“I learned to stop crying for myself a long time ago”

Second Chances: Elisha’s story of finding refuge in Denmark is one of seeking stability, contemplation, perseverance and aspiration for the future.

“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.

Elisha’s story begins as a young boy growing up in the violent area of Bukavu in the Democratic Republic of Congo, close to the Rwandan border on Lake Kivu.

“I had a childhood just like every other kid. You don’t really notice how bad things are. I remember hearing a lot of guns shooting in the background outside, but I didn’t know what it was. I thought this was how the world works. Apparently, there was a lot of conflict in my area, but I was not aware.”

Elisha’s parents kept him well sheltered from the violence and often sent him away to live with distant relatives for years at a time in safer places in Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya. While living in Uganda, Elisha noticed that is was quiet without gunshots in the background, and he realized then that the hostility in Bukavu was not normal.

Being moved around a lot as a young child created a sense of instability for Elisha.

“Every single time as a kid I would move to a new place, I would feel completely shattered, but then I would pick up the pieces and put them together and move on. Often, I was sent to live somewhere else without knowing the reasons why I was being moved, and I wouldn’t see my parents for years. At that point I built my immunity. I had to find my inner strength.”

“I remember hearing a lot of guns shooting in the background outside, but I didn’t know what it was. I thought this was how the world works.”

School was also a challenge for Elisha, as the different countries he lived in spoke and taught in different languages including Swahili, French, Rwandese and English. When Elisha moved to Kenya with his father, English became his dominant language and he was able to attend school there from the age of eleven to fourteen. From Kenya, Elisha and his father were resettled to Denmark by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. The family arrived in February 2011 when Elisha was 14 years old.

“I was excited. I didn’t know how it would be. The moment we arrived it was snowing. It was the first time I ever experienced snow and the cold, and I was like, ‘Why? Why did you do this to me? This is unbearable. Are we living in a refrigerator or something?’ Then I realized it was seasonal and the weather would change. Now I am used to the cycle of the seasons.”

Living in Uganda, Elisha noticed there were no gunshots in the background. He realized then that the hostility in Bukavu was not normal. © Sasja van Vechgel

Elisha started attending a Danish school and learned the language, although it took some time for him to really understand the culture.

“There was a lot to learn. My response to that was to jump into everything I had ever wanted to do. As a child I always wanted to learn how to ride a bike. In Congo I used to sneak out with my pocket money, that I earned from selling mendozi, a fried bread, and then go to a local school where kids came with their bikes, and I would pay them to ride their bikes. I taught myself how to ride. I would try and try. I fell so many times, but I believe, never give up until you get what you want!”

The first thing I did in Denmark was to ask my father to get me a bike. He got me a second-hand bike, as we didn’t have much money, and so I would ride my bike to get everyone in the asylum center groceries. I also started playing football and joined a team. In Africa we used to make a football with paper bags, so the experience here was new. I wasn’t skilled, but I was fast and determined.”


Discovering Music

And then there was music. Something that had always just been an integral part of Elisha’s life, without him even paying attention to it.

“The ability to sing and interest was always there. I was always singing.”

A teacher who Elisha met at his Danish boarding school when he was 17 years old saw his musical talent and encouraged him, ultimately referring him to Sony Music:

“If you have the knowledge and the ability to create melodies and find the words to fit it and try to find a message within the music then you can actually have a song finished by yourself. They helped me a lot with that. They gave me a mini keyboard that I can connect to my computer so I can basically compose music. I got home and just ‘nerded’ out. I tried to focus on school, but my passion was much more into trying to figure out how music works.”

“My end goal with this whole thing is to become the best musician in the world.  I plan to replace the previous ‘King of Pop’.”

In 2017 Elisha found a breakthrough with his music after signing a contract with Sony Music to record an EP, which will be released soon. And with a unique blend of determination, courage and humility, Elisha is ready to follow his dreams:

“My end goal with this whole thing is to become the best musician in the world.  I plan to replace the previous King of Pop (Michael Jackson). I plan to work as hard as I can to take that spot. I also have this mission to use most of my revenue to start up foundations to help out in the world.”

“I want to help with poverty, education, and nourishment through empowering people. If basic needs could be met in poor communities, there’s no limit to how much good could come from these places. We’ll have to start somewhere. The only true solution, I think, will be teaching the people how to fish instead of giving them a fish. I think that’s the biggest help.”

“Being in Denmark gave me the opportunity to read. Reading allows me to create my own theory and my own path in life.” © Sasja van Vechgel

Elisha has created a metaphorical vision for himself in the world. He officially goes by Elisha DP, short for ‘Dreamboy Pirates’, seeing himself as the Captain of the “Dreamboy Pirates”, set up to be a non-governmental organization:

“I want to do good in the world, so I decided to build something that would keep the two selves I have within me satisfied. The dreamboy, dreaming of doing something, music being part of this, and the rogue pirate who makes sure that things get done.  The dreamboy and the pirate are bound together and will have to work together to make things happen. It’s a journey.”

After signing with Sony, Elisha has chosen to spend his earnings on allowing him time to read. And so he has spent the last year and a half reading about 130 books, mostly nonfiction works on topics of philosophy, politics, psychology, and music.

“I’ve felt the best use of this money is to invest it in my mind. You don’t go somewhere without preparing yourself. I enjoy reading. It keeps me calm in a way and teaches me how the world works. It allows me to create my own theory and my own path in life. Once you get the notion that there’s knowledge out there, then you want to know the whole ocean. Even when I’m done with a book, I feel like then I just have more questions. I have gathered ideas, and it’s been the most productive thing I’ve done in my life.”

“If basic needs could be met in poor communities, there’s no limit to how much good could come from these places.”

Elisha recognizes that living in Denmark has allowed him the freedom to explore and think.

“I don’t think these ideas would have come into my head before. Being in Denmark gave me the opportunity to read. That’s the attribute I’m proudest of. Also, being signed to Sony Music. I’m very appreciative of being in Denmark.”

After all his reading and contemplating, Elisha believes that he does not feel a need to belong to any one place:

“I always feel I belong wherever I am. When I’m in Denmark I feel almost 100% Danish. When I’m in Congo I feel 100% Congolese. When I’m in Uganda I feel 100% Ugandan. Of course, there are cultural concessions around that. I think, at the moment, I behave very much as a Danish person. I understand their humor. I understand the food. I understand the cultural vibe.

“I fell so many times, but I believe, never give up until you get what you want!” © Sasja van Vechgel

I do not know exactly how much of a percentage I am because I’m not a Danish citizen. I’ve seen a lot of posts on social media about how long refugees have lived in Denmark and they still have not received their permanent residency. I don’t know how I feel about that. The Danish system can throw me out anytime. Not having residency pulls you a little bit off your game because even though you are here it’s a reminder that you do not belong. It’s kind of sad.

But at the same time, you have to appreciate the opportunity. I must remain the pirate. If I am required to move I’ll have to figure something out again. I learned to stop crying for myself a long time ago.”


The Authors

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.