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The alumni — Tarek Hussein has given himself a cooling-off period after years of public debate. He is now an NGO director, and speaks here about a career that is going in »a billion« directions.
For a long time, like almost everyone with an Arab background in Denmark, I thought I was going to be a doctor. In my third year of secondary school, with exams approaching, I found out however that this wasn’t, quite, me. Blood and surgeries didn’t really seem attractive. What should I study then, I thought, and reached out for the next cliché: Should I choose law or political science? I ended up in law because it stood out to me as a specific craft that you learn to master. This also turned out to be the case, because law can be applied to all aspects of life. When I started I — like most of my fellow students — thought I would end up litigating in a courtroom. As my studies progressed, I discovered that you can use law in many different ways.
In minority ethnic circles [in Denmark, ed.] we talk about ‘ALI’ programmes. This means lawyer (‘Advokat’), medical (‘Læge’) and engineering (‘Ingeniør’) programmes, which are very prestigious in our parents’ home countries. And these professions are associated with job security and a high salary. It’s a combination of all these things that sends many minority-ethnic young people in these directions. But there is a big trend happening right now. It has become more socially acceptable to study all kinds of things. I have three siblings and they all study very different things, which would be completely unthinkable ten years ago. Among my siblings’ friends, I have also noticed that people have started studying everything from creative subjects to the humanities. People used to look down on this.
Born in Horsens (Denmark) in 1992, but grew up in Vejle.
Master of Law, and graduated in 2019 from Aarhus University and the University of Copenhagen
Released in 2018 his book “Det sorte skæg – om at være dansk muslim” [‘The black beard – about being a Danish Muslim’] by the publisher Gyldendal.
Director of the Danish Refugee Council’s youth chapter (DFUNK)
I moved to the University of Copenhagen (UCPH) from Aarhus University a year and a half into my bachelor’s degree in law. The teaching on the law programme in Copenhagen took place in five different inner city locations before the faculty moved out to South Campus. It did have its charm. And it was cool to go to lectures just off the main Copenhagen pedestrian street. But I did miss the sense of having a campus like what I knew from Aarhus University. I do have a feeling however that things might have been different if I had been involved from day one. If I was a part of a class where you had an interest in getting to know each other. I still think it is hard to tell whether they have hit the bullseye in terms of a social study environment. This was the intention of South Campus.
I have never had the need to find a social circle at university. I have a group of friends that dates back to early childhood, and we are still friends. I think this applies to many people who have a non-Danish ethnic background. A lot of my ethnically Danish friends end up having friends who they met at university for the rest of their lives
If you study law, chances are you are from the upper-middle or upper-class. I had an instructor who asked in a lecture hall how many people there had parents who earned more than a million Danish kroner a year. And there was a huge number compared to the rest of society. This has an impact on the dynamics that arise on a study programme. This does not necessarily mean that people have bad intentions, but it does mean that you move in circles that are much more closed off than others.
I had a meeting with a UCPH student who told me that I was the first person from a different ethnic background that he had ever sat down and talked to.
After graduating, I worked at the Ministry of Justice for three years as a clerk, and it was an excellent experience. As a law graduate, this is probably one of the best places you can end up to get further training in the real world. It was really exciting for me to get up close to the engine room of politics and to see how the law works together with politics. I was really just thrown into it. As part of the basic training in the Ministry of Justice, you have to be a morning clerk, and I had to appear as a prosecutor one day a week at a police district. Really exciting!
I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t know that my studies went well. I got really good grades, and I have an unusual CV now, because after graduating I’ve had ten, crazy, years where I’ve done a billion things. I have been a part of the public debate, I have published a book by the Gyldendal publisher, and I have been part of various forums, both in Denmark and abroad. I know that I have a unique profile because it’s not just law, so after graduating I found myself in a privileged position where my problem was to figure out what I wanted to spend my time on. It can be difficult when you have a lot of options. Today I am the director of an NGO. I’ve probably always had a dream of ending up in an NGO, but I had an idea that it would take a few more years before it happened.
It was really healthy for me to serve under a minister with whom I did not necessarily agree with politically, but where I still had to deliver the best possible product in terms of the casework. It sharpened my own arguments and my own way of thinking. You find out that those on the other side are not necessarily bad people. They just have a different political opinion – so let’s have a debate about it. There are a lot of people on the political left who could learn something from this. This is a piece of advice that I share with my colleagues in DFUNK, where I am currently director. When you’re a part of an NGO, you can develop a very black-and-white worldview. You become a part of a silo where all your friends and acquaintances have the same perception of how things should be. This doesn’t mean that this worldview is wrong, but it’s good to be challenged. If you want to sharpen your own arguments and your own case, it is important to understand your political opponents. In this way, it was really healthy for me to try to work under different ministers.
I had a meeting with a UCPH student who told me that I was the first person from a different ethnic background that he had ever sat down and talked to. He had grown up north of Copenhagen with parents who were lawyers or attorneys, and it was his world. We often speak of parallel societies among ethnic minorities, but they also exist among parts of the Danish upper class. I thought that our generation had been to the same school classes as each other across ethnic lines, but there are still young people who have never talked to someone like me. I found this crazy.
In the beginning I thought it would be an advantage for me to have been active in the public debate, because it gave me some tools and networks when I needed to get a job. It would be like this in many other industries. But I quickly realized that the law sector is the most conservative sector of all. My background in the public debate is actually a big minus. I recently realised that I may never get to work with law in its pure form again. The law gives me a good background when consultation responses arrive in my inbox, but it takes up very little of my working day. It was a revelation for me that what had made up such a large part of my identity, and which I have spent six and a half years studying, suddenly only comes in second.
As the director of an NGO, I can no longer speak as a private individual. There will be situations where I have to speak out because of my work, and with that comes great responsibility. If I’m in the public eye one Saturday as director Tarek and speak out the next Saturday as private Tarek, people may have a hard time distinguishing between the two. For this reason, I have given myself a cooling-off period until people have gotten used to the fact that I now have a new role. And then I will definitely get involved in the debates related to my new position.