69) My Danish Family

I grew up in a small town, surrounded by forest and swamps, near the border of Russia and Belarus and Ukraine. Basically up until I was 8 years old, that is all I had seen. At that point, we did not have a lot of money, it was the 90s/beginning of 2000s, the money was scarce. I was raised by my grandmother, who was a school teacher. Even for her, it was difficult for her to raise me, because sometimes they would not pay out the salary on time. She told me how sometimes she was concerned how she is going to buy milk for me. The area I grew up in is considered an area with high radiation due to the Chernobyl disaster. The radiation cloud covered some of the areas in Belarus and Russia, because of the wind that blew East, so my town was one of those that got some of the radiation and some people were evacuated at that point. But my family stayed, it was optional whether you wanted to leave or not. 

After the Chernobyl disaster, a lot of European organisations wanted to see the consequences of how the radiation affects people and help those people, especially children. One of the ways they helped was to take those children on vacation or trips for a month to host families or to children camps in Europe. And one of the organisations that helped was a Danish organisation which every summer, had two busses of children going from the Western part of Russia through Belarus, Poland, Germany and finally to Denmark. For kids that are eight years old, that is an unbelievable long trip to take. Some of the kids they took were orphans, some had health complications or developed slower due to radiation when they were born. And some of them were just taken because they did not have enough for holidays. I was not orphaned, and as far as I know my health was not affected, but I was still with them on this trip. I remember my grandmother asking me, ‘do you want to go to a country named Denmark?’. And I completely did not know what that was at that point. I remember her showing me the map and it was a small, small dot on the map compared to the huge Russia. That was interesting for me, I was excited. It was me and another girl who would be with that host family, and we had no idea, what kind of family that would be, who would be those people, nothing about it. 

My parents and my grandmother packed my things and sent me with that bus to that unknown country, to that unknown family. We were driving for a long time by bus, to a town called Middelfart. Then we all got off and had to wait until the Danish families were coming and met us. A Russian woman would announce the families there and the children that went together. So it was the other girl and me, and I saw Ruth, who would be my host-mother and her husband Karl. I think this image of first seeing them will never disappear, because it was such big thing to meet these people. We went to the car and drove South again, to a small town. I remember sitting in the car and Ruth was asking some questions and we were trying to communicate. Our first night we were sitting in the kitchen and eating ice cream with them. And it was a huge bowl, you know in Russia you would just get a small portion of ice cream and here it was a big pot of vanilla ice cream that you would take it out of. We never felt awkward or out of place, because Ruth and her husband were making sure that we were talking on the same language. She is very good at explaining things so that they could be understood, so she would just point at things and use gestures. And she would talk Danish, but she would describe for example if we would drive with the car or if we need to go to the store or something, she would repeat these words over and over. And I would hear them and understand and remember. She has this very good way around people, she can just talk to people openly and communicate and she has a very open and inviting and welcoming spirit about her.

We were there together for three weeks. And these three weeks were filled with experiences, because she is such a person that is doing things. She has a plan for every day, she has a plan for what we are going to do, what we are going to eat, who we are going to meet… and that was already laid out for us every day. There would be no day where we would be left to ourselves, it was always something. We would be invited to her friends for coffee, for dinner, and she would introduce us to all of her children. We also knew all of their neighbours, they would visit each other and drink coffee and we would be invited and we would play with the neighbours kids. Or we went to the zoo, or one time also to Legoland. It was just packed, we had three weeks, but it was full of impressions. She would take pictures of us and make photo albums to send to our families.

Sometimes she would go to humanitarian organisations or second hand places and ask if they would have some clothes for us for free. She is very good at sewing and hand-crafts in general. She is knitting, she is sewing, she is making lace. I remember she was making us some shorts, they were purple, and they were so cool. When I came back to my home town, I was the coolest dressed person, at least I felt that. And from the beginning, Ruth would include us in all the conversations. She would try to ask us, what we did, what we see for instance in the zoo, and what kind of animals there were. If we went to someone, we were not sitting there by ourselves, but she would always try to include us, so that we talk. That helped my Danish immensely. After the first three weeks I came back home and I was already using some of the Danish phrases. I felt like a Dane. 

I remember, after all of these impressions, I did not feel homesick at all, I just wanted to stay there. The going back was very sad, we were crying and saying good-bye to them. I was happy there and she was always smiling, and it was just sad to leave. These three weeks completely changed me. I saw a world that was completely different from mine. And maybe because Ruth was so nice, and the people around me, I thought all the people in Denmark were like this. Like Denmark is a country where people are just kind to each other. And it was her, Ruth, she made me feel like this. Now looking back at it— I live in Denmark now and I know it is not true, people are different, but she was like this, she was one of the few people I have met that possesses these qualities. 

So when I came home, of course I wanted to go there again and we would talk and write to each other. Ruth also got to visit me and my family in Russia with her close friend Edith, and that was interesting for them to see, where I grew up. One thing is just that a child comes there and you don’t know where they come from, but when you see the town and families, that leaves a big impression. After that, they invited me and the other girl again there. So that basically continued up until 2007, around that time, so up until I was 13, 14 years old. I would get invited, every summer, for three weeks. It was the highlight of my summers. I would look forward to that so much. I remember I made a calendar to tear of each day until I would go there. I really feel natural there, like this is my second home, even though it was such a short time each year. Basically throughout all these years, we grew together as a family. And I think it is very rare, because a lot of children would go several times and would keep those connections, but they would still fall apart at some point. Maybe I just don’t know any other examples.

My growing up and my forming as a person I owe to her, I owe who I became as a person and the things I learnt throughout— like speaking Danish on a  general level— it is also because of her, because she would speak so much to us, all the time. She changed basically the whole trajectory of my life. I was very good and interested in languages, English was my favourite subject at school. When I chose a university, I wanted to become a translator or linguist. I ended up at Moscow University of International Relations, which is one of the biggest universities in Russia. We could choose from 86 languages and I wrote that I wanted to learn Danish. They had different years and groups, so at that point I actually got Norwegian, where I was wondering ‘What is that?’ But I’m happy that I learned Norwegian, and I learned Danish on the side. And I wanted to work in Denmark, I wanted to establish relations between these two countries and be active there, because I knew so much about it. And I got into an internship where I came to Copenhagen in winter 2016. Interestingly, we went all around Jutland and Fyn with Ruth, so I have been basically in all of Denmark apart from Copenhagen. Copenhagen was completely new to me in 2016, I did not know anything about it. To me, Denmark is more Jutland than Zealand. When I go to Jutland, every time I go to visit my family there, it is like I’m home. It really is my second home.

I came for an internship, and then I got a job in Denmark. And we reconnected. Ruth and I always stayed connected, but of course there were years when I was studying and we would just talk on Skype or on the phone. Now I feel so happy and so blessed, now I’m in Denmark and I’m married, but they are my second family. Because my Russian family are all back home and it is hard to go back there. When I was moving to Denmark I did not consider it as leaving my country. My hometown was 12 hours by train away from Moscow and it was not like I was going there often. When I was moving to Denmark, it was like a two hour flight to Moscow, it never felt so far. But when Covid hit and the war came, suddenly there were these borders, suddenly you are far away. You cannot just go on a plane and two hours later you are back in your home country. It is not as easy anymore. My friends and everyone who is outside of Russia is struggling to go home. Now it is very expensive, and also with Covid there were all these quarantine rules and tests. So I was very happy that I had this second family, like second parents, to be around, and that made it so much easier. I can go there for holidays, and every year we have this Christmas cookie tradition. She would gather all the grand children and we would make cookies together. Also, Ruth and her new partner Sven were like a family to me on my wedding in March this year, and because of all the visa restrictions, my family could not be there and it was very tough for me. But Ruth and Sven were there as part of my family, and that was something I will always be grateful for.

So that is the story, the person that changed my life. I think she has this way about her, just doing something for someone. And I think it was not only for us, but she was also helping when the Syrian crisis hit, when she invited Syrian refugees in their home and prepared them a home-cooked meal, you know something like that. Nowadays it is a time where you put something on your instagram, show your stance, but she was never like that, she really did things. Also she did not brag about it, I mean she would tell people about us, but she would not talk about herself, it was never about herself. And she has many own children and grandchildren, they all take on these same values, they are very kind and polite and welcoming. I am 30 years old now, and when I come they welcome me, and some even say they consider me their sister, because I have been there so much. 

That is my story, and I’m glad that it will be remembered. Because memories fade and things fade, but if it will be published, it will be great.

68) Lessons of Community and Solidarity

A few weeks ago, there was a student takeover of universities all over Finland. Students were setting up camp at the universities to protest new government policies impacting the studies at university. 

In those weeks and after I saw a solidarity among the students, the protestors, that were living at the university, setting up programs, teaching each other, studying together, knitting, cooking food for each other, making sure everyone felt safe, even tattooing each other and sharing their skills, knowledge, time and care with each other. A problem of one person suddenly became a problem to solve for a larger group, people asking around if anyone could help, had an idea, or had a piece of equipment. People were taking care of each other, getting to know one another, discussing, agreeing, disagreeing and all the while turning the university into a living room, a resting area, a learning area, a kitchen and a bedroom. Day after Day new tents popped up and the university started looking more and more like a campground.  People were bringing lamps, carpets, were offering and taking workshops on different topics and started acting as a community. People watched documentaries together, stood up for each other and created things together. 

The atmosphere was wonderful, it seemed in these weeks that the university belonged to us, that we belonged to the university and that we were making it our own. That we acted and learned as a community, took care of each other and stood up for our rights and taught each other what we knew. 

Even though the takeover has ended, the community of people taking care of each other and standing up for their rights still exists. People have gotten involved in other causes, now joining each other in peace demonstrations, demanding a ceasefire in Gaza. People still take care of each other, but also stand up in solidarity with people far away, for people they have never met. People are sharing horror and fear together of what is happening and what is to come, but also hope and dreams for peace. Organizing events, going to protests together, sharing resources and petitions. I have learned that communities are strong, resilient, beautiful and that communities grow, flourish and take care of each other. Together we are so much stronger, we are so much safer. Together we are more than we could ever be alone. We need these communities for their own sake, because people are taking care of each other, we need them to evoke changes, we need those communities for peace and care.    

67) Free Choice of Seats

The metro in Tbilisi. It is packed. But metros seem to generally be full and not really clean, often that seems to be the common situation. The same today. Many people are standing, all seats are already taken. All of them? No! Three seats are still free. But no one is sitting down, because an open bottle of lemonade and a half-full cup with some green content are standing or rather lying there. Part of the fluid is spread over the plastic seats, and therefore the crowd is avoiding them. Except from one woman, who enters soon after me. She takes out a plastic bag and a tissue. She puts the cup and the bottle into the plastic bag and with the tissue she is cleaning the seats from the green fluid. Then she sits down. She was not responsible for this mess nor for cleaning it, just a normal passenger, but with little effort she did, what everyone (including me) else ignored to do: to make the seats useable again for everyone.

66) About Accepting Help

Last year I went on a trip abroad, got really sick and learned an important lesson. 

I had just arrived in a new place in northern Albania and was enjoying the silence, the beautiful views, and the peacefulness. My hosts were super kind, but we didn´t speak a common language, so we didn´t interact much. 

One day I got really sick and felt progressively so much worse during the day, that I felt I was losing my consciousness, which I have never felt before in my entire life. I was very hesitant to ask for help and didn´t really know what to do. The next hospital was far away and it was night. 

With my last energy, holding on to the side of the staircase, I went downstairs and told my hosts that I was feeling unwell and that I was not sure what to do. My host Fatmir offered right away to drive me to the hospital, which I was hesitant about. Fatmirs niece, who spoke English told me that it was ok to go to the hospital and that it was better than suffering so much and not feeling safe. As my energy was fading and I was feeling I might pass out, I accepted, and Fatmir drove me to the hospital. During the ride I was doing my best to stay conscious. Fatmir told me the next day, he thought I was dying in his car. When we arrived, I already had muscle spasms. 

Fatmir stayed with me in the hospital, and made sure I was taken care of, and we started talking. We didn´t have a common language, but Fatmir spoke Italian and I had Latin in school, so we spoke a mix of Italian and Latin. 

The next day, already feeling much better, but still super weak and back from the hospital, my neighbor knocked on my door. We had briefly met days before and we had a common language. He asked me, how on earth I did not contact him and that I should have asked for help earlier. 

He said we all needed help and that we can´t do this life on our own and that it was important that I learned to rely on others and ask for help when I needed it. While I was hesitant to ask for help and cause someone else an inconvenience, he was mad at me for not asking for help from him, when I had needed it. 

