My best and worst days in Denmark

Egyptian journalist Farah Bahgat recently left Denmark after a year living and studying in Aarhus and Copenhagen. Here, she reflects on her lasting impressions of the Scandinavian country.

My best and worst days in Denmark
Farah Bahgat in Copenhagen. Photo: Karis Hustad

At the dining table in my sublet apartment in Amager, south of Copenhagen, I was having my farewell dinner with my roommate and our friend, when they asked me to look back and choose my favourite and least favourite times in Denmark.

Where do I begin? I have come a long way, from knowing nothing about Denmark – other than the Muhammad cartoons – to knowing every Danish word that could possibly be coupled with 'tak' (Danish for ‘thanks’).

Last year, I came to Denmark having heard that it was perhaps not the most Muslim-friendly country in the world. But having lived my entire life in a developing country, I was pretty excited to move to the relative paradise of a welfare state.

It was not just a studying opportunity for me, it was an opportunity to run away from the many frustrations of post-revolutionary Egypt.

In August 2017, I arrived in Aarhus, where I was scheduled to spend the first year of my Master’s degree, wearing jeans, a flannel shirt, a headscarf and my preconceived notions.

During orientation week at the Danish School of Media and Journalism, we watched a PowerPoint presentation about Danish values – things like humility and hygge, which, to be honest, seemed too ideal to be real.

I can easily recall my least favourite times in Denmark: the little things that constantly reminded me that I did not belong here. Like how every time I got on a bus, or went grocery shopping and people would stare at me like some sort of alien who just landed from a UFO. I even caught a teenager on a bus taking a photo of me and my hijabi friend who was visiting from Egypt at the time.

Danes seemed to be very united in a way, or, for lack of a better word, it seemed like there was this sort of exclusivity, like Denmark was only a place for 'real Danes'.

READ ALSO: Tax plan means uncertainty for students and teachers at Denmark's language schools

It's no secret that it is difficult to befriend Danes, so my friends were my classmates, and because it was an international course, I had friends from more than 20 different countries.

We tried to familiarise ourselves with Denmark. We ate rye bread and liquorice. We even followed the Jutland tradition of throwing cinnamon on whoever turns 25 and happens to not be married.

But feeling out of place became a collective feeling – all of my friends felt the same. To this day, my friend Tanja tells me “I can’t believe that even a white German like myself was shamed for not integrating in Denmark”.

Regardless of our diversity, we each experienced difficulties with living in Denmark, which was surprising given the progressive and “hyggelig” image of the country that was presented to us during the orientation week at the beginning of our studies.

It felt like hygge was a Danish word for a reason: it was only for Danes.

Attempting to get out of my bubble, I decided to do some volunteer work, which led me to work on a video for a charity. Every Monday evening I would prepare dinner with refugees – 'new Danes', to use the term favoured by the charity’s organisers – and volunteers, and anyone else who wanted to join.

Some weeks we made pizza, other weeks we made traditional Syrian food. Hygge was not candles and fur blankets, but rather the warmth of the company, embracing the differences between every one of us, people who never met before and people who thought that they were not welcomed here.

READ ALSO: It's official: 'hygge' is now an English word

Mira, the Danish organiser at the charity, became a close friend – her number became the first I would dial on a bad day. She was my window to Denmark, not just in the sense that she introduced me to most of the Danes I met, but we also bonded over how we were both searching for our identities. For me, living with Danes challenged my identity; for Mira, working with 'new Danes' challenged hers.

During my year of study, I reported on news topics including the lockoutghetto plan and departure centres. This also meant that I spoke to many people with immigrant backgrounds in general and in many cases also Muslims.

The consensus that ‘they [politicians] want assimilation not integration', or ‘the government does want us here’, often came through strongly, with the perceived hostility of immigration minister Inger Støjberg and her hardline positions on refugees often prominent in the views of those I spoke to.

Støjberg’s statements turned the discourse, making it no longer about integration versus assimilation, but rather a clear statement: You are not welcome here.

READ ALSO: The middle of nowhere: Inside Denmark's Kærshovedgård deportation camp

I moved to Copenhagen for the summer of 2018, by which time parliament had passed the burqa ban.

I did not let my thoughts about politics ruin my summer. I went to a “Muslim attire” store in Nørrebro one day and bought a burkini to go to the beach. I was frightened to wear it in a country where people commonly swim naked.

To my surprise, most people did not look at me even once, no death stares, no “go back to your country” shouts, nothing. If anything, I was just as not-looked at as the naked swimmers.

Summer in Denmark was wonderful. I am not exaggerating when I say it was the best summer of my life so far. Every little corner of Copenhagen was just beautiful.

I have witnessed two revolutions in Egypt. Since I began working as a journalist, I have covered strikes, terrorist attacks and forced displacement of communities. I have worked for a website that the Egyptian public cannot access because of censorship and have seen friends arrested for practising their jobs as photojournalists. Compared to this, reporting in Denmark is a breeze.

But when August began, so did one of the most difficult assignments I have had to cover as a reporter.

On August 1st, hundreds of people gathered, covering their faces, in protest of the ‘burqa ban’, in a country where only a few dozen women wear the niqab, and fewer still the burqa.

The burqa ban was a topic I had been avoiding for a while. I lost count of how many fights I had with ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive’ friends who believed they were entitled to decide what women should or shouldn’t wear.

When I arrived at Superkilen, the park in Nørrebro, Copenhagen where the demonstration took place, my eyes were instantly filled with tears. I was caught up with different feelings: frustration, anger, gratefulness and love.

