I’m Khalil Jabo, a Kurd from Afrin. I arrived in Denmark at 2013, and sometime later I was granted a residency permit.
When I was living at the refugee camp, I noticed that some people invented their stories outright and added some drama to them. I refused to do this on principle, and when my friends would ask, what will you say when your turn comes, I’d answer: I want to tell the truth. There’s a Japanese proverb that goes, “the language of the honest is always easy.” Indeed, when I went for my interview and sat down before the judge, we talked for about an hour and a half, and my residency permit was granted the very next day. I had it in hand a week or ten days later, I think because I was so honest about everything.
I came to this town to settle down, and I got nearly all my full rights as a citizen, because integration happens along three main axes: legal, economic, and socio-cultural. I had access to all three of these, and most refugees, I imagine all refugees who come to Denmark, are also granted the same access. I was granted rights that made me feel I was like any other Dane: I had freedom of movement, the right to education and to enter the job market. Access to health services. As for the economic aspect, I received financial aid from the government and didn’t need anyone’s help. And in terms of the socio-cultural dimension, at the beginning I tried really hard to adapt to my surroundings but I had a lot of difficulty, mostly because I was raised in an eastern society and I came to a completely different society. And this is not just a short visit of one or two days or even a longer one of one to two years after which I get to go back to where I came from. No, I’ve sealed my fate: this is my new country from this moment onward, and so I’m really starting from point zero.
How can I integrate into this society; what image can I present of “the refugee”?
A huge part of the Danish media is engaged in smears against refugees, and there are also a lot of right-wing groups that play a role in this, and a very large proportion of the population believe these negative stories. And so how can I change this perception? I thought, well, I can’t change the entire society, and I can’t change the refugees as a whole, but I can change myself. When they talk negatively about any refugee, whether Syrian or not, it would bother me, because, as I now see things, in the end I’m also a refugee. I can’t lecture my refugee friends about how they should do this and do that, no, I have to start with myself. I started to conduct myself according to the way of life here. What is this society, how do people think? How do they live? I need to immerse myself more deeply on all levels.
Before I came to Denmark I used to write a cultural column for the Jamaheer newspaper in Aleppo for about two or three years. I wrote opinions, thoughts, texts and poems while I was a student at the cultural institute. Of course, this was a long time ago, I was kicked out in the end for political reasons. After that I continued writing in a much reduced capacity. When I arrived in Denmark I wanted to work on all the things I’d dreamt of doing in Syria, so I started painting, and I began work on a novel. Sometime later I met the owner of a café in Copenhagen where they displayed paintings and artworks by local artists, and he asked me if I’d like to show my paintings there. I had about 20 paintings to my name then.
The municipal library was right next to this café, and so after that the librarian told me, what if you have an exhibition here? I said sure, I have no objections. And so, that’s what we did, and it was really well received. I got a lot of encouragement and frankly I was so pleased. Practically all the paintings were sold, only three remained at the end of the show. There were some people I saw who I felt really liked one of the paintings but for some unknown reason they didn’t buy it, and so I gifted it to them. I didn’t have any financial goals whatsoever, I just wanted to integrate, and truly I got to know an excellent class of people at the opening of the exhibition. It was quite a success, especially that the library is close to the center of Copenhagen, and I’m still in touch with many of those people.
I’m now waiting for my second exhibition, which has been postponed a little for work reasons. I also began writing my novel, but I want to focus here on the fact that there are two fundamental ways of integrating into the society: by respecting its laws and by learning the language. These should be absolutely non-negotiable. For the last four years I’ve been employed at the store where I’m currently working, well, almost four years, maybe slightly less. I’ve never been late once, not even five minutes. When I learned what time we had to arrive at work I made sure that I should be there even fifteen minutes earlier, to make my coffee and sit down.
I think I’ve been able to flip that negative image of refugees provided by the Danish media. I’ve been living in this home for five years now; this is now my actual home.
During the period of integration, while I was painting and writing and working, there were some questions I heard repeatedly from the Danes: How can you be married with two children and able to paint? When I finished with language school, I enrolled in another school, like anyone who goes on to a higher institute of learning. It was something I always intended to do, despite the fact that I have a full 8-hour working day, and I also write and paint daily—the same way I drink my coffee every day I also have to write and paint, I have to read, and now in addition to that I will also have school. Studying is also really important to me.
I want the Danes to see that I am able to perform miracles, to commit fully to this path.
I am Khalil Jabo from Denmark and this is part of my story in this country.