Second Chances: Rahme’s story of finding refuge in Denmark is one of courage, determination, new beginnings and a mother’s love.
“Second Chances – Refugee Voices in Denmark” is a series of portraits of refugees who have found protection in Denmark and have had the opportunity to rebuild their lives here. The portraits tell stories of struggle and resilience. Of determination and hope. Join these people as they trace their journeys to Denmark from different war-torn countries and reflect on their path back to normality in their new home Denmark.
Rahme’s story begins in Syria as a new wife and mother of two small children, a son and a daughter. Her family lived a very nice lifestyle, as her father, and also her father-in-law, owned large olive orchards and produced their own olive oil. Both Rahme’s and her husband’s family are Kurdish, and they lived in Afrin – between the city of Aleppo and the Turkish border – where the majority of inhabitants are Kurdish. As a woman, Rahme spent most of her time taking care of domestic duties in the home. She went to primary school but does not have a lot of academic education since she was not able to finish high school. After they got married, Rahme and her husband moved closer to Aleppo to be near the bigger city.
After the war in Syria intensified in 2012, she left her home by car and drove toward Turkey with her husband and two children. Her son was three years old and her daughter was two at the time. It’s with many tears and great fear that Rahme remembers the traumatic journey:
“The bombs were coming in, and we were driving very quickly. When we reached Turkey there was a man who took everything, including my bag and passport. We had nothing other than the clothes we wore. Then we walked from Turkey to Greece. We walked all day, and it was very, very hard. My daughter was very sick with a fever. We had nothing to drink or eat, no water and no food. We finally came to the Turkish-Greek border and the Greek police took my daughter from my arms and threatened to shoot her. My husband was holding my son and they were pointing at him saying, ‘Go back. Go back or we will shoot your wife and daughter.’ So we went back.”
It was with help from smugglers that the family was eventually able to cross the Greek border. They were put on a train to Denmark, although at the time Rahme had no idea where they were going. Arriving at Copenhagen central station, they were taken to a Red Cross asylum center, where the family ended up living for two years, before being granted refugee status.
“We had nothing to drink or eat, no water and no food.”
“Now my son is ten years old and my daughter is nine. My son can still remember when we fled Syria. The first two years, he was always talking about our trip and what happened at the borders. Now he talks about it less. When we would take the train and someone would come to check our ticket, he would think it was the police coming. I took him to a doctor for his psychological trauma. Now we can talk a little about Aleppo and Syria.”
A Family’s Loss
After she was settled in Denmark, Rahme was able to contact her mother, father, brother and sister, who were still back in Syria with no electricity, water or phones. She encouraged them to leave as well, and after her family had fled to Turkey, they were united in Denmark through the family reunification program. Even with her family now here with her, Rahme reflects on her former life in Syria with a huge sense of loss.
“We had many things in Syria. We had a big house, my father had an olive oil farm and produced olive oil. Now everything is gone. It’s very hard. My father also thinks about these things. Nothing is left and he had to start here from zero. Maybe for me that’s ok. I am young and I still have a future that I can build. But my father spent 50 years of his life working hard to earn the things he had.”
Rahme does not have any family left in Syria now. Her uncle and 16-year-old nephew were killed, and another uncle had both legs amputated after a bomb went off in his shop.
“I hope that people will stop with the bombing and killing people. I cannot watch the television anymore. Every day, there are bombings. There is nobody left. Everybody has fled to Germany and here. Before Afrin was all Kurds, but now all the Kurds are gone.”
Rahme has heard that new people have moved into her family’s house. However since the family has no paperwork remaining, there is no way to prove that the house belonged to them.
“The worst thing I think we lost are the photos from our wedding and of our children. They are all gone, and we cannot get that back. Everything is gone.”
A New Danish Beginning
Today, Rahme is very happy with her new life in Denmark and hopes that she will not be sent back to Syria.
“I would like to stay here in Denmark. If I had to go back to Syria now I would have to start over from zero again. We have heard that the Danish government is saying many refuges can go back now, but we have nothing left there. I would be afraid to go back. We are very happy to be in Denmark. My husband and I both have jobs here, my children go to Danish school, and we all speak Danish. We are all Danish.”
The integration process for Rahme was made easier by a teacher at the language school.
“She helped me learn to speak Danish, how to do my shopping, how to find my way to the daycare for the children, and how to just be in Denmark.”
When Rahme completed her Danish language class, she was to do an internship, and by that time her teacher had opened a kitchen at the language school, and so she was offered to intern in the kitchen. That was four years ago.
“My children are almost Danish with their food. They eat a lot of rye bread, liver pate and salmon.”
“But then two years ago the same teacher called to tell me I could come work in the kitchen as my first proper job and be paid. I was very happy with that. I really like making food and working in the kitchen.”
Rahme works full-time making the meals for the café in the language school and deciding on the menu for the week.
“I like making Danish meals because I learn more from that. I also make different meals at home, not just Syrian food. My children are almost Danish with their food. They eat a lot of rye bread, liver pate and salmon.”
The differences between Syrian and Danish cultures are plenty, but one thing that Rahme is most grateful for is the freedom women enjoy here.
“In Syria women don’t work. Women cannot wear normal clothing and cannot go shopping. Women should just be at home, and my life was like that. Here, I am tired from the hard work all day, but I don’t have any problems. And my husband then helps out a lot.”
Rahme remembers one spring night in Copenhagen, when she went by herself to the beach to enjoy the evening alone – something she thinks would not have been possible in Syria, even before the war.
“I’m happy here because there is nobody making decisions for me, as both a woman and a Kurd. No one else is deciding how I should live. In Syria I could not go to school because I am Kurdish. Here, everybody is the same regardless of your religion. Why does it matter what religion you are? It should not make a difference.”
One thing that Rahme is grateful for is the freedom women enjoy in Denmark. ©Sasja van Vechgel
Rahme knows that while it is important to remember the past, she must also look ahead to the future. ©Sasja van Vechgel
Naturally, there are still things that Rahme misses about her home.
“I miss Syria. If the situation was safe I would like to go visit in the summer so I could walk around and pick fruit. You can pick oranges, pomegranate, lemons, avocados, lettuce. And in the summer we would pick strawberries and figs.”
Rahme knows that while it is important to remember the past, she must also look ahead to the future.
“My dream is for my family. I would like us to stay and live here in Denmark. I would like to continue to work here and have my children finish school and grow up here. Also, I think I would like to work in a restaurant, or even start my own. I like making my own food to serve others.”
The portrait series “Second Chances – Refugee Voices in Denmark” is produced by Amy Cunningham and Sasja van Vechgel for UNHCR Regional Representation for Northern Europe.
Amy Cunningham is an American freelance writer who focuses on telling human stories to foster empathy, expand understanding, and cultivate connections. She strives to give the subjects of her stories their own unique voice, empowering them to link us all in new capacities. Her love of travel and exploring different cultures has led her to meet diverse people from around the world, each with their special story to share.
Sasja van Vechgel is a dutch photographer, born in the Netherlands in 1975, known for de-stigmatizing her subjects, humanizing people again. Her work is characterized by a combination of social documentary photography, often focused on human rights and health issues with an artsy flavor. She has been living and working in Bangladesh, Cameroon, Tanzania, Indonesia and Denmark for the past 18 years, which has resulted in a variety of assignments for multinationals and NGOs, international awards and exhibitions.