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My life in Denmark as a female immigrant

Whenever there is an election in Denmark, the topic of foreigners becomes a heated issue. Typically, the debate centers on whether there should be stricter or more lenient policies regarding immigration. Some argue for attracting more highly skilled workers to Denmark, while others oppose admitting more foreigners, especially those from non-Western backgrounds. While there is much discussion about foreigners in Denmark, what is often overlooked is the impact that these debates have on people like me, who feel fully integrated, value Denmark, and wish to contribute to the country.

My purpose in writing this article is to share my experience as a foreigner in Denmark. I have received a lot of help from ethnic Danes in order to integrate successfully, but it is important to emphasize that when you move to a new country, you can only succeed in the integration process if you are willing to adapt to the new rules of life and traditions.

It is equally important that the new country is willing to accept its new citizens and respect their traditions, as long as these do not conflict with Danish culture and legislation.

For me, successful integration does not mean that everyone should be the same or that you have to enjoy getting drunk or eating pork.

For me, successful integration means that as a new citizen, you view your new country as a place where you are willing to invest in your future and make a positive difference, with the hope that the country will also invest in you. It is important to feel welcome and to have a sense of belonging.

From male dominated to independent:

As I mentioned earlier, I came to Denmark when I was twenty-one years old. My then-husband had been a refugee and arrived in Denmark two years earlier. One day, he told me he had to move and was leaving the following day. When I followed him here after two years, I brought only two suitcases with clothes, shoes, and other personal belongings. When I arrived in Vejle, I found out that my husband lived in a collective with seven other people. We shared a large house with a toilet and shower located in the garden. I was in shock when I saw where we were going to live, as I had come from a 150-square-meter, five-room apartment. My first impression was, ‘Stop it! Are you saying that people in Denmark are poor?

However, I soon discovered that my then-husband had chosen a hippie lifestyle. He had built all our furniture, including our bed, out of old pallets in the nearest activity house. I realized that this was not the norm in Denmark.

I came from a very male-dominated society and had a hard time understanding that women could lie on the beach and in parks with bare breasts and sunbathe. The fact that women went without bras was inconceivable to me. People were open about their sexual desires and kissed and touched each other in public. This was unheard of in my home country, and I was deeply envious. In Iran, you could not do anything without people starting to talk, and as a woman, you could not go outside without doing a lot of yourself. Here in Denmark, women could go out in jogging pants without makeup, and I felt free from those kinds of expectations. However, I have chosen not to walk without a bra or sunbathe topless or walk in jogging pants on the street in Denmark. I enjoy the fact that it is my choice, and gossip does not control me.

I understood that women in Denmark were much more independent, and I wanted to be independent like a Danish woman. I made some really good Danish friends who taught me a lot about Danish culture. Even though I was still financially dependent on my then husband, I realized that he was receiving support from the municipality and not supporting me himself. To become self-sufficient, I had to learn to support myself.

It’s been about me having to look at my successes, especially the little ones, like finding my way to the local gym (Google did not exist at the time) or learning a new Danish word that gave me the courage to communicate more. These small successes gave me courage and allowed me to join the 9th grade with Danish students. I was there only because of my willpower since I only understood thirty percent of what was going on around me, but I still managed to complete it with a nice average.

I was divorced from my husband when my daughter was only 4 months old, and I was lucky that I was given a home by the municipality. I started studying and went to high school. Later, when I started university, I received a special benefit from the municipality so that I could take care of my studies while I was alone with my little daughter. I fought hard to become independent, but I cannot express enough how much help I received from the municipality and especially from Danes who were willing to take me in and show me how Danish society and culture worked.

I have retained the parts of my culture that I feel I can take with me and that do not slow me down in my own development, but it has been difficult to adjust from the fact that others have made the decisions for me to that I have taken control in my own life.


I think much of the harsh rhetoric that characterizes the foreigners’ debate today is rooted in uncertainties and misunderstandings. It is very easy to give a wrong impression if you confuse “contribution” with “deception”. I’m pretty sure the employee I once had to say goodbye to did not have the dearest thoughts of me when, after finishing his service, I thanked him for his “deception”. You know, “contribution” in Danish is “bidrag”, and “deception” in Danish is “bedrag” – just a small misspelling that caused a shitstorm in the company. NOT GOOD.

There are, of course, clear cultural differences, and a way of communicating that is quite common in Iran may be seen as inappropriate or directly rude in Denmark. I had to spend a lot of time learning not to interrupt, as Danes find it very insulting. However, in Iran and other Middle Eastern countries, interrupting is simply the way you communicate. When I have interrupted in Denmark, I did not intend to insult, but I thought that people got mad at me for other reasons. I have also learned to wait to eat in Danish companies until it is said, “Værsgo.” In Iran, I was used to eating when the food was served without waiting for others or the host to sit down.

In my experience, people in Denmark do not express things directly. For instance, they do not say that it is considered rude to start eating without being offered. Instead, I have heard several Danes say, “Can’t you wait?” Another cultural difference I have come across is the time spent on preparing and consuming food. In Iran, it takes four to five hours to make and prepare the food nicely, but in Denmark, people can spend hours at the table eating together. Initially, I found the long dinners to be frustrating and thought to myself, “Do those people do nothing but eat?” However, I later learned to appreciate the sense of community and togetherness that comes with sharing a meal.

These small misunderstandings can make one feel like giving up. For example, when I interrupted someone, they became annoyed and withdrew from the conversation, and I thought they didn’t like me.

Another big difference between Danish culture and the one I come from is that you do not directly deny someone who comes and asks for help. In Iran, you have great honor, and when you finally ask for help, it is because you really need it. If the person you ask does not have the desire or opportunity, then you negotiate the scope of the help. You never just say “No”. It would be highly arrogant and insulting. But here in Denmark, you might say, perhaps a little apologetically, a blank “No” if for one reason or another you do not have the opportunity. I have often become very angry about getting a direct “No” and felt very rejected!

I have had to think a lot about what went wrong with these small misunderstandings that had big consequences. It’s all too easy to assume that a person who distances themselves from us is xenophobic, but it’s important to consider the possibility that it’s just a misunderstanding rather than something inherently wrong with them.

One of the funniest misconceptions I had was in the context of a release event at Nokia. We had to work overtime and “smørrebrød” was ordered for everyone. I initially thought that “smørrebrød” sounded pretty boring and decided to order a salad instead. When we received the food, I sat drooling over the delicious “smørrebrød” and looked quite disappointed with my own boring salad. I had thought that others had ordered bread with butter, and didn’t realize that “smørrebrød” was actually an open-faced sandwich with a variety of toppings. There was a lot of laughter around the table, and since then I have become a big fan of “smørrebrød”.

One of the most difficult misunderstandings I experienced was with one of my bosses at work. My mother, my sister-in-law, and my nephews came to visit me in Denmark. After my divorce, I had purchased a small apartment in Vanløse, which was too small for five people, but it was nice to have them visit me and my daughter. I needed a lot of love and support from my family. During a party at Nokia, one of the leaders I worked with sat next to me during the lunch break and asked if I wanted to join the party. I declined and said I would rather be with my family since they were leaving the week after. He looked at me in surprise and asked, “Have they been with you for three months?” I replied, “Yes, they have.” He then laughed and turned to the others at the table and said, “Yes, those who perk up come from miserable conditions. When they come to Denmark, they don’t want to leave again.”

I was shocked and couldn’t believe what I had just heard. I went home upset and told my mother, who was furious. She had come from a 250 sqm apartment to a 65 sqm one just to be there for me after my breakup with my ex. I needed the love and support of my family during that difficult time. The next day, I decided to confront my boss about his comment. He was upset when I told him how hurtful his words were, and he apologized many times. He explained that he was trying to be funny, but he now saw that his comment was not funny at all.


Uncertainties lead to frustrations. I do not need to explain that it is very easy to feel insecure when you dump into a foreign culture, as the Danish was for me.

When you move to a new country and say goodbye to all your friends and family, you are so hungry to find some kind of compensation, you become very vulnerable, and everyone who is kind to you is considered your family or friends.

