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How a failed social experiment in Denmark separated Inuit children from their families

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Helene Thiesen was certainly one of 22 Inuiit children separated from their families in Greenland 70 years in the past.

Editor’s be aware: This story is a part of CNN’s dedication to masking points round identification, together with race, gender, sexuality, faith, class and caste.
Seven-year-old Helene Thiesen peered out from aboard the passenger ship MS Disko, understanding she was setting sail from Greenland to a place 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 was so sad,” Thiesen, now 77 years previous, recalled to CNN. Rigid 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 looked into (my mother’s) eyes and thought, why was she letting me go?”
Thiesen was certainly one of 22 Inuit children who have been taken from their properties not understanding that they’d find yourself being a part of a failed social experiment. Aged between 5 and 9 years previous, a lot of them would by no means see or stay with their families once more, turning into forgotten about and marginalized in their place of origin.
At the time, Greenland was a Danish colony, and Greenlanders have been struggling from excessive ranges of poverty, low high quality of life and excessive charges of mortality, mentioned Einar Lund Jensen, a undertaking researcher on the National Museum of Denmark.
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The Inuit children 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 women referred to as them their “princess dresses.”
Denmark’s purpose was “to create little Danes who would become the intelligentsia; role models for Greenland,” mentioned Jensen, who co-authored a current 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 way of the globe. They took up an thought from human rights group Save the Children Denmark of bringing Inuit children to the nation in order to get better from what have been perceived as their unhealthy dwelling circumstances, he mentioned.
The assumption at the moment was “Danish society is superior to Greenlandic society,” he added.
After a 12 months and a half in Denmark, many of the children have been returned to Greenland to stay in an orphanage run by one other charity, the Danish Red Cross, in Nuuk — separated from Greenlanