Sausan Kanaan Berg is Driving a Fresh Narrative on Integration Through Denmark—From Her Car

With SALAAM MED JER, a talk show she hosts out of her car, she's promoting ALL Danish voices, not just the ones our integration minister wants to hear.

Sausan Kanaan Berg is officially Syrian-Palestinian, but if you ask her, she’ll say that she’s a local Copenhagener. That’s because she lives by the mentality that the place where you are affects how you define yourself, no matter your nationality.

Sausan has traveled most of the world with her parents and sisters. Now she has settled in Copenhagen with a mission to change what some feel is a negative narrative that medias and politicians in this country have created about non-ethnic Danes. It’s a mission that appeared after she shared a video on Facebook where she just drove around discussing dating cultures with a friend. It got so popular that she created a video concept, SALAAM MED JER (SALAAM TO YOU), where she invites all kinds of Danes to get into her car, drive around and talk about gender, culture, society, politics. They’ll discuss anything, but most often the topics relate to cultural differences—which is interesting in a country where politicians tend to promote a nation of uniformity.

We thought we’d have a chat with her about the dominant narrative about integration in Denmark, the importance of vulnerability and why you should hide under blankets when you need to.

GIRLS ARE AWESOME Hey, Sausan. How would you describe yourself?

Sausan Kanaan Berg: I’m a bit African, a bit Arabic, a bit Danish, a bit Asian. I was born in Syria but moved to Libya because my parents were working for the United Nations. Later on, we moved to Abu Dhabi, Cyprus, and the Philippines, then Denmark and back to Libya. All these places have formed me. People usually mean ethnicity when they ask where you are from—but for me, it’s like I’m from all these places.

How did all this traveling affect your work with SALAAM MED JER?

I’m tired of this inaccurate perception in Denmark that’s also perpetuated by the political viewpoint; that we have to be just one thing. You can only be Danish in one specific way, you can only be Arabic in one specific way. It’s not true. You can be Danish in different ways. With this program, I’m trying to clarify that you are so many things. Your identity moves, changes and expands all the time. When people ask where are you from, it’s difficult to answer because you’re also influenced by media, the places you’ve visited and lived, by the people you love. It all defines you.

So you’re saying we need to make more of an effort to remember that identity isn’t just about location, but also emotional and mental experiences?

Very much so. During my studies in English, I looked into the Ghanian/Nigerian author, Taiye Selasi. A couple of years ago, she visited Louisiana Museum for an interview where she coined an interesting term which I have used since. Selasi was asked where she was from. She answered “I’m a multi local.” She is a local of where she is, so I say that I’m a local of Copenhagen because I’m in Copenhagen—that defines me right now.

How did SALAAM MED JER begin?

SALAAM MED JER started in January of 2016. I made a short video with my Danish/Iranian friend where we were talking about dating. I didn’t know what I was doing and we sat in the car rehearsing for one and a half hours—just for a four minute video. We kept driving while doing it and redoing it. At the end we were tired, and I thought, “Never mind, it doesn’t matter. Maybe I’m not even going to use it.” I showed it to my sisters when I came home and they loved it! I shared it on Facebook and then I became terrified. I was in tears, shut the screen, and went hiding under my duvet all weekend. I was thinking ,“I made a fool of myself.”

The next time I opened Facebook, it had just exploded. I had five hundred new friend requests, it had been shared around 80 times, it had been viewed 18,000 times. I thought, “What’s going on?!” Magazines and book publishers were calling me. It had turned into a phenomenon overnight.

What’s your journey been like since that first video?

I have hosted a radio program called Sausan Island (red. pronounced like the sauce), based on the format from SALAAM MED JER. I finished that in December and went back to doing videos for SALAAM MED JER on Facebook. And now I’m going to do the same program for one of Denmark’s biggest newspapers, Politiken. I had no idea that this program would get this far. I just did it for fun and because I wanted to get that statement out that I am so tired of the primary dialogue about integration. Last week I facilitated a discussion between the right winged Danish integration minister and a left wing politician, who are of very different points of view on integration. I started the discussion by saying that it is interesting for me to facilitate this because I am mega-over-integrated.

In Denmark our integration minister wants people to believe that everybody who looks like me has a problem. That they don’t know how to function in this society. But not everybody lives in ghettos. I have never lived in a ghetto. Many of my friends have never lived in a ghetto. My friends are University graduates, they date, they are in relationships and go out. We are just like other Danish girls but the focus is not there. There is always focus on the problems. And we are really tired of that.

So you want to break down current norms and show integration from another angle?

It comes down to me being really tired of the word ‘integration’. The best way to feel each other is to meet each other. My program is about meeting people of different backgrounds. I invite ethnic Danes, African Danes, Iranian Danes, Turkish Danes, Arab Danes, you name it, everybody who is part of society and sees themselves as Danish in their own way. They must be accepted as they are. That is the whole problem: people constantly demand them to be something different, and it is exhausting for a person.

Gender and ethnicities, that are quite fragile topics. But you work with it in a funny and non-authoritarian kind of way. How does that approach help discussing those topics?

I wanted to give Denmark a window to other stories than the stories that medias tell about people like us; immigrants and refugees. Because the medias are only interested in revealing the negativity of the presence of foreigners. Instead, I created my own platform. The reactions to the first video made me understand this was a new platform where I can give a voice to people who are not heard. These people are not public speakers, not politicians. They are just normal people that nobody listens to. They don’t have the right connection or access to the media. They have an interesting thing to tell about themselves, their own personal experience and story. I created that platform for them to come and express themselves.

Why a car?

It was pure coincidence. Years ago, I had been driving around with friends singing and for a long time I thought that people driving in their car singing are ridiculous. Suddenly, I started talking to myself. Then, it hit me: I would like to talk to somebody in the car.

For the videos, I considered standing on the street, but it would have been distracting. The nice thing about the car is that it is so intimate. It creates an atmosphere of safety and opens up to vulnerability. I want to bring integration to street level instead of talking about integration in the Danish parliament. The best way to meet is actually in the car. You are seeing things. It has this interesting metaphor of being on the move and developing.

My idea was not to drive with famous people. My idea was to drive with people like me and you. I also talk to people who are famous because they have interesting viewpoints but not because they are known.

How do you select the topics for the program?

Sometimes, I find someone who has charisma and have them decide on a topic. Sometimes, I decide on a topic and ask someone to discuss it with me. For example, not many girls with my background want to talk about sex. Sex is a sensitive topic for many people in general, but girls with my background don’t want to offend their families. Even though they have liberated lifestyles, they don’t want to talk on tv or radio about sex.

I noticed that you talk about personal stuff with your guests; you focus on the human being instead of what they do. It is not very typical in Danish medias. Is that a deliberate choice?

You inspire people the most with the personal story. That is when people are really touched. At this point, we are hearing and seeing each other because we make the mistake of letting our politicians tell us how to interact with each other as Danes of different backgrounds. They are dehumanizing people by creating all this bad stuff around them. I am trying to take all that away and just present the human. It is the person we need to see and hear.

What’s been the biggest lesson you’ve learned by doing this program?

One thing that I learned is to trust the human emotion and let that speak. The second one is to trust the process. It allows you to develop. That is the most important thing that I have learned – do it and let it happen, let it guide you somehow. For a long time, I didn’t know what I was doing, and I cried all the time. I was scared! You are allowing yourself to be vulnerable on social media. It has been amazing how people have embraced me and embraced this project. I have had critique, but nothing personal and uncomfortable. I was scared because I am soft and emotional. If I had gotten bashed, I might have backed down right away.

Why do you think we are so afraid of failing on social media?

Because you are exposing yourself and people are harsh out there. You are worried that you will be misunderstood. You will be misunderstood no matter what. People are afraid of being attacked for something that they are not.

What do you do to stay above of it?

I shut everything down. And hide under my duvet. Some time ago, I did a video where I did not speak. I just cried for one minute. I was crying in my car and could not talk. I had a tough day, I missed my kids, I was tired, I felt all alone in that car. The text I added to the video explained why I did it. What I tried to say was that our emotions are okay. I shared it, shut everything down and went to sleep. Turning my computer back on the next day, I saw how much support I had. So much love. People thought it was inspiring.

What do you think that video was about?

Imperfection. Showing that it is okay not to be perfect. We are constantly seeking perfection. We want to show the good side and success. You hide moments of failure but they are actually the most powerful moments. That’s human nature. We should post more pictures of people crying.

True story. Thanks a lot, Sausan.