” he says. “They look at me like I'm very small, or not human. I'm married to a Dane, I have a daughter with her, and now I'm not working."

According to Ahmad, ethnic communities live in isolation in Copenhagen, and are often not given a fair chance.

"The people don't associate with foreigners here, they ignore them,” he says. “The Danish media gives foreigners a bad face. I don't know why.”

Looked at like 'aliens'

Danish police close off the street in the North West area of Copenhagen where Danish police intelligence services arrested a taxi driver suspected of preparing an act of terrorism in 2007

Copenhagen has been the alleged target of terrorism attacks

Walking further along the main street, a man named Ali stands outside his rug and carpet store. Ali came to Denmark from Lebanon when he was seven. He considers himself more a Lebanese Dane than an immigrant. He says he has never experienced racism directly in Denmark, but feels there is a very sturdy wall between ethnic Danes and non-Europeans.

"In our store here, we haven't got any problems,” he says. “Danish people come in and they speak to us like we are Danish people, but it's maybe more like when you go outside, they look at you like you are from outer space."

"They are beginning to be very difficult, and maybe it's because of the government and media," Ali says.

Further down the main street, another man named Ali, from Ethiopia, paints a different picture of life in Copenhagen among the minority.

"Maybe somewhere you might find someone that says something wrong, but it's not general,” he says. “I wouldn't say there is that big racism in Denmark. It can be, but it's not that big of a deal."

In recent months, the Danish capital has seen an outbreak of gang shootings in what police say is an escalating underworld standoff over control of the drugs market. The finger of blame has been pointed at immigrant gangs, but Ali says the gangs aren't only made up of non-Danes.

"You will find different people in the gangs," he says.

'Us and them'

Kurt Westergaard

Cartoonist Westergaard was attacked in his home

Further down the road is the Copenhagen Christian Center, Denmark's biggest non-state church. The parish caters to foreigners and is led by Pastor Javan Junior, who was born in Brazil but moved here 11 years ago. He says the attitudes of many Danes towards migrants, both European and non-European, has changed in recent years.

"There is the 'us' and 'them' mentality,” he says. “All the internationals, they become one ethnic group, because they are not Danes. And all the Danes become one ethnic group as they are."

The way Danes feel about immigration has also been affected by the Danish Mohammed cartoon controversy, Junior says. A jury recently found a Somali man guilty of attempted murder and terrorism for breaking into the home of cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, who had caricatured the Prophet Muhammad.

"The case of the Mohammed drawing, that was unfortunate timing because the media grabbed that and it was a political play," he says. "Many other drawings have been going around the world, things worse than that, but without the consequences of the Danish Mohammed drawings."

Junior says the episode led to a strengthening of the Muslim identity in Copenhagen.

"For the past 10 years, the Muslim community in Copenhagen has become much more visible. They go out into the streets much more often, they close down the traffic much more often … their voice is becoming more audible, more visible," he says.

But ask Ahmad sitting on the corner playing his accordion whether he feels empowered and he'll probably tell you a different story.

Author: Darren Mara, Copenhagen
Editor: Toma Tasovac

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