Under a more hostile immigration system, young volunteers fight to help fellow refugees stay – but their work is never done
Maryam Awad is 22 and cannot remember the last time she had a good night’s sleep. It was probably before her application to renew her residency permit as a refugee in Denmark was rejected two years ago, she says.
Before 2015, Awad’s family lived in a small town outside Damascus, but fled to Denmark after her older brother was detained by the regime. The family have been living in Aarhus, a port city in northern Denmark, for eight years.
Awad and her younger sister are the only family members facing deportation. Their situation is far from unique. In 2019, the Danish government notified about 1,200 refugees from the Damascus region that their residency permits would not be renewed.
Unlike the United Nations and EU, Denmark judged the region to be safe for refugees to return. However, as men could be drafted into the army and older women often have children enrolled in Danish schools, the new policy predominantly affects young women and elderly people.
Lisa Blinkenberg, of Amnesty International Denmark, said: “In 2015, we have seen a legislative change which means that the residency permit of refugees can be withdrawn due to changes in their home country, but the change does not have to be fundamental. Then in 2019 the Danish immigration services decided that the violence in Damascus has stopped and that Syrians could be returned there.”
Blinkenberg says Denmark’s policy towards asylum seekers and refugees has become notably more hostile in recent years. “In 2019, the Danish prime minister declared that Denmark wanted ‘zero asylum seekers’. That was a really strong signal,” she says.
“Like in other European countries, there has been a lot of support for rightwing parties in Denmark. This has sent a strong signal for the government to say: ‘OK, Denmark will not be a welcoming country for refugees or asylum seekers.’”
Awad smiles, briefly, for the first time when she receives a phone call from her lawyer. He tells her there is now a date set for her appeal with the refugee board. It will be her last chance to prolong her residency permit.
She had been waiting for this phone call since February. “I am really nervous, but happy that it is happening,” she says. “I am glad that I had the support from friends who put me in touch with volunteers. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t know what to do.”
One of the volunteers Awad has received help from is Rahima Abdullah, 21, a fellow Syrian refugee and leader of the Danish Refugee Youth Council. Over the past two years Abdullah had almost single-handedly built a network of opposition to deportations targeting Syrians.
“I have lost count of how many cases I worked on. Definitely over 100, maybe even 200,” Abdullah says.
Abdullah, who grew up in a Kurdish family in Aleppo, first became politically active at 16 after her family sought refuge in Denmark. She has been regularly publishing opinion pieces in Danish newspapers and built a profile as a refugee activist.
“The image of immigration in Danish media was very negative. I could see everyone talking about it but felt as if I didn’t have a voice. That’s why I decided to become an activist,” she says.
In 2019, Abudullah and a classmate, Aya Daher, were propelled to the front pages of Danish media, after Daher found herself among hundreds of Syrians threatened with deportation.
“Aya called me up, scared, crying that her application was rejected. Before we were thinking about finishing school, about exams and parties, but suddenly we were only concentrating on Aya’s future and her safety,” Abdullah recalls.
“I posted her story on Facebook and I sent it to two journalists and went to sleep. In the morning I found that it was shared 4,000 times.”
The story was picked up by local and international media, sparking a public outcry. Following her appeal to the Danish Refugee Board, Daher’s residency was extended for an additional two years on the grounds that her public profile would put her in danger from the Assad regime.
“They gave me a residency permit because I was in the media. They did not believe in what I said about my situation and the dangers I would face in Syria. That really hurt,” Daher says. “I hope I don’t have to go through this process again.”
“Aya can get on with her life now, but I am still doing the same work for other people in the same position,” Abdullah says. “Her case showed refugees that, if you get media attention and support from society, you can stay in Denmark.”
Abdullah gets up to five messages a day from refugees hoping she can help them catch the attention of the media. “I have to choose who to help – sometimes I pass people on to other activists. There are two or three people helping me,” she says. “It gets hard to be a young person with school and a social life, with all that work.”
But not everyone is as appealing to the media as Daher. The people whose stories pass unnoticed keep Abdullah up at night.
“I worked with one family, a couple with young children. I managed to get them one press interview in Sweden, but it wasn’t enough,” Abudullah says. “The husband is now in Germany with two of the children trying to get asylum there. The wife stayed here with one child. She messaged me on Facebook and said: ‘You did not help us, you destroyed our life.’ I can’t be angry at her – I can’t imagine how she feels.
“Aya’s story was the first of its kind at the time. Additionally, Danish media like to see an outspoken young woman from the Middle East, who is integrated into society, gets an education, and speaks Danish,” Abdullah says. “And this was just an ordinary Syrian family. The woman didn’t speak good Danish and the children were quite young.
“Aya also doesn’t wear a hijab, which I think made some people more sympathetic towards her,” Abdullah adds. “There are people in Denmark who think that if you wear the hijab you’re not integrated into society. This makes me sad and angry – it shouldn’t be this way.”
Daher, who became the face of young Syrian refugees in Denmark, says: “It was very difficult to suddenly be in the media, and be someone that many people recognise. I felt like I was responsible for a lot of people.
“I had a lot of positive reactions from people and from my classmates, but there have also been negative comments.” she says. “One man came up to me on the street and said ‘go back to your country, you Muslim. You’re stealing our money.’
“I respect that some people don’t want me to be here. There’s nothing more I can do about that,” Daher says. “They have not been in Syria and they have not been in the war – I can’t explain it to them.”
Awad hopes she can return to the life she had to put on hold two years ago. “I don’t know how to prepare for the appeal. All I can do is say the truth,” she says. “If I go back to Syria they will detain me.” She hopes this will be enough to persuade the board to allow her appeal.
“I planned to study medicine in Copenhagen before my residency application was rejected. I wanted to be a doctor ever since I came to Denmark,” she says. The uncertainty prompted her to get a qualification as a health assistant by working in a care home. “I just want my life back.”