Fawaz T. Alzatto is from Syria and has been living in Denmark for two years. He recently completed his participation in the Raoul Wallenberg Institute’s Inclusion Academy. In partnership with the Open Society Initiative for Europe (OSIFE), the academy aimed to help community-based organizations increase political participation of refugees and marginalized groups in Norway, Finland, and Sweden. We sat down with him to ask a few questions.
Where do you come from in Syria?
I come from the northeast part of Syria on the Iraqi-Turkish border, but I am closer to the Turkish border.
Can you describe where you live in Denmark?
I live in the north of Denmark. It is called Nord Jylland, between Aalborg, 50 kilometres from Aalborg and 58 kilometres from Aarhus, which are the northern biggest cities. Copenhagen is great, but I said when they interviewed me at the immigration board that I wanted to be close to a University.
What did you do in Syria?
I was an elementary school teacher. I began teaching in Syria in 2001.
And what do you do now in Denmark?
My bachelor has now been validated and approved in Denmark, so now I am working with pedagogy in the family department of my municipality. I’m working with teenagers that have arrived as refugees.
When you arrived in Denmark, where did you first live?
I lived at an asylum centre even more north, in a city called Hjøring. It is like 20 kilometres from the coast, and from the west cost it is like 12 kilometres. It is the corner of Denmark.
Did you get an apartment after that?
Yes, when the asylum process was done, I was moved to another city, and yeah, I got my real life again – not a number
Tell us about the organization Venligbo you are active in.
Well, I have been involved in the NGO Venligbo since I was in the asylum centre. There I met some friends, Syrians and Danes, we were like ten people and we started to make activities, both for the volunteers who were curious and positive to visit these newcomers, and with my friends at the asylum centre. So we were trying to build bridges to try to make something common, parties and walking tours. So that is the main goal of my organization – to be a cultural bridge between people.
Did you create this organization by yourself?
No, it was actually a group of Danish volunteers that were friends. And I joined them during the first week. So we created this together and it spread all over the country. Now it is like a civil movement in Denmark. Since 2015 it has become a trend to be Venligbo, which is a Danish word for friendly neighbours.
What do you do?
We start normal activities, just any excuse to bring people together for a cup of coffee, walking tours with a dog, visiting the library, discovering the forest and the city. When we socialize we break the stereotypes; we break the ice; we become individuals.
When we become individuals it is not going to be me as an asylum seeker; it brings me to be a human being, who I am, like my real identity. I am not an asylum seeker, I was a teacher. I have been forced to be in this situation and it is political. I don´t like to have an identity. My identity is my name, my background – my identity is me, and it is vice versa. You are not a host community; you are not a volunteer; you are a human being interested to know others. These are the keys to building any relationship – friendship or relationship at work – passion and to bring people together.
Do you have one specific memory that sticks out for you since you’ve been in Denmark?
I have been holding speeches at Parliament and in schools. I have been protesting. There have been a lot of lovely things happening, but I will mention one when I moved to my neighbourhood.
I moved to my apartment in 2015. We were in a building with 12 apartments and three entrances. Twelve apartments and I don’t know any of my neighbours.
In my culture, when you move to a new neighbourhood, the first week you are not going to have time to make food, because all the neighbours are by curiosity inviting you to dinner, lunch, a cup of coffee, so I expected that someone would knock on my door.
What I implemented in my culture, did not work here. So I said, let’s do it in another way, because they say Danes have a hard time opening up. No one knocked on the door, so I thought let’s do it vice versa, see what happens, you are not going to lose anything, so I went to the library and bought 12 post cards.
I wrote, “Hi, I am your new neighbour, I have brown skin but I have a good, nice smile. I will make Middle Eastern food, and I will welcome you to say hi to your new neighbour. Feel welcome to knock on my door and present with your drink.”
And I said this story a thousand times, and every time my Danish friends always underestimate themselves. Everyone came, no not actually everyone, two of them were on vacation and they apologised for not coming. But the rest of the people in the 10 apartments with 16 people and some of them brought their siblings and relatives and it was amazing. We also judge ourselves. I always tell my Danish friends, “You are brave, you have freedom and democracy, you are brave enough to open your door, if you see something that you don´t like, you are brave enough to close your door again. Just dare to open that door. And make the step.”
So that was amazing and memorable, it has become a tradition in the building, every summer we do that. Then I wasn’t a good chef, but now I am.
Now you are doing this course, why?
Human Rights, I missed in Syria. We are talking about human rights one hundred years ago, and many heroes started to talk about this thousands of years ago. We do have freedom and democracy even if we have catastrophes and war everywhere, and civil conflicts everywhere, but we do have human rights. And we still have something to do and improve human rights, even in the Western world. Like, I will give you an example with gender equality. In order to improve, you have to have these tools, the methods in your mind and in your heart, in order to advocate for them. So from that perspective, I wanted to participate in this inclusion academy.