How a failed social experiment in Denmark separated Inuit youngsters from their households

2022-01-17 23:49:40

Helene Thiesen was one in all 22 Inuiit youngsters separated from their households in Greenland 70 years in the past.

Editor’s observe: This story is a part of CNN’s dedication to protecting points round id, together with race, gender, sexuality, faith, class and caste.

Seven-year-old Helene Thiesen peered out from aboard the passenger ship MS Disko, figuring out she was setting sail from Greenland to a spot referred to as Denmark. What she couldn’t perceive is why her mom had chosen to ship her away on that sad day in 1951.

“I used to be so unhappy,” Thiesen, now 77 years previous, recalled to CNN. Inflexible with sorrow, Thiesen was unable to wave again to her mom and two siblings, who have been watching from the harbor off the coast of the Greenland capital, Nuuk. “I appeared into (my mom’s) eyes and thought, why was she letting me go?”

Thiesen was one in all 22 Inuit youngsters who have been taken from their houses not figuring out that they’d find yourself being a part of a failed social experiment. Aged between 5 and 9 years previous, lots of them would by no means see or stay with their households once more, turning into forgotten about and marginalized of their place of birth.

On the time, Greenland was a Danish colony, and Greenlanders have been affected by excessive ranges of poverty, low high quality of life and excessive charges of mortality, mentioned Einar Lund Jensen, a undertaking researcher on the Nationwide Museum of Denmark.


The Inuit youngsters are seen at an orphanage again in Greenland sporting outfits made for them after a go to from Queen Ingrid of Denmark. Thiesen says the ladies referred to as them their “princess clothes.”

Denmark’s goal was “to create little Danes who would turn out to be the intelligentsia; position fashions for Greenland,” mentioned Jensen, who co-authored a latest government-commissioned report investigating the experiment.

The Danish authorities felt compelled to modernize the arctic colony, hoping to carry onto their pursuits as post-war decolonization actions swept by the globe. They took up an concept from human rights group Save the Youngsters Denmark of bringing Inuit youngsters to the nation with a purpose to recuperate from what have been perceived as their unhealthy residing situations, he mentioned.

The idea at the moment was “Danish society is superior to Greenlandic society,” he added.

After a yr and a half in Denmark, a lot of the youngsters have been returned to Greenland to stay in an orphanage run by one other charity, the Danish Crimson Cross, in Nuuk — separated from Greenlanders and their households and banned from talking their mom tongue. CNN has reached out to the Danish Crimson Cross for remark.


Seen as strangers by Greenlanders, most of the youngsters returned to Denmark after they grew to become adults. As much as half of the group developed psychological sickness or substance abuse issues in later life, Jensen mentioned. Many have been unemployed and led arduous lives, Thiesen mentioned.

The Danish authorities “took our id and household from us,” Kristine Heinesen, 76, who, together with Thiesen, is among the six Greenlandic social experiment survivors alive at the moment. Strolling in a cemetery in Copenhagen the place a few of her associates from the experiment are actually buried, Heinesen admits her life has been first rate since her days within the orphanage. “However I do know most of the different youngsters suffered extra rising up, and I feel as a result of we’re solely six left of twenty-two — that tells the story very nicely,” she mentioned, wrapped in a Greenlandic fur-lined coat.


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Kristine Heinesen visits a cemetery in Copenhagen the place a few of her associates are actually buried.

Save the Youngsters apologized in 2015 for the half they performed within the social experiment. The Danish authorities issued an apology 5 years later, after strain from marketing campaign teams, however has refused to compensate those that are nonetheless alive, mentioned the lawyer of the victims, Mads Krøger Pramming. He filed a compensation declare of 250,000 kroner ($38,000) every in Copenhagen’s district courtroom in late December 2021.

The six accuse the Danish state of appearing “in violation of present Danish regulation and human rights, together with the plaintiffs’ proper to non-public and household life underneath Article 8 of the European Conference on Human Rights (ECHR),” reads their declare.

In a press release to CNN, Denmark’s Minister of Social Affairs and the Aged mentioned the federal government was trying into the compensation declare.

“Crucial facet for the Danish Authorities has been an official apology to the now grownup youngsters and their households for the betrayal they endured. This was a serious step in direction of redressing the Authorities’s failure; a accountability no earlier authorities had taken on,” Astrid Krag mentioned.

“The federal government and I consider that recognizing the errors of the previous is in itself essential, and we should study from these in order that historical past isn’t permitted to repeat itself.”

The listening to is more likely to occur within the subsequent 10 months and “it’s nonetheless our hope, that the federal government will settle the case and pay compensation earlier than the listening to,” Pramming mentioned.

After all of the six victims have been by, “they do not suppose an apology is sufficient,” he added.


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Heinesen was simply 5 years previous when she was separated from her household.

‘Cultural eradication’

The goal of the experiment, which was greenlit in 1950, was to recruit orphans, however it was arduous to search out sufficient youngsters, mentioned researcher Jensen. The parameters have been broadened to incorporate motherless or fatherless households and 22 youngsters have been chosen, despite the fact that lots of them have been residing with their prolonged households or one father or mother, he added.

Thiesen’s mom, who was widowed, initially dismissed the request of two Danes to take her younger daughter to Denmark, Thiesen informed CNN. However she ultimately agreed on the promise that Thiesen would get a greater training.

As colonizers, Danes, who helped establish the kids for the experiment, held authority in Greenland, Jensen defined.

It might have been arduous for a Greenlander to refuse them on the time, Karla Jessen Williamson, a Greenlandic assistant professor on the College of Saskatchewan and member of the Greenland Reconciliation Fee, informed CNN.

“As with every colonized nation, the authorities (have been) revered and feared; rebutting these authorities can’t be finished,” she mentioned.

In keeping with the report Jensen co-authored on the experiment, there have been doubts as as to whether among the dad and mom have been totally knowledgeable or understood what they have been agreeing to.

In some ways, what occurred to the kids represents the devastating and deliberate results of cultural eradication throughout colonialism, mentioned Williamson. “In colonial instances, there was an eradication of the distinctiveness of tradition, of the connection with the land, the vary of languages, spirituality — and these would have been finished away with in order that (the colonized) may be socialized into turning into a part of the colonial state,” she mentioned.


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The youngsters spent their first 4 months in Denmark at a vacation camp referred to as Fedgaarden.

On arriving to Denmark, the kids have been housed in Fedgaarden, Save the Youngsters’s vacation camp on the southern Feddet peninsular, for 4 months. The youngsters have been banned from talking Greenlandic — a dialect of the Inuit language — and have been as an alternative taught Danish.

The youngsters have been each terrified and amazed by their new environment. Heinesen was solely 5 years previous on the time and clearly recollects “all of the timber — we don’t have any timber in Greenland, so I keep in mind how tall and massive they have been.”

They have been later positioned with separate foster households for round a yr. Thiesen didn’t really feel welcome within the dwelling of her first foster household. She needed to put on an ointment for her eczema and was not allowed to take a seat on the furnishings. “I used to be homesick daily,” she mentioned.

Her second foster household have been kinder, shopping for her a bicycle and doll, and treating her as a part of the household.

When it was time to return to Greenland, six of the Inuit youngsters remained in Denmark and have been adopted by their foster households. The adoptions have been “utterly in opposition to the entire concept of coming again (to Greenland) and turning into the mental elite,” mentioned historian Jensen. “In my view, it was a mistake,” he mentioned.

‘Couldn’t see something by my tears’

They returned to Greenland in October 1952 and have been positioned in an orphanage run by the Danish Crimson Cross in Nuuk. In keeping with the authorized declare, custody of the kids was transferred to the headmistress of the orphanage.


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Thiesen solely noticed her mom a handful of instances throughout the seven years she was at an orphanage.

Thiesen recollects seeing her household ready for her by the marina in Nuuk. “I dropped my suitcase and ran to them, telling them the whole lot I noticed. However my mom didn’t reply me,” Thiesen mentioned. It was as a result of she was talking Danish and her mom spoke the Inuit dialect of Greenlandic — a language Thiesen had misplaced the flexibility to know.

Their reunion lasted 10 minutes. A Danish nurse taking care of the kids informed her to let go of her mom as a result of she now lived in an orphanage, Thiesen informed CNN. “I cried all the way in which to the orphanage — I used to be so trying ahead to see my city however I couldn’t see something by my tears.”

The orphanage was the place 16 of the kids lived. They have been solely allowed to talk Danish, have been put in a Danish-speaking faculty, and get in touch with with their households was restricted or non-existent. Nobody informed Heinesen that her organic mom died quickly after Heinesen joined the orphanage, in accordance with the authorized declare.

Emphasis was positioned on protecting in contact with the foster households, mentioned Jensen. Thiesen’s mom was solely allowed to go to her daughter a few instances throughout the seven years Thiesen was there, the authorized declare states.

It was psychologically traumatic “for these children to be separated like that from Greenlandic society and their dad and mom,” Jensen mentioned. “Even those that (had household in Nuuk) mentioned they weren’t allowed to go to their household. Generally the orphanage invited the household to espresso on Sundays, however the youngsters have been by no means given a good probability to contact their households.”


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Gabriel Schmidt seems by previous pictures. He is among the six social experiment survivors alive at the moment.

They have been enrolled in a Danish faculty and have been restricted from taking part in or interacting with Greenlandic youngsters within the city. The one individuals the kids have been allowed to socialize with have been outstanding Danish households who lived in Nuuk, survivor Heinesen mentioned.

Greenlanders started to contemplate the kids as outsiders. Gabriel Schmidt, 76, one of many six from the social experiment who now lives in Denmark, informed CNN that Greenlandic youngsters in Nuuk would say: “You don’t know Greenlandic, you’re not Greenlandic,” and throw rocks at them. “However most of what they mentioned I didn’t perceive as I had misplaced my language in Denmark,” he mentioned from his dwelling.

Greenland was totally built-in into Denmark in 1953 and in 1979 it was granted dwelling rule. In that interval, Jensen mentioned, Danish and Greenlandic authorities misplaced curiosity within the social experiment as Greenland’s infrastructure initiatives, enterprise sector, and healthcare reforms took middle stage.

‘Are you sitting down?’

By 1960, all the kids had left the orphanage, and ultimately nearly all of them moved again to Denmark. For the six who’re nonetheless alive, they are saying discovering their sense of id has taken a lifetime.

Schmidt returned to Denmark to stay together with his foster mom, the place he ultimately obtained a job as a solider within the Danish military. Talking from his tidy dwelling in Copenhagen, Schmidt mentioned the military gave him a calling. “It actually saved me. It gave me construction, associates and a objective for my life, and in lots of ways in which time was the most effective of my life.”


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Schmidt mentioned he was thought-about an outsider in his native Greenland.

Thiesen struggled to attach or forgive her mom, indignant along with her choice to ship her away. “I believed my mom didn’t need me and it’s why I used to be indignant along with her for many of my life,” she mentioned.

It was solely in 1996, when Thiesen was 46 years previous, when she found the reality. The late Danish radio persona and author Tine Bryld referred to as Thiesen’s dwelling with some devastating information. “She informed me, ‘are you sitting down? I discovered one thing in Copenhagen, you’ve gotten been a part of an experiment,’” Thiesen mentioned. “I fell to the bottom and cried. It was the primary time I had been informed of this and it was so terrible,” she added.

“I felt unhappy after I discovered the reality,” Heinesen, who moved to Denmark within the Nineteen Sixties and have become a seamstress, informed CNN. “You simply don’t experiment with youngsters — it’s simply unsuitable.” In 1993, she put an advert within the native paper in Greenland that she was coming to go to and was searching for residing kin. “It was an ideal second to be again and to go to — (it was) very emotional for all of us,” she mentioned.

Thiesen has spent a part of her grownup life attempting to reconnect with Greenland and her individuals. Her dwelling in Stensved, a small city an hour and a half away from Copenhagen, is a testomony to that try.

Sat at a eating desk in entrance of a sideboard coated with snow white-colored tupilaq carvings, mythic Greenlandic Inuit figures meant to guard their house owners from any hurt, Thiesen informed CNN that studying Greenlandic and writing her memoir has been a part of her therapeutic course of.

It was facilitated by her second husband, Jens Møller, who’s Greenlandic. Thiesen mentioned he “gave me the most important reward … to study the Greenlandic language, but additionally he taught me fishing, searching and all these issues I had by no means finished as a toddler, however that are key parts of the Greenlandic tradition.”

It has not wiped away the big harm created by the social experiment however has, in some methods, helped her reconcile the ache that started aboard MS Disko in 1951. At the least now she understands why her mom despatched her away.


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Thiesen sits at her dwelling in Stensved, Denmark. She has reconnected along with her Greenlandic heritage.

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