In English
15.5.2015

Fight for the teens

Ella Kiviniemi
Even though most of the youth of Gellerup are doing well, there are still twice as many marginalized youth in Gellerup than in Aarhus on average.

In February of this year the happiest democracy on Earth, Denmark, was shaken by a terrorist attack. An abnormally large number of adolescents have left Denmark for Syria to fight, and the trail of radicalization leads to the small neighbourhood of Gellerup. There, the authorities have come up with an interesting solution to the problem – and Finland is taking notice, too.

text & Photos by Ella Kiviniemi

Translation by Elina Ojala

Ghetto, a parallel society. Build on top of a hill in Denmark’s second largest county of Aarhus, Gellerup is a fortress of concrete high-rises where 80 per cent of the inhabitants hail from non-Western countries.

In Gellerup, the local grocery store sells Arabian food, and right next door, delicious baklavas and cream cakes are sitting side by side on the counter of Walid’s Cakes.  The windows of the prefabricated high-rises are carefully covered with colourful curtains, and behind them, the stay-at-home mothers can live and dress as they choose, away from the eyes of strange men. There is a satellite dish on every third balcony. In the evenings, young boys light fireworks, and the rhythms of Arabian nights are playing on the car stereos.

By Scandinavian standards, Gellerup is a ghetto. Its inhabitants are poorer and less healthy than average, and over half of the adults who live in Gellerup are unemployed. On average, the inhabitants of Gellerup feel more unsafe as well, even though the authorities have succeeded in lowering the crime rate in the area significantly. The newest source of worry in Gellerup is the radicalization of young Muslims.

From 2012 onwards, 35 young Muslims have left the neighbourhood to go fight for Isis or other insurgent groups in Syria or in Northern Iraq. The last three left in February. About 150 fighters have left from Denmark altogether, which is the second largest number per capita in Europe. Belgium is number one on the list, and Finland is number seven, behind countries such as Sweden and the Netherlands.  An independent organization called the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) published the figures in February.

The prevention of violent religious radicalization has been a hot topic in the Danish media once again this spring. The society doesn’t want to support the actions of Isis in any way, and no parent wants their child to end up in the middle of a war without any language skills or combat experience. It is said that Isis has taken the passports of some of those who have left for Syria, and that it is using these youths as cannon fodder. Another fear is that the fighters who return from the war will continue their violent behaviour and terror in the West.

The Danish have tackled the problem with a way that has attracted attention. When other countries are planning to put the returnees into jail and confiscate their passports, in Aarhus the police started to reintegrate these youths back into society by using more subtle methods. The reasons behind their departure are numerous, and the youth require psychological help to work through these issues. If they want, these young people can get their own mentor who is familiar with Islam. The purpose of this is to find a way for these young people to be radical believers, but in the limits of democracy.

The young people who have left from Aarhus have had connections to the Grimhøj mosque in Gellerup, which is suspected of enticing the youth. The police is in close contact with the mosque, and through cooperation with the Muslim community, they have found new ways to get into contact with the youth. Psychologists run a support group for the parents whose child has left or who is at risk of leaving to fight. They are taught things such as how to use Skype and encourage their child to return home.

And it is working. The number of people who leave to fight has dropped from dozens to a handful, and today, the Aarhus model is known across Europe.

The county has gotten hundreds of inquiries from the international media, and foreign delegations have come over to learn more about the method. The mayor Jacob Bundsgaard has even presented the project to Barack Obama in the White House. However, despite its success, the leaders have been criticized for failing to deal with the ultimate problem. Why is that the youth are getting radicalized specifically in Aarhus and Gellerup?

Gellerup was the visionary creation of the architects of the 60’s and 70’s: an ideal functionalist neighbourhood where each individual part had a place and function in people’s day-to-day lives. In the beginning, the Aarhusians who were fed up with the cramped urban living were lining up to live in the new, spacious rental housing, but the enthusiasm died out when suburban living became the next housing trend.

But for the purposes of the large immigrant families, Gellerup was ideal. One by one, the Andersens and Jensens were replaced by Arabic names, and functionalism was harnessed to serve the needs of the growing multicultural community. All the services are near – but the rest of the Danish society is very far away. The townspeople don’t visit Gellerup much, except to stop by to buy some vegetables from the affordable bazar.

In a light and spacious apartment, located on the seventh floor of one of the prefabricated high-rises, mother Iman El-Zahr, 30, is cleaning the table after supper in her track suit bottoms. The neighbourhood is quieter than before, but a couple families – or rather, their offspring – are still causing trouble. Iman has sent her own girls to a school outside Gellerup, and she doesn’t let them go outside alone in the evening.

”There’s been trouble very time my girls have been on the yard by themselves. The children here are wild: they jump queues, yell, and throw things. Once, the girls’ scooters got stolen.”

According to some numbers, half of the inhabitants of Gellerup are 21 or younger, and most of the crimes are committed by children and minors.

”The children have been left unattended, and nobody keeps an eye on them. There can be eight children in some families, and the parents don’t have the time to look after them,” El-Zahr muses.

Petty criminals who have become marginalized are at risk of radicalization, and they are damaging the neighbourhood’s image. A small group is ruining the reputation of all Muslims. El-Zahr has gotten some dirty looks at the grocery store herself.

Even unconscious racism can create be a huge problem. Preben Bertelsen, a professor of psychology who is involved with work on the Aarhus model, states that many of the young people who have left for Syria are usually reasonably successful in school and in their lives. Despite this, they feel excluded, and this feeling is a result of multiple individual instances of discrimination they have experienced throughout their lives: such as a feeling that a teacher doesn’t believe that young Muslims can success in their lives just as well as anyone else.

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