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A long way from Slagelse

All that Anna Karina knew about Greenlanders was that life in Denmark was difficult for them. She doesn’t live with her own Greenlandic family but with a foster famliy in Slagelse. A donation from Egmont Foundation changed her outlook.   

By Sisse Sejr-Nørgaard. 

A pretty, white confirmation dress hangs on a dressmaker’s dummy in a corner of Anna Karina’s room. There are matching shoes, and everything is wrapped in plastic, ready for the big day. But she never ended up wearing it. Anna Karina Matthiasen is 15 and like most girls her age. She loves music, has posters of her idols on her walls and enjoys playing the guitar. And although – like a lot of young people – she wears a black trench coat, jeans and a shirt, she is one of a kind at her school in Slagelse. Because Anna Karina is Greenlandic.

‘It’s a bit tiresome always being asked which Asian country I come from. And yes – at one stage I did listen to an awful lot of Korean pop music. But let me make this clear: I come from Greenland.’   

Since Anna Karina was 18 months old, her foster mother Ina Fried has been her primary guardian. They do not resemble each other. Whereas Ina has a big head of curly red hair, round eyes, fine pale skin and long legs, Anna Karina has thick, black, straight hair, round rosy cheeks and narrow eyes, and she is the shortest girl in her class, despite being the eldest. That is just how it is – and always has been.

Ever since Anna Karina was a child and her mother piled her, the other kids and the suitcases into the minibus for holidays, passers-by could watch all the fair-haired children come tumbling out – and then Anna Karina with her black hair would emerge. She stood out, but she belonged, and that was that.   

Greenlanders like beer
 
Being a Greenlander in Denmark is not exotic, hip or particularly attractive. The magazines are not full of famous Greenlanders or glowing stories from the coldest outposts of the Danish kingdom. And Anna Karina’s perception of her homeland was also coloured by her experience of Greenlanders in Denmark. 

‘I thought of Greenlanders as people who lived in Copenhagen, saw only other Greenlanders, always had money problems and were over-fond of beer,’ she explains.

She dearly loves her Greenlandic family in Copenhagen, but she does not live with them. Life simply did not turn out like that. So foster mother Ina was pleased when Anna Karina’s mind started whirring with thoughts about her upcoming confirmation. Because after Anna Karina’s party invitations had been sent, they got a reply from Greenland. Anna Karina’s half-brother, Finn, wanted to come. She had never met Finn. She knew of his existence, but had never dreamt of a relationship with him. He lived in Greenland, a country infinitely far away from Slagelse and costlier to visit than Anna Karina could ever imagine saving up for. But suddenly she was going to meet him. And although the white dress with the elegant matching shoes was ready, the West Greenlandic national dress suddenly held far more allure. The costume her three older sisters had worn. And Anna Karina realised in a flash that she was not going to resemble the others in her class.  

‘I don’t look like all the others on an ordinary day, so why should I on such a special day?’  

The white dress never left its plastic wrapping. Her meeting with Finn changed something in her. He had travelled alone from Greenland just to see her, and the three days they spent together sparked a longing in Anna Karina for more.   

Pale-skinned dreamer on a real adventure 
Drømmenbanken (The Bank of Dreams) was the answer. Together with her foster mother Ina, Anna Karina sent her wish to Drømmebanken and Mødrehjælpen, that distributes aid donated by Egmont Foundation. Just over six months later she found herself in the tiny airport of Aasiaat, tired, cold and excited. Ahead was an encounter with a culture she had written off, but it amazed her.    

‘I thought everyone would stare at me. I felt like a pale-skinned girl from Denmark. I feel as though I have blue eyes and fair skin. But up there everyone spoke Greenlandic to me. I was just one of them, which felt super-weird.’    

Although the trip was planned as a holiday, Ina nonetheless persuaded Anna Karina to visit a school. And the visit was a great experience. Being dyslexic, it was one thing for Anna Karina at last to be the best at Danish, but what awaited her when the break bell rang was quite another.  

Smartphone on ice
‘They get together in a completely different way. When it was break-time, they didn’t automatically get out their phones. They chatted, laughed, played and got some food together,’ Anna Karina says.    

‘At home my classmates are much more anti-social. They get out their phones and that’s it. After school, they go out skateboarding and listen to music. But because children in Greenland are born into a hunting community, they depend on each other. So they can’t just pull out their phones. They don’t learn to use an iPad, but to skin a seal. They go fishing or hunting. They shoot a reindeer and eat its heart so its spirit can go on living through them. I think that’s so cool!’    

And then there was the feeling of meeting her brother. Although Finn does not speak Danish like she does, they were still fairly similar. Both play the guitar, which no-one else in their family does; they have the same eyes; and when they concentrate, they both curl their tongues in the same way. However, Finn was not the only relative she met.    

‘I thought people in Greenland led hard lives. Primarily socially, because that’s how things are at home. The Greenlanders I’ve met, apart from my younger siblings, have had a tough time. My mother and oldest sister had difficulty assimilating to Danish society. They live in an expensive little flat and always have financial problems. But when I met my family in Greenland, I found their world was completely different,’ Anna Karina explains.    

‘I visited my father’s sister. She lived in a big house with under-floor heating, she had an aura of exclusive Gucci perfume about her, wore expensive musk mitts and was just … well, yes … she slayed me,’ Anna Karina laughs.  

‘It was a complete contrast to Denmark, where all Greenlanders are always short of money. That’s what I’ve seen, that’s what I’ve heard. That was what I came from. But then I came to Greenland and saw that Greenlanders aren’t like that at all. That discovery gave me a sense of serenity. It was relaxing. I just felt … at home!’   

Calm under the fur coat
The Bank of Dreams gave Anna Karina more than a trip to Greenland. She finds it hard to express in words what she brought home. But she found a form of equanimity.
   
‘I was given a fur coat made from dog- and sealskin. I love it. It’s not like the long black trench coat I usually wear. No one else has one. To start with I felt uncomfortable wearing it, because I found it ugly. But since my trip to Greenland I think it’s cool and different. I don’t look like anyone else so why buy all the expensive clothes they wear? I would just be trying to look like a speck of black in the crowd. I’ve always stood out from everyone else. In the beginning, I didn’t think about it; I thought, of course, that I looked like the others. But my eyes are narrower, my cheeks are bigger, and I’m shorter. So now I play it up.’    

As well as keeping her warm, the coat means Anna Karina no longer has to answer questions about her origin.    

‘When I wear the coat, people know where I come from. I’m no longer Asian but Greenlandic. I’m tired of people asking where in Asia I come from. Naturally the Korean pop music didn’t make it easier for them. But now when they see me wearing sealskin, they don’t need to ask silly questions any more.’    

Anna Karina hopes she can visit her brother and the rest of Greenland again soon.    

Egmont Foundation has earmarked DKK 50 million as part of a five-year initiative, A Helping Hand, to help vulnerable children and their families coupled with a long-term initiative. Anna Karina received DKK 10,000. The aid is distributed by Mødrehjælpen, Red Cross, Children’s Aid Foundation and Norwegian Women's Public Health Association.