She left Denmark in order to find success here

Soulaima Gourani, 37, is a business consultant who advises some of Scandinavia’s biggest companies. She was born in Morocco to Moroccan father and Danish mother. She moved to Denmark as an infant.The Copenhagen Post spoke with her as part of our article on growing up half-Danish.

CPHPOST: Tell me what it was like growing up in Denmark?

SG: “It was terrible at times. It took me 14 years to be baptised for example.”

Did that have an effect on you?

“I was not proud of my background. I physically felt so different from everyone else. When I was six I actually tried to wash my face white.

“I was even ashamed of my name, to the point I baptised myself as Susanne. I was embarrassed to the point I didn’t want to be seen with my father.”

Did you ever experience any form of abuse?

“While we lived in Jegerup, for example, I was bullied to the point I had to change school. Even my Danish mother was bullied!

“I recall we would be rammed in supermarkets because I was the dark child sitting in the trolley chair.”

What about your father?

“My father was served pork and schnapps at some dinner, despite people full well knowing that he was Muslim. Since that point, he decided to leave his religion behind him, to make our lives easier in Denmark.”

When did you embrace your background?

“It wasn’t until I was 30 that I actually insisted on people using my real name ‘Soulaima’, and not my self-titled nickname ‘Sylle’.”

Were you brought up in a bi-cultural setting?

“I wasn’t taught Arabic, which is something I really do regret now. But my father thought that the greatest gift he could give me was the ability to speak Danish as soon as possible.”

Do you still feel like your appearance has an effect on the way people see you today? 

“It’s nowhere as bad as it was 30 years ago, but I firmly believe that I’ve only become ‘accepted into Danish society’, because I speak Danish fluently and am married to a Dane as well. 

“But even during TV or radio interviews, I usually get comments that refer to my racial background. I’m convinced I would never be where I am today had it not been for the Danish connections that I have.”

Do you feel like you’re more accepted outside of Denmark?

“I definitely feel more accepted abroad than I do here in Denmark.”

Why?

“Danish families expect their Danish children to marry other Danes. And if they do marry a foreigner, then they would preferably be of the better kind, like French, Spanish, German. But by no means a Muslim, or someone who really sticks out from the crowd. My mother-in-law found it very difficult to accept me into her family for example.

“To say it doesn’t exist, is to bury your head in the sand. I have a Swiss friend who has a double PhD, and just can’t seem to find work here.”

Do you feel like you’ve managed to prove disapproving Danes wrong, considering your successful career?

“Maybe. It wasn’t until I was 15 that I started to believe in myself. A teacher said once to me ‘You are the future. So take it with both hands.’

“But that didn’t help. I just couldn’t get work in Denmark. No one would hire me, and I was on the dole for a while.

“It wasn’t until a Norwegian IT firm recruited me that made me realise that people outside of Denmark wanted me, which then allowed me to fully realise my potential. I didn’t know the language or much about IT, but my Norwegian employers liked my ‘drive’.”

Which wouldn’t have happened in Denmark?

“In Denmark, you’re told to conform. Not excel. That’s why I advise unemployed Danes to leave Denmark and try working outside of the country. That’s what I did, and I ended up being ranked 12th in ‘Young Person/Entrepreneur in Denmark’ in 2004.” 

Is the Danish business world changing?

“There are no headscarf-wearing Muslim CEOs, and that won’t change in the next 20 years. What people need to realise is with exports increasing in Denmark, there’ll obviously be a greater demand for multi-lingual Danes and foreign workforce.

“And I’m very afraid of Denmark getting left behind. There seems to be a very introvert mentality that has gripped Danish society, which limits possibilities.”

What about your kids? Have they been discriminated against?

“No, they haven’t. But that’s probably because they have blue eyes. Plus they also have Danish names, but I’ve insisted they keep the Moroccan family name.

“We also try to make them aware of their mixed background by visiting Morocco occasionally.”

Has Denmark become more tolerant?

“I don’t think Danish society has generally become more tolerant. If a Dane were to have a Muslim friend for instance, their parents would probably be worried.

“And that won’t change until Danes actively become familiar with foreigners and develop relationship with them.”

So will your children go to a Danish school?

“My kids will definitely go to an international school. I feel like they have to be in an international environment. Danish will be their second language. Not their first.”