The big question then is whether one is accepted as a human being, as a woman, and as a foreigner. In Iran, family is incredibly important, which makes the loss of it very strong. So, of course, I was looking for relationships as a replacement for my family. However, in my experience, it can be extremely difficult as Danes can seem very closed off immediately. Given my background, this can be demotivating and could easily make me give up trying. Fortunately, I have learned how to ask the right questions to the right people and have slowly come to understand that in Denmark, people take things more calmly, and it’s best to approach them at a calm pace.

The direct style makes most people withdraw a little and you can feel rejected.

It is far too easy to get the mindset that it is just because you are a foreigner and that you still do not have a chance. But it is here that you, as a foreigner, have a great job in learning to think differently and take one defeat in your search for relationships one after the other, so as not to end up as someone who only interacts with other foreigners and never manages to integrate. I myself was about to fall into that trap because my ex-husband had fallen into it, but I wanted something else. As soon as I got divorced from him, I started building my Danish relationships.

It has worked well for me, and I did not give up. It gave me the courage to also try to find acceptance in the male-dominated field of computer engineering. I fought a long and hard battle to be respected for my competencies and accepted as a leader.

As a foreigner, it has been a continuing struggle for me to prove that I fit in with the herd, that I am just a human being like everyone else, and one of them, and that I am here to make a difference. I have had to prove that I am as good as my Danish colleagues, that I am as good a leader as my other colleagues, that I am as good a mother as all the other mothers, and so on. It’s hard, though, because it’s not uncommon to feel rejected due to my skin color or being a woman. But every time, I force myself to think that I’m the only one who voluntarily chooses to step into that prison, and I’m definitely the only one who can break out of it. I can easily be Danish without eating pork or celebrating Christmas. On the other hand, I can easily celebrate Christmas and be Iranian.

I do celebrate Christmas. When my daughter was little, I participated in all the activities in kindergarten and school with her. She should not feel like she was a foreigner; she should feel like she was as Danish as the other children. One day, she came home and asked, ‘Mother, why does “Lullemand,” which means “Julemand” or “Santa Claus,” not come to our house?’ She was three or four years old and could not say ‘Julemand’/’Santa Claus’. I sat and thought about it, and it dawned on me that Christmas in Denmark is a tradition about being there for each other. So, of course, ‘Lullemanden/Julemand/Santa’ was welcome in the future. We’ve been celebrating Christmas ever since, and my now-grown daughter still receives Advent gifts.

So in order to be accepted as a foreigner in Denmark, I felt that I had to fight. I have struggled with my own culture and the ideas I had about how the world was connected here in Denmark. I have struggled with my insecurities and my need to be recognized. I have struggled to understand Danish and the Danish culture. But I have done it. I feel Danish, or Iranian-Danish.

With my own strength and the help of others who have shown me that people are people despite their skin color and cultural background, I have fought and created a dignified life for myself.

When I was in high school, I broke my ankle. Everyday life became impossible with an infant on my arm. But something amazing happened. The daycare mother came and picked up my daughter and took her to kindergarten. And my classmates, they picked me up in a shopping cart and drove me to school. They carried me up and down between the floors. It was people helping people.

Of course, there are many who have helped me on my path. Each time, I have felt happy and grateful for the experience. I am also glad that I can pass on my story.

I would not be successful in my education or my jobs if it were not for the lovely and wonderful people I have met on my way. I am grateful for the support of my family and friends, and I would also like to thank the following individuals who have helped me along the way:

The following individuals have played a significant role in my life and helped me on my journey:

  • The elderly lady from Jehovah’s Witnesses in Vejle who became like a father to me.
  • My social worker in Vejle, who helped me with my first home.
  • My schoolmates in 9th grade – adult education in Vejle.
  • My Danish teacher and the principal while I was studying GIF.
  • My first manager who believed in me and gave me my first job.
  • Jan, who gave me my first managerial job.
  • Jesper, who has been my mentor since 2004.
  • Ludmila, who showed me the amazing world of self-development.
  • My doctor, who provided invaluable help when I returned home from Greenland. She personally handled my case and was there for me like a mother.

And the list goes on.”

I mostly feel like I do not have a different skin color or other cultural background. I’m just a human being, with some good relationships. Of course, I fit in and I am accepted. I choose to focus on that.