In the Danish countryside, Mohamad Sheikh Ali and his family are gathered around a bonfire, baking bread over the hot coals. They’re one of the lucky families from Aleppo who escaped the Syrian civil war while they could and re-settled in Denmark. Now, they’re at a weekend camp designed to make refugees feel welcome.
Back in Syria, Ali was an electrical engineer, supervising 200 maintenance workers at a large electricity company.
“I was responsible for any malfunctioning of the electricity network in all of Aleppo,” he says. “I lost a lot of workers. Whenever I’d send them out and there were airstrikes, two or three were killed. The others would blame me.”
He felt trapped between government and rebel forces, since he got service calls for repairs from both sides, making things even more dangerous.
“While doing that job, I was always targeted,” he says. “They could just kidnap me, and no one would ever find me.”
Three years ago, he left Syria alone on a grueling journey to Europe by boat, truck and foot. His goal was to bring his family safely after getting asylum.
“I heard that it’s easier to reunite families in Scandinavian countries,” he says. "I was heading for Sweden, but I got really tired. I reached Copenhagen, and I was too exhausted to continue onward.”
Within months, he received his resident permit to stay in Denmark. Then, he applied for family reunification, so his wife and children could join him.
“I was counting the days for them to come here,” he says. “I was breathlessly waiting, and I kept telling myself I have to be patient.”
A year later, Ali's wife, Asih, and three kids finally boarded a plane bound for Copenhagen. She remembers her feeling of happiness.
“Before, we’d never been apart, she says, not even for one or two weeks,” Asih says. “I felt this was a new beginning for my children. We need a safe place where our children could live safely, we ask for nothing else."
The family now lives in the rural town of Frederiksværk, about an hour away from Denmark’s capital, Copenhagen. Though it’s relatively isolated, the family says they are glad to live in beautiful surroundings.
Other refugees in Denmark don’t feel accepted in their new homeland.
Abdullah Touma, 27, is also from Aleppo, where he studied French literature. He journeyed all the way to Denmark because he had heard Scandinavian countries were treating refugees well.
But, he says he feels a coldness here he’s never felt before. He recently started a scaffolding job on construction sites and says his co-workers barely talk to him.
“They don’t want us. When I talk with my colleague at work, he told me, of course we don’t need the refugees. He told me clearly,” Touma says.
Touma says he spent his first year in Denmark smiling and trying to be cordial, but no one responded. People wouldn’t even sit next to him on the train.
“We’re used to this,” he says, and continues, “It’s OK. We live with this.”
Now, Touma is a lot more quiet and reserved. Today is his day off, so he and his Syrian housemate decide to take the hourlong train ride from their small Danish town to Copenhagen. But, it’s hard for them to relax, since they can’t stop thinking about the war back home.
“We [don’t] celebrate so much because of our situation,” he says. “We always remember our friends, our people in Syria.”
As they walk in Copenhagen’s city center, no one smiles or talks to them in the streets, until they bump into a Lebanese man they know near the train station. He shakes their hands, and they start to chat excitedly like old friends.
He misses this kind of camaraderie, which he experienced in Turkey after fleeing Aleppo.
“They call you ‘kardash,’ it means ‘brother,’” he says. “If you find someone [new] we go, ‘Hi, where are you from?’ Not here like in Denmark. No, they don’t care.”
Since jobs in rural Denmark are scarce, especially for refugees, Touma was happy to get any kind of work. He’s poured all his energy into his job.
“Of course, it’s not my dream to be a scaffolding man, you know?” he says. “But, I have to do something. My dream is right now is work, work, work and have a little money and maybe start something.”
Tightening the grip on immigration
Attitudes toward refugees have hardened here, according to Eva Singer of the Danish Refugee Council. This year, the government tightened immigration policies to discourage asylum-seekers from coming to Denmark. It now takes much longer for families to be reunited, at least three years or more.
“A lot of Danish people feel a bit threatened by the many newcomers. We can’t pretend that is not the case,” says Singer. “The Danish government was a bit surprised, but also a bit scared when they saw the great number of people basically walking on the highway in Denmark.”
Singer says the political climate has started to change in Denmark, in part, to preserve the country’s famous welfare system.
“Parties in the middle are also talking about having to tighten the rules to save our welfare society,” she says.
Back at the holiday camp in the countryside, the Ali family is learning to play percussion like the group Stomp. Mohamad Ali and the children clap. Asih watches and smiles.
Asih says she’s comfortable here, and the people are kinder than she’d imagined. But, she still can’t get the war out of her head.
“I think about those who I left back in Syria,” she says. “When I first arrived, I didn’t think about it a lot. But the war is getting worse and worse, so it’s on my mind every single moment, she says.”