I didn’t grow up in an orderly middle class family with cosy Sunday lunches, people laughing and talking. I was brought up in a shabby cottage outside a remote Danish village, with cold water and a lavatory in the back garden. Hot dogs were a special treat on Sundays. My mum and stepdad were always drunk and didn’t work – they lived off benefits. It was not the sort of environment that teaches you universal moral values and ethics.
And yet, I learned – mostly from my three brothers – that people look after one another. We help each other. Even if we don’t have much, even if we wear hand-me-downs to school and dig up raw potatoes for dinner, we still help each other. It’s when life is tough and your back is to the wall that we matter the most to each other.
When I was introduced to the Bible and Christian teachings as a teenager – nobody ever took me to church as a child – I learned the story about the good Samaritan. I knew what that meant already. Where I grew up, if you saw somebody walking along the road and you were fortunate enough to have a car, you stopped and offered them a lift. That was normal – it’s what we all did.
My brothers were removed from our family home one at a time and put into institutions. All three turned to crime and drug abuse. Two are dead, much too young; the third has AIDS. They never had a real chance at life. Not really. The abuse and the beatings they took at home – they protected me from that – crippled their hearts, their minds and their souls.
For some reason I managed to escape and make it through school. I graduated from the University of Copenhagen as an economist, and got a job at Danske Bank, the largest bank in Denmark. At school I was lucky enough to meet good people, who understood how to coach the aggressive and emotionally disturbed young girl that I was – believe me, it was no easy task. At one institution for especially difficult girls, I met Karen, who saw through my anger and loathing, and was patient enough that I eventually came to trust her. She became my mentor. Today, thirty-four years later, she still is. She was the person who pushed me on to university – I would never have thought it possible without her.
Some years ago I received an invitation from the Danish Social Minister. It was strange – I had never been invited to coffee with a member of the government before, but of course I said yes. The minister wanted to know if I would chair the Children’s Council in Denmark, the equivalent of the Children’s Ombudsman in other countries. I was astounded – I didn’t even know what the Children’s Council was at the time. So I called Karen. She wasn’t surprised at all. ‘Well, I actually thought you’d be perfect as the next CEO of Denmark’s Radio and Television (the Danish BBC),’ she told me, ‘But Children’s Ombudsman, that’s pretty good too.’
Karen always believed that I could do anything. She’s a follower of the developmental psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner, who writes: ‘In order to develop normally, a child requires progressively more complex joint activity with one or more adults who have an irrational emotional relationship with the child. What do I mean by “irrational emotional relationship”? Well, somebody’s got to be crazy about that kid.’ I think that’s Bronfenbrenner’s way of saying ‘love’. Which is a difficult thing to implement in a professional institution where many children would never have experienced it at home. But Karen managed it for me.
And so I became the chair of Denmark’s Children’s Council. It was a chance to make a difference, and took me from an anonymous business career to debating social policy in the national media. I launched a campaign to improve the conditions for socially challenged children in Denmark; wrote a book about my childhood, to share what it’s like on the dark side of the welfare society; and even ended up in a documentary – My Childhood in Hell. In short, I threw myself into the job, and loved every minute of it.
After three years I decided to establish my own company non-profit, The House of Zornig, dedicated to developing better ways to help troubled families – not just the children, but parents, too. And that’s what I still do today. I don’t want any more children to end up like my brothers. I don’t want anyone to have to live through what I did.
Part of my work is giving presentations around the country, talking about my own experiences, trying to inspire people to do what Karen did for me, and promoting more effective social initiatives. On Monday, 7 September 2015, I was in southern Denmark, close to where I grew up, making one of these presentations. That was the day the great wave of refugees hit Denmark. Thousands of people fleeing the war in Syria had made their way through Europe, many of them heading for Sweden, where the Prime Minister at the time was welcoming them. I heard on the news that hundreds of refugees had entered Danish territory from Puttgarten in Germany on the ferry to Rødbyhavn, and were now walking towards Sweden. It’s a long walk: about 160 kilometres. And it was a hot day. To get to Sweden, you need to go to Copenhagen, and cross over from there. I was headed towards Copenhagen already, and I had six empty seats in my car. So?
I went to Rødbyhavn and was met with scenes that I’d never seen before in Denmark. There were refugees everywhere. Complete chaos. Adults, children, single mothers, teenagers, wary people with tired faces, most of them with just small plastic bags containing their belongings; some with nothing but the clothes they wore. Those faces. Not desperate but stern. Weary. Committed. I phoned Mikael, my husband, and said: ‘Listen, I’m going to offer some of them a lift.’ He said: ‘But of course you are. Bring them home, I’ll make coffee.’
We weren’t sure if it was legal to offer the refugees a lift, so Mikael called the police to ask. They didn’t know, they said. Nobody seemed prepared for what was unfolding. At the scene there were a lot of police. They didn’t stop the refugees from walking towards Sweden. So I parked the car and spotted a group of six, among them two small girls who turned out to be five years old. Sweet children, but very quiet – I wondered what they had seen.
I asked them if they wanted a ride. They did. There was a policeman standing next to my car, and I asked him if he was going to stop me. He said no. While the refugees were climbing into the car a TV journalist came over and filmed us. I explained that I had empty seats, and that I was offering them a lift. And off we went.
We have a house in Solrød Strand, just south of Copenhagen, and I took the family there with me. The girls immediately fell asleep in the car – they had been traveling for forty days: on foot, by train and on bus. They had lost all their belongings when they crossed the Mediterranean to Greece, and had nothing left but the clothes on their back. They were from Damascus. One of them, Younes, had studied pharmacology at university. His brother was a physiotherapist. They were leading a normal life, working and studying, when the bombs started to fall and destroyed their home. Their father was already in Sweden with a brother, living in Helsingborg, and that’s where they were headed.
We got to Solrød Strand and Mikael was ready with coffee, soda and cinnamon buns. We talked and offered them a place to rest, dinner and a good night’s sleep. They politely declined – they just wanted to get to Sweden as quickly as possible. It had been a long journey and they were very close now. So my husband offered them a lift to the train station on the Danish side of the border. He bought them tickets to Helsingborg and made sure they got on the right train. A few hours later we got a call from their father. He was overjoyed, and grateful.
That was good. But we also felt bad. We had done so little, and yet it had meant so much to these six people. We could see on the news that hundreds of refugees were still on the roads, and more were coming. We thought about driving more people, but we realised that would just be a drop in the ocean. So we turned to Facebook and wrote about what we had done; we wrote about the family, ordinary people in desperate circumstances. And we asked other people to help. Our post was instantly shared by thousands – we later estimated that it had probably reached 300,000 people. Hundreds of cars headed towards Rødbyhavn to help. Our Facebook page was flooded by requests. ‘I’m going – where are they?’ ‘We have SUVs, where do we pick them up?’ ‘I have housing and food, bring them here.’ ‘I have a boat, I can take fifty to Sweden.’ Even a former Government minister called. He said he’d like to pay for busses to go and pick up refugees, which would be more efficient. Mikael called a bus company and asked if he could rent a number of busses. ‘Are they for refugees?’ the man in charge asked. Mikael said yes, expecting a no. ‘You can have my busses, there’s no charge,’ he said. That was wonderful, but we had no bus drivers. So we asked for volunteers on Facebook, and immediately we had more drivers than busses.
All that happened on the Monday. The next day the police issued a statement declaring that giving rides to refugees was illegal. That scrapped the bus idea. Many people continued to drive south to offer people lifts, regardless. The consensus was that we do not accept that refugees from a war, people in distress, have to walk on the highways in Denmark and sleep in the open, when so many of us have cars and beds. Some used the term civil disobedience, infuriated by the statement from the police. On Wednesday, the police again changed their position. Now, it was no longer illegal – now people offering lifts were merely ‘leaning towards breaching the law’. And at the same time the police allowed the refugees they had detained in Rødbyhavn, to travel freely. All were let go and picked up by waiting cars to be driven towards Copenhagen. After that, refugees were allowed to travel freely through Denmark to Sweden, where they were welcomed – until it became too much and they closed their borders.
Things calmed down. Instead of offering the refugees a lift, hundreds of civilian volunteers manned the train stations from Hamburg in Germany to Malmö in Sweden to keep the refugees safe, and make sure they had tickets for Sweden. Thousands of people were donating money, time, clothes and food for what came to be known as operation Safe Corridor.
Along the way, the footage of the refugees climbing into my car made the news. I was interviewed and invited to a debate with a member of the Dansk Folkeparti, who are vehemently anti-immigration. I was accused of shamelessly publicising myself on Facebook and on TV. Another politician asked how I could know whether the people I helped were carrying bombs. My Facebook page was flooded with hate mail. I was called a traitor, an idiot and a Muslim-lover. People sent pictures of guns, or obscene scenarios of what they would like ten African men to do to me.
This was in September. The following month my husband and I were contacted by the police. They were investigating us on the charge of people smuggling, and wanted us to come in for questioning. Actually, I think the correct term is interrogation. I turned up at the police station and answered a lot of questions about what I had done. It was a strange experience, to be interrogated by the police. It turned out that about fifteen people had filed complaints against me – five or six had filed complaints against my husband. One had even been in our garden and peeked through the windows of the living room to be certain ours was the house where refugees had been sheltered. The police did not initiate the investigation by themselves, they did it because of the number of complaints from Danish citizens.
In judicial terms our crime consisted of aiding, transporting and harbouring persons without valid travel documents. That’s the lift and the coffee. I had to ask what ‘valid travel documents’ meant. They explained that it is a valid passport and a valid visa. I was not aware of the law, and the idea of asking the family for valid travel documents never entered my mind. I have never asked anybody for valid travel documents before when offering them a lift. And when we had asked the police at the time – both by phone and at the site – none of them had mentioned anything about valid travel documents. Even if they had presented Syrian passports to me, I wouldn’t have been able to judge whether they were valid or not.
Time passed. We visited the Syrian family in Helsingborg just before Christmas. They were doing well and learning Swedish fast in order to commence their studies and find jobs. My husband connected them to a Swedish family who were happy to provide support and help them learn the language. On our visit they served lots of wonderful Arabic food – and a plate of cinnamon buns. We thought that was sweet and funny. But best of all, for the first time I saw the girls smile.
On 11 March, we had our day in court. The prosecutor was unable to locate the policeman my husband talked to, while the policeman I talked to did not recollect our conversation. The prosecutor suggested a combined fine of DKK 45,000 (about £4,000), or fourteen days in prison. Our lawyer stressed that what we had done was motivated by humanitarian reasons and that the circumstances were extraordinary – the police had not known what to do and the Government was quiet on the subject. It took the judge about twenty minutes to consider before he passed his verdict, which was in accordance with the prosecutor’s suggestion.
I was angry. Outside, the media was waiting, and I told them I was angry. Angry about being criminalized for acting with simple human decency. ‘We are not people smugglers,’ I told them. ‘We are ordinary people helping fellow human beings in distress.’ Many other people were angry – astonished, even – and journalists from all over the world were soon in touch: the Guardian, the Independent, the BBC, Reuters, Associated Press, Al Jazeera, the Washington Post, El Pais, El Mundo – Swedish, Finnish, Norwegian, German, Dutch and Canadian media outlets all wanted to tell the story of the Danish court order that criminalized ordinary human decency.
We were not surprised by their interest. The judgement challenged universal human values, the simple drive to help people in distress. Most of us, regardless of religion, are brought up with a set of values that underlines the importance of doing just this. Even I, growing up in a socially dysfunctional home on the wrong side of the tracks, had learned that. This is what we teach our children.
When a Danish court punishes people for helping refugees, it contradicts our core human values. This is especially poignant in a country known for its universal welfare system, designed to help everyone in need. I never knew that decency, generosity, charity – whatever you choose to call it – was reserved for people with valid travel documents.
What message does the judgment send to our children? Just hours after the court order was passed, a young man called us about some hungry refugees he had met on the street in Copenhagen. Fearing legal repercussions, he didn’t know whether he should help them or not. That’s what the judgment teaches our children. We used to teach them that helping Jews flee to Sweden during World War II was a heroic effort. How things have changed.
We appealed the judgment, and the case went to the Danish High Court. Our anger was shared by many people. A Danish jazz musician, Benjamin Koppel, set up a fundraiser to cover the fine. Contributions pored in. Within a few days people had donated more than DKK 160,000 (£15,000), far exceeding the target. Most of the donations were small, but there were many of them. We saw this as a public demonstration against the court order – our opponents, however, attacked the fund, claiming that is was illegal. They reported us to the tax authorities. I have never met so much hatred as I have in this period – for helping refugees. The fund was all in good order. We decided to use the money to help pay the fines of others who have been persecuted for doing the same thing we did. There are hundreds – some are young students, some pensioners, some have large families and little to spare. Any surplus is donated to unaccompanied child refugees.
Surprisingly, there was almost no political reaction to our case. One parliamentarian on the far left did criticize the judgment, but otherwise nobody commented. The question of changing the law, or challenging it, was not raised. But anti-Muslim sentiments are very strong in Denmark today, and people vote accordingly. Kindness towards Muslims scares away voters, so there is no room for kindness in government. On the contrary, measure after measure is being taken to make the life of the refugees as miserable as possible. People are housed in tents, even in winter, even though better accommodation is available. The refugees are searched for valuables when they enter Denmark, and met with ludicrous demands when applying for asylum, reunion with their families or permanent citizenship. The Danish government has published ads in Middle Eastern newspapers warning refugees to stay away from our country. To me it seems that we have sacrificed the human decency Danish society is built on.
To put our court order in perspective, a Danish man who spat on refugees passing below a motorway bridge received a fine of DKK 5,000 (£450). While it should be recognized that our legal system still finds it a criminal offense to abuse people in distress – hooray for small victories – it also shows that spitting on refugees is a milder offense than helping them.
On 21 September 2016 the Danish High Court ruled on our appeal. The verdict was upheld. We now know that it is a criminal offence to help refugees in distress on Danish highways, even if it’s just a lift down the road or a cup of coffee, no matter what the circumstances. We will try to take our case to the Danish Supreme Court.
We must continue discussing the refugee situation, and how our society and the countries around Europe should react to the human disaster currently unfolding in Syria. How many people are we able to help, and where, and how, should we help them? This is a debate with many questions and seemingly few answers. Refusing to help the people standing right in front of us, needing care and assistance, corrupts our moral values and perceptions about decency and common humanity. It is a dangerous path to choose. It breeds a cynicism that may well poison the remnants of solidarity in Denmark, and actually unravel the social fabric that some of our opponents, in a misguided way, are actually trying to protect. Right now, too many people are quietly looking on while our core values are being undermined, because defending them may prove too expensive in terms of public opinion. I thought we were better than that. Really, I did.
The Danish state church is Protestant, and we call ourselves Christians. We tell our children the story about the good Samaritan who did not turn his back. We demand that immigrants in our country learn, and adopt, our Danish values. So how are they expected to understand that in Denmark we punish people for compassion?
My husband and I could not have acted differently. It would have been a betrayal of everything we hold dear and believe in, including what we teach our children.
Photograph © Markus Spiske