I am still immensely grateful for the kindness, help and care of Fatmir and his family. For all the wonderful discussions that followed the next days and the lesson of asking for and accepting help and kindness. 

It is still hard for me to ask for help, but I am learning that we all rely on one another and that asking for help takes courage, but that we don´t exist and don´t thrive without one another. For me it is peace when people can ask for help and find people who are willing to help. In the end, who are we without each other, without each other’s love, care, creativity, strength and community.  

65) Play Like a Girl

As a child, I fell in love with football. I don’t think that I chose to play football, I think football chose me to play it. I was born in a small town in Kurdistan. I was born in a society where most of the families want boys. So my parents always wanted to have  boy, so they kept trying. We were six girls and one boy. I was the last one in the family, I am the youngest. I was six years old when I started to played football. I did not know it was football, it was just something I liked to do and I wanted to do. I was the only girl playing football with boys in the streets. Despite being the only girl among boys on the field, my passion for the sport was unwavering. I wanted the other girls to also play, but because of the gender stereotypes and the boxes they put us in, we were in different positions in our lives. I kept playing football until I was twelve years old. When I was born, my family… I don’t remember whether I chose to wear boy clothes or whether they made me wear it because they  always wanted a boy, but I think they made me wear boy clothes. And when I was twelve they told me: ‘Stop playing football, because you are a girl’. So they wanted me to be a boy, but when it was time that the society can see it is a girl, when she is growing, then no, you stop and you stop playing football. I stopped playing until I was 18. And I think if the society or my family would have let me play, I would be in a different position, have maybe a different career. I would maybe be a football player.

Instead, I started playing again when I was 18, just easy as a hobby with my friends. That was when my family and I had to flee from Sinjar where it was attacked by ISIS and then flee to Duhok, which was a bigger city and more open then the small town I lived in. There I got to know people and started playing football with friends and finally some females. Family and societal pressures didn’t dampen my spirit anymore. That let me to start working with NGOs in the field of sports for development. I am now a person that works using sport, football, to gather people together and to make a small effect in the world. I found solace in supporting women in sports. Together, we’re fighting to change the male-dominated landscape, offering a beacon of hope for a more inclusive world.

64) Attentive Children

My father told me how he and my little brother have been in Berlin a while ago. Visiting friends, father-son-weekend, something like that.

Amongst others, they went into the city centre, to the area around the Brandenburger Tor. Summer, capital, many people around. Together, they were walking through the groups of people. At some point, they passed a girl, which was crying. My father was already passing her as anyone else, when my brother asked whether they should not ask her if something happened. Our father agreed and they went back to the crying child. She spoke Russian or another Slavic language, which the two did not understand. But they could bring the little one to an official place nearby, where someone took care of her and found her family. And what was stuck in my mind from this story? How my brother paid attention to the other child and helped her, while so many grown-ups had seemingly overlooked her.

63) With kindness once across Denmark

Recently, I did a long hike (partly with some company). Once through Denmark, from Copenhagen to Flensburg, 420km, for a project called Climate Walk. It was very exhausting and painful in many ways. But I keep in mind the many kind people, that I met, that helped me in one way or another, in a friendly manner as if it was no big deal at all. 

The man, who spontaneously jumped in as my AirBnB host, when I could not find accommodation in Roskilde. The bus driver, who stopped and offered me a ride with his empty bus. The women in the city library in Frederiksværk, who gave me some cake on the way, because I could not stay longer and have tea and cake with them. The woman who stayed the one night in the shelter with me, and who was so kind and curious and gentle. The camping ground owner, who let us stay in the common room of his place, to charge our phones and have a break. The woman, who turned around with the car to ask, whether there was anything we need, whether we were okay, because she had learned herself how nice that can be on long hikes. Our hostess in Jelling, who said that we should call her if our day is too hard, and she would pick us up by car. The people, who let us refill our water at their houses. The supermarket staff, who let us use the staff toilet when there was no customer toilet. Our host in Kolding, who made us a French toast for breakfast, as he did for his son, and brought us something from the bakery for the way, when we left again. 

Maybe it was not a big deal for them, did not cost them much, the little things they did to help me (or us). But it made my situation always a lot better in those moments.

62) 80 Cents of too much leek

Recently, my mum and I went for a run in the forest. She had some cash with her, so that we could stop at the supermarket on the way home. Getting a few things before the long weekend. She had a twenty euro note with her, calculating already in the shop whether it would be enough. We did not get many things, but some meat from the butcher. With meat and the inflation right now, twenty euros are gone quickly. At the counter, my mum looked over on the screen, when finally the saleswoman weighed the leek. At the end, it was a bit too much. 20,80 euro. “Now we have a problem, we only have 20 euro with us. Could we put back one leek?” That was a bit complicated, now that everything had been weighed as a bundle. The saleswoman and an idea, but before she could do it, the couple behind us asked, whether they could help out. That would be too kind, said my mum. She asked for the address, said, that we would bring back the money and put it into the mailbox at the next run. Then the man asked, how much was missing — 80 cents. That would be fine without bringing it back, he said and gave the additional money to the saleswoman. No problem, said his wife, they have had that problem themselves recently. Comprehension, because one knows the situation oneself.

61) Guest for a night

One of my old university friends, who lives elsewhere these days, is texting me in the afternoon. He has a friend who had quite an unlucky and stressful day, trying to get by train through several countries back to the city where they both live. She won’t make it tonight anymore, thanks to delays and failures of trains, and will be stranded for a night in the city where I live.

She would need a friendly smile and an emergency bed, he writes— whether I could help out? Sure I can. I have two friends visiting this week, one staying at my place, but there is always the extra camping mattress. 

We pick her up from the bus station and walk with her to our place. We’re all having dinner together, asking her about her journey, where she is going and her life at the moment. We are telling about us a bit. About our universities, our common interests. Our hometowns and chosen homes. She hides it well that she is probably very tired, and we have a joyful evening together. She fits perfectly into our group— it does not feel like having a stranger here, but a friend. Natural.

Eventually we go to bed, all of us need the sleep. 

The next morning, our other friends join us again in our flat and we have breakfast as a group before our guest for the night is leaving for the bus that is supposed to bring her finally to her destination.

She is thanking me for the spontaneous help, but actually I feel like thanking her for visiting— forgetting that this was not planned— because I truly enjoyed having her at our place. Friendships have been made under stranger circumstances.

60) Learning not to judge

Copenhagen is amongst many other things the home for an organisation called “Human Library” (“Menneskebiblioteket”). 

It is an organisation that is aiming at overcoming stereotypes of marginalised people, through personal meetings. At its events, one can talk to its open “books”— that people who might be someone who has a mental health issue, look unusual, have experienced traumatic events… and they volunteer to share their perspective, their experiences, with others. It is a safe space to meet people one usually does not talk to, to ask questions what one usually wouldn’t not talk about. Having a face, a person to talk to. Talking with them, not about, to face the stereotypes we have, overcome them.

I had known about it since quite a long time, but for all this time not the opportunity to pay it a visit. Now I was back in the Öresund region, and I had read that they have an Open Reading Garden in summer every second Sunday in Copenhagen. So I decided to go there on one sunny Sunday. Said, done. 

I was not interested in one specific in one specific person or topic, I wanted to see how it works in general, how the atmosphere is, how people speak. Therefore, when I first came there and was asked which “book” I wanted to “read”, it took me quite a while to choose. I admit, I was also unsure whether I would like to hear about all the topics. Not knowing how to behave, react, what to ask.

I then decided for the “book” about autism, and spoke with the man about wanting to fit in, belonging to a group.

Later, I spoke to a second person, a woman being raised by an alcoholic father, and we talked about family a lot.

And finally, to a young woman who is an incest survivor, having been sexually abused by her (step)father. The previous stories were interesting, and I got to learn about what difficulties these people had faced in their lives. But this one felt different, because I felt something. It was not her story itself that impressed me the most, but her personality and the messages she gave me.

That despite what happened to her over years of her childhood and Youth, her main thoughts concern to protect others from being harmed. Keeping her family from pain. She has a lot of empathy and did not only tell her story, but also listened to my thoughts. We talked about feeling guilty when doing good, and enjoying life. We talked about showing emotions and crying, and had tears in our eyes at the end. 

Usually, one has 30 minutes for “borrowing” a book for a conversation. We got a bit more time, luckily. And when I said good bye, she asked me whether I wanted a hug — I gladly took it. I hope to always remember her. 

Thank you!