I pulled myself together and filmed the report that was later published on The Local. When protesters started marching towards the police station in Nørrebro, I took my spot ahead of the march to be able to get a better shot of the crowds.

READ ALSO: 'From one day to another, we're criminals': Muslim women speak against Denmark's burqa ban

Sobbing behind the camera, I watched the people chant “Say it loud, say it clear, refugees are welcome here”, and “no racists in our streets”.

I have never worn a burqa or niqab, but as a practising Muslim woman, I never felt as accepted and loved as I did during this protest.

I was surrounded by people who might have no connection to Islam whatsoever, and might even disagree with its basic precepts, but were there to fight for the rights of other human beings.

August 1st marks my favourite day in Denmark.

After my farewell dinner in Copenhagen, we ended up watching YouTube videos, the 'things to do in Denmark' kind of videos, which were hilarious after spending a year and not doing any of the things that were mentioned.

My favourite things about Denmark weren't mentioned in these videos: how I felt at the protest on August 1st, my experiences cooking meals with new and old Danes together and how Mira and her home became a place I could go and find happiness, even on my worst days.

What these videos were missing was the inclusivity I found in Danes and in Denmark, and I hope that next time I’m around I get to witness more of this inclusivity.

READ ALSO: The ten things I'll miss most about living in Denmark

For members


Why Denmark is considered Europe’s strictest country on immigration

Denmark has a reputation as being one of, if not the, strictest countries in Europe when it comes to immigration. From citizenship to asylum, family reunification and work permits, we look at some of the rules that have earned the Nordic country this tag.

Why Denmark is considered Europe's strictest country on immigration


Normally, you must have lived in Denmark for nine consecutive years (without living elsewhere for more than three months) in order to qualify for Danish citizenship.

This period is reduced in some cases. Examples of this are for refugees, who can apply after eight years; people married to Danes qualify after 6-8 years; while citizens of Nordic countries only need a two-year stay.

There’s also a language test and a citizenship test which must be passed before you can attain eligibility for naturalisation.

Several European countries have longer basic residence requirements, including Switzerland, Austria, Italy and Spain (all ten years). Each of these countries, like Denmark, has a language requirement but Italy and Austria do not permit dual nationality, something Denmark has allowed since 2015.

An area in which Denmark sets itself aside on citizenship is the citizenship test. The oft-criticised test consists of 45 multiple choice questions, including a five-question section on “Danish values” such as equality, freedom of speech and the relation between legislation and religion. 

The pass mark is 36/45 and at least four of the five Danish values questions must be answered correctly. 

READ ALSO: Which European countries have the toughest rules for gaining citizenship?

Asylum and refugees

Denmark made a name for itself in February 2016 when it introduced a law permitting police to confiscate jewellery, cash and other valuables with a value above 10,000 kroner from arriving migrants and asylum seekers.

That law, which was reported on by major international media, was unique to Denmark. The government argued it would help pay for the costs of taking in refugees, but as of 2022 it had only been used 17 times in 6 years.

With its 2019 “paradigm shift” on immigration, Denmark took a perhaps less symbolic but more substantial step on asylum.

The policy shift, marked by a bill that was passed in parliament and still pursued by the current government, means that all laws passed on asylum are done so with a view to sending refugees home at some later time when their home country is deemed “safe”: in other words, all refugees are considered to have temporary status in Denmark.

The policy has led to a series of controversial rulings by immigration authorities to revoke the refugee status of people from the Damascus area of Syria. Many individual cases were reported by Danish media and a significant number of the decisions have been reversed.

Denmark continues to take in one of Europe’s lowest numbers of refugees, meanwhile, and Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen has said the country’s target should be to accept no asylum seekers at all.

Family reunification

The Danish government last week said it would ease rules so that Danish nationals moving back home after spells living abroad will face fewer obstacles if they have foreign spouses and children.

The decision came after scores of reports in Danish newspapers, notably Politiken and Ekstra Bladet, told of absurd individual cases. Some of these cases involved a refusal of family reunification claims because the Danish partner – born, raised and schooled in Denmark – failed to meet a Danish language requirement despite Danish being their mother tongue.

READ ALSO: Danish family reunification rules panned in report as Danes fail language test

While that rule will now be tweaked, other strict demands remain in place for Danish-foreign couples hoping to set up home in Denmark.

The controversial “bank guarantee” in which couples must deposit a large lump sum with authorities, is yet to be adjusted despite the coalition government stating an intention to do so after taking office last year.

Another one of the myriad rules on family reunification is the 24-year-rule, preventing couples from seeking family reunification until they reach that age. The Local has previously spoken to a couple who have fallen afoul of this rule.

Work permits

Denmark has eased its work permit rules to an extent since the current centrist coalition government was elected a year ago.

This includes permanently reducing the minimum wage requirement to be granted a work permit under its Pay Limit Scheme, and a recent decision to allow foreigners working for subsidiaries of Danish companies to work in Denmark for short periods without a work or residency permit.

READ ALSO: How have work permit rules been changed in Denmark?

While the government – or parts of it – has shown a willingness to ease its work permit rules in the face of desperate calls for foreign labour from businesses, reports of individual cases continue to paint a picture of zealous implementation of labyrinthine rules which appear to deprive the public and private sectors of well-integrated, qualified workers.

These include people ordered to leave Denmark because, for example, their marriage has ended, because of a mistaken wage calculation by case officers or because authorities simply say they don’t believe an applicant’s wage is genuine, which they are allowed to do under existing work permit rules.

These rejections invariably include short-notice orders to leave Denmark, even if the rejected person has lived in the country for many years and does not have a home anywhere else.