In this text, Ali Ali takes a critical look at the refugee and migrant community centre Trampoline House and shows how even a visionary project with the best intentions reproduces a power hierarchy with the West on top, when social transformation and empowerment are downgraded in favor of a focus on charity and emergency.
BY ALI ALI • ILLUSTRATION BY PATRICK RAVN • 2018
Class oppression, ethnic discrimination and gender inequality are interlinked aspects of contemporary unjust societal structures. Do we want to reproduce an unjust society in the name of survivalism and humanitarian emergency? Are we losing hope in social transformation and claiming that change is hard or even impossible? There is a crucial need to venture into new perspectives; to acknowledge that conventional ways of civilizing the Other are marked by blind inconsideration of the validity of other perspectives. To work honestly towards an egalitarian society requires valuing equality at each stage of the egalitarian struggle. Can there be patrons and subordinates in the struggle for equality?
The situation is dire, which makes us great!
Trampoline House is an independent community center located in Copenhagen. It focuses on refugee and migrant issues, with the mission of providing migrants in Denmark with a place of support, community and sense of purpose and belonging within the wider Danish society. It offers a range of services and activities such as legal counselling, educational programs and classes, which aim to break the social isolation experienced by refugees and asylum seekers. It is a venue where regular and irregular migrants as well as Danish citizens create a multicultural space. In theory, the mission of Trampoline House is not only to help forced migrants, but also to challenge the mainstream discourse on asylum and migration, which is characterized by the victimization and marginalization of forced migrants. Trampoline House started out of Asylum Dialogue Tank, a series of workshops held at asylum centres in 2009.
Administrator: […] we wanted to reverse the power dynamics, so we asked the asylum seekers to become experts, so that instead of the white people coming to save the asylum seekers they were the experts who needed to train the Danish participants. Obviously we knew that the Danish participants, they came with a lot of resources, and knowledge about this society (Danish society). […] So with their knowledge and our sort of practical expertise, maybe we could start up something like the Trampoline House.
In this interview from 2017, the words of the administrator still sound uplifting, but looking at the dynamics at the House leaves one in doubt. In reality, the circumstances seem to have favored discounting the social transformative part of the mission that aimed to challenge the power dynamics and change the discourse on migration and asylum. And the administration that in the beginning aimed at changing reality complied with it. By mainly presenting the House as a break from the terrible life at the asylum centres, members and administrators seem to have reduced the whole project of empowerment into a charity project, something that the founders did insist, from the beginning, it would not be. Apparently, faced with a considerable challenge of having to appeal to a wider segment of society for support, the House chose to endorse itself as a rescue project for forced migrants, and compromised its potential for social transformation. And the administration not only admits this fact, but also uses it to justify the shift in focus. The claim now is that the dire situation of asylum seekers imposes other necessities.
Administrator: Because sometimes, if someone arrives from a camp, he or she could be really traumatized and having a hard time contributing much. Instead they need to sort of rest and get sort of stability in life and feel like, “oh I’m actually wanted here, I’m not, like you don’t treat me like dirt,” but that’s all they can do maybe, in the beginning.
I am a grateful victim with no agency
The statement of the administrator above reflects the mood at the House, which is rife with reminders of the dire situation and life circumstances of asylum seekers. In a promotional video for Trampoline House, several forced migrants speak about the unpleasant living conditions at the refugee camps, while the House is presented as a solution for their isolation. This narrative seems to chime with the forced migrants’ feelings of insecurity and makes them only grateful for the help they get, or at least feel the burden of the favor, so that they do not imagine themselves disagreeing.
Ali: How would you change this center if you were able to?
Babek: It is a hard question. I do not know exactly. Maybe add some programs.
Babek: [Changing his mind or retracting] They have everything. I have no imagination about how to change it. Everything is organised and there are good managers.
Babek is a Middle Eastern member of the House. Throughout the interview with Babek, it was hard not to notice that he was choosing answers that presented an acceptable image of himself – something he seems to engage in in the face of hostility and mistrust (at least as he perceives it). This was more clear by the end of the interview, when he insisted that the translator make sure I noted his emphasis on the ideals of the rule of civil law, humanity and non-discrimination among religious and ethnic groups. Babek wanted to show that he learned his lesson on Western Modernity well. Babek’s desire for approval in an environment of hostility, and his endeavour to prove that he is neither harmful nor abnormal (in the Danish context), reflects a pattern at the House. In none of the interviews with asylum seekers did I witness an inclination to speak critically of or act proactively at the House.
Instead of taking a chance at being critical, the active contributions of forced migrants at the House seem to be mainly limited to shows of victimhood. At the weekly House Meetings, testifying victimhood seems to be the norm for forced migrants. At one of these meetings, one of the asylum seekers tried to invest in his precarious financial situation to demand free transportation tickets to one of the events taking place at the House.
Another asylum seeker took the opportunity to remind other members of the dire situation of people from his country who are suffering in war and poverty. He pointed out the unfairly selective attention to forced migrants depending on their country of origin. In another event at the House, an LGBT refugee member referred to the inhumane treatment asylum seekers are subjected to in the asylum system: “we are treated like animals; animals are better, we are treated like frogs”. Apparently, the role of victim not only traps individuals in an identity of subordination and passivity, but also imposes a simplistic depiction of the structural circumstance that led to the victimization. While the plight of asylum seekers and refugees in the asylum system is definitely not to be downplayed, the struggle to survive does not have to be reduced to shows of powerlessness and marginalization, and stop there. Instead of choosing to navigate away from their victimized status, forced migrants are required to capitalize on it in order to qualify for the support and help to which this status entitles them. In visAvis #8, the scholar Sara Ahmed argued that testifying to injury and suffering, which is required of asylum seekers to prove their eligibility, is a repetition of the injury.
It is not the incapacity of forced migrants to participate in a politically significant debate that keeps members trapped in passivity and victimhood. It is the dynamics of suppression that are sometimes too subtle, other times too obvious, that curb the shift to a more constructive dialogue. At one of the Trampoline House discussions termed as Democracy Workshops, one of the asylum seekers contributed by saying, “we asylum seekers come here [to the House] to learn democracy”. The moderator of the discussion, a Danish member who more often than not endorses democracy as an ongoing process of learning and mutual appreciation of claims, nodded in agreement. He failed to realize that the workshop was supposed to be about inclusion, sharing and participation, rather than about one specific group being disciplined and educated. Perhaps the moderator was phasing out because of the insignificance of the whole workshop for him. Or maybe he did not want to bother, because he did not see any consequence or hope in that. In any case, it would have been helpful to tell that grateful and diligent asylum seeker that democracy is learned in a shared process, and that he himself did have something to contribute with, and that there is no danger in knowing that or even acting on it.
Us aware and principled, them reactionary and unenlightened
Reduced to an underclass, forced migrants at the House still have to undergo another aspect of demoralization to bolster the identity of the more privileged members; cultural inferiority. These migrants mostly come from societies that are viewed as conservative, reactionary and incompatible with a progressive social transformation. Discourses characterized by Western superiority to Middle Eastern and Islamic societies could result in a sense of estrangement from the dialogical opportunity.
In the early days of Trampoline House, so-called gender discussions were held. Those discussions were a lively debate that brought much contribution and also showed much potential. The discussions stopped shortly after they started, because the management decided other issues have priority; Emergency. Now, the management of the fully-fledged organization seem to be content with mindfully reminding its more liberal female members to be decent in their clothes, in order not to attract undue attention from other members. Without having to directly refer to Middle Eastern migrants, the liberal women can easily recognize these thanks to stereotypes and mainstream media. The women keep their guard up, while issues of gender, race and stereotypes (and even discrimination) can wait until further notice, under a mask of good spirit. But issues unravel easily when one looks just a little closer.
Katarina, one of the ex-interns at the House, is an example of how the congenial inter-ethnic relations could take a funny twist. Katarina, a self-proclaimed “anarchist feminist”, showed stark ethnocentrism in her statements. When asked about the dynamics of dialogue with Middle Eastern men about her polyamorous lifestyle, Katarina seems to idealize her attitude and argument in relation to the attitude of her Middle Eastern male discussants, whom she presents as reactionary, less enlightened and lacking the rational critical pattern of thinking:
Katarina: […] they usually tell me like that it’s interesting, that they didn’t know so much about [polyamory].
Me : But they know about polygyny right?
Katarina: Yeah, but they didn’t know for example the reasons for it behind […] its ideology kind of thing – it’s about – if you are polyamorous you don’t have to have several partners, you can have just two – but you do it because you think that everybody has freedom […].
Katarina accredits herself with an ideological background and commitment that underpins an attitude and a lifestyle, while denying that to her Middle Eastern peers. Added to that, she shows no significant interest in inspecting their attitude more deeply. Instead, she seems to enjoy setting her image as a progressive woman against a background of ideologically underperforming Middle Eastern men. Her behaviour and attitude – and her depiction of the situation – are not uncommon at the House and they betray a high degree of Orientalism. Especially when the whole project of Trampoline House is reduced to a friendly atmosphere where migrants are not “treated like dirt” – we end up with very little interest in depth or transformation.
The historian John McLeod has shown how the status of inequality puts Middle Easterners in a passive position where they need to conform to the perceived higher moral standards upheld in the West. This aspect seems to be reproduced even in organizations that strive to alleviate the marginalization and subordination of migrants and refugees, as one can see from the example of Trampoline House. Again, as much as the House claims or strives to differ from other organizations, it seems to reproduce a well-established tradition. Policy-makers and Western social scientists assume a dichotomy between liberty and Islam, which according to scholars such as Frédéric Volpi denies any transformative potential within Muslim societies. This estrangement of Middle Eastern and Muslim individuals from the gender-egalitarian project – and reformist projects in general – sets them, from the beginning, on an unequal footing with individuals belonging to the host society. Assumptions of cultural superiority subject forced migrants to an assimilation process that could reduce them to passive defendants in their endeavour to achieve basic social acceptance. It pressures them to testify the level they assimilate to the acclaimed ideology and behaviour in the host society with little critical evaluation or genuine identity reconsideration. But social change is not imposed or learned; it is an endeavour that requires collaboration and dialogue.
In discordance with the mainstream belief, several scholars challenge the assumed dichotomy between liberty and Islam. They advocate a view that recognizes a degree of flexibility in Islam that allows it to accommodate gender-egalitarian projects and initiatives. Anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod argues that transformative feminist currents have happened within an Islamic paradigm and within the very structure of Islam. Modern examples also prove the possibility of more liberal currents in Islam. Outspokenly homosexual imams in both the United States and Europe not only present role models with subversive potential to mainstream perceptions of Muslims, but also showcase the engagement of these imams in a constructive dialogue. Cases of internally critical discourses are crucial in the endeavour to challenge gender inequality, because they bridge the divide between cultures without assuming the superiority of any.
Who is right, who is wrong?
It is not a competition. It is an attempt to build a harmonious society. And if there is a way out, it is negotiated; not preached, not dictated. In order for a transformative dialogue to happen there needs to be mutual recognition between different participants. The subordination of Othered individuals and cultures tends to disadvantage them and discredit their views. But most importantly, it fetters their sense of engagement in the endeavour for a just society.
With its less formal environment, Trampoline House has managed to make a relative break with the usual behaviour of refugee and asylum NGOs by engaging with asylum seekers and refugees in patterns that transcend mere bureaucratic provision of help and services. Instead of subscribing to a pure charity project, the House makes the relation between ethnic and national groups more personal and less bureaucratic. However, bringing the different groups into contact is only a step towards transformative dialogue. Discourses of care and help can be twisted in an essentialist way that leads to a static multiculturalism, rejecting social change.
Oppressive social structures deny the potential of change, endeavouring to sustain themselves by instilling scepticism about social transformation and the possibility of alternatives. Then we sustain discriminatory solutions as momentary succour, just to contribute to the system that creates this very emergency and reproduces it on a higher level later. If we fall into thinking that the circumstances impose timid solutions that stop short of profound social change, we get trapped into reproducing the foundation of these circumstances – a foundation centred on a dogmatic belief in the passive victimhood of the unprivileged and cultural superiority of the West over the rest. Perhaps recognizing the agency of forced migrants, and their ability to engage in a constructive social dialogue, is already a big move against the structures that underpin their plight and victimhood.
This is the road of transformative dialogue, and these are its barriers: timidity, victimization and conceit. Together they buttress a static world of inequality, where the privileged flaunt their monopoly over offhand experimentation within empowerment projects, while the disadvantaged slowly wither in admiration.
The names used above are pseudonyms. The text is based on Ali Ali’s master’s thesis, Barriers on the Road of Transformative Dialogue (University of Lund, 2017).
Abu-Lughod, L. (2001) “Orientalism” and Middle East Feminist Studies. Feminist Studies, Vol. 27, Iss. 1, pp. 101-113.
Ahmed, S. & Nimand Duvå, L. (2013) Those Who Tend to Cause Trouble. visAvis: Voices on Asylum and Migration, No. 8, pp. 64-67.
McLeod, J. (2000) Beginning Postcolonialism. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Volpi, F. (2011) Political Islam Observed. New York: Routledge.