‘Love’s Refugees’ Feel Betrayed by Denmark

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Times Staff Writer

The train is sleek and fast that each night carries Christina Reves away from her country and toward her husband. It races through Denmark’s scattered marshes and clicks over a bridge and across the water, stopping 35 minutes later in Sweden.

Reves, a Dane, is married to Walid Badawi, an Egyptian. The couple -- and more than 1,200 like them -- will tell you that love knows no bounds until it encounters Danish immigration laws. This nation is increasingly anti-foreigner, and its strict marriage regulations are sending hundreds of culturally mixed couples into exile each year.

“I cross what is known as ‘Love Bridge’ every night to Sweden, and we joke that we’re love’s refugees,” said Reves, who is training in Copenhagen to be a real estate agent.


“I feel betrayed and sad. It’s not just the rightist politicians. It’s the Danish people too. We’ve become very small-minded. We’re such a rich country, but those of us who married foreigners can’t share it with our spouses.”

Suspicion of immigrants has helped propel the rise of the right-wing Danish People’s Party, which won 12% the vote in the last federal election and is a key member of the coalition government. The party’s platform, according to its website, is clear: “Denmark belongs to the Danes and its citizens must be able to live in a secure community ... developing only along the lines of Danish culture.”

The European Council in July criticized Denmark’s legislation on immigrants as a threat to human rights. The laws are a complicated mix of financial, housing, age and national loyalty requirements that critics say deter mixed marriages.

One of the most contentious provisions holds that both partners be at least 24.

Rightist politicians say the legislation prevents poor immigrants from overrunning the welfare system and protects Muslim girls from forced marriages, which Integration Minister Bertel Haarder has described as an “offense” to freedom. Immigrants and asylum-seekers make up about 8% of Denmark’s population of 5.3 million. Three percent of the population is Muslim, and the government has imposed some of Europe’s toughest restrictions on Islamic clerics.

The rights group Marriage Without Borders is active in Denmark and Sweden, and many couples are seeking to outmaneuver Danish laws. A Dane living in Sweden for two years is eligible for Swedish citizenship. With a Swedish passport, the native Dane can return to Denmark with his or her foreign spouse under the protection of European Union regulations.

“When you turn on the news in Denmark, all they talk about is democracy,” said Mohssine Boudal, a Moroccan married to a Dane and living in Sweden. “But look at our situation. We can’t live in Denmark. That’s not democratic at all. It’s a contradiction.”


Anti-immigration sentiment is spreading across a historically liberal northern Europe and Scandinavia, a region that these days worries about diluting national identities and funding the world’s most generous health and social programs. Attitudes toward foreigners have hardened since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and as records show a disproportionate number of immigrants committing crimes.

Danes in mixed marriages say they suffer discrimination that most Westerners seldom encounter. They move away from friends and family. Because they live in Sweden, they often cannot vote in Denmark, yet many of them pay as much as 38% of their wages in Danish taxes.

They are caught in an odd commuter existence, shuttling twice a day between Copenhagen and Sweden, weighing love and prejudice and the lost entitlements between.

Officials in Malmo, the Swedish city on the other end of the Love Bridge, estimate that 1,200 mixed-marriage couples from Denmark have migrated across the Oresund strait since 2002. Fifty to 60 more arrive in Sweden each month.

“It’s not Walid’s rights that have been violated here. It’s mine,” said Reves, who is the daughter of a bank executive and a pharmacist and grew up in an affluent Copenhagen suburb. “Europe has been at peace for 60 years. Most Danes haven’t suffered. They’ve forgotten about compassion. They don’t understand how foreigners struggle. Danes have become so frightened someone will take something from them.”

Reves met Badawi in 2001. He was living in Egypt and was visiting his father, who decades earlier had moved to Denmark as a guest worker. The couple married in Cairo in November 2003. Danish law required that if they wanted to live in Copenhagen, Reves would have to earn enough to support Walid, keep a balance of $8,600 in her bank account and have a permanent apartment. Mixed-marriage couples are not permitted to live with their families.


“I lost my patience,” said Reves, who studies and works in Copenhagen while Walid, who has an economics degree, works 70 hours a week as a cook in Malmo. “I said, ‘If they don’t want us, we’ll live somewhere else.’ I wouldn’t want to bring up children in a country like that.”

Bolette Kornum works as an “integration consultant” in a Denmark government office that assists foreigners with language classes and immigration and refugee issues, such as family reunification. She knows how difficult that can be. Kornum said she became exasperated in 2003 when she and her new Egyptian husband tried to move from Cairo to Denmark.

“I applied to get my husband in through family reunification and was told a decision would take eight to 10 months,” said Kornum, sitting at an outdoor restaurant as a breeze lifted off the Malmo coastline. “Then a lady informed me I wouldn’t get it anyway because I had spent so many years in Egypt that the Danes might question my allegiance to Denmark.”

“They wanted to know if her heart belonged to Egypt,” said Kornum’s husband, Osama Doss.

Kornum had studied and worked in Egypt for four years. She and Doss were married in 2001 -- the same year the Danish People’s Party gained momentum. The Danish government passed stricter marriage and asylum laws in 2002, and the couple decided to stay in Egypt. A year later, Kornum and Doss, a former car-parts dealer working on a master’s degree in electronic commerce, again tried to move to Denmark, but instead settled in Sweden.

“We don’t know what we’ll do now,” she said. “If the right wing stays in the coalition after next year’s election, I’ll stay in Sweden.”

A Christian who experienced discrimination in largely Muslim Egypt, Doss said he was accustomed to prejudice. “The Danish government is anti-Arab and anti-African,” he said. “This is the way we have to live.”


Tina Aalling cried the day the Danish government told her that she wasn’t eligible to vote in her native country. “I never thought in all my life this would happen,” said Aalling, who lives in Malmo with her Moroccan husband, Mohssine Boudal, and their 11-month-old son, Elias.

Aalling met Boudal on vacation in Spain in 2002. The son of an electrical engineer, Boudal speaks five languages and is well acquainted with the immigrant odyssey. He studied literature in Spain and moved to the Netherlands, where he worked for a shipping company. The couple kept a cross-border relationship; Aalling was studying in Denmark when she became pregnant. Boudal had to return to Morocco for three months before he was granted a Danish visa.

They married in October 2003 but couldn’t meet the financial and housing requirements of Danish law. They moved to Malmo several months later.

“I fell in love with a Danish citizen, and they gave us a hard time,” said Boudal, who takes Swedish-language courses and cares for Elias while Aalling teaches at a primary school in Denmark. “What can you do when you have that law in front of you? We needed stability. I felt bad as a man. I had a new baby and no work and no money.”

The other day, Aalling and Boudal sat on the couch in their apartment as Elias wandered amid his toys. They are divided about the future.

“I’m staying in Sweden,” Boudal said.

“I want to go back to Denmark, but I’m so bitter,” Aalling said.

Boudal smiled. “All this,” he said, “just to be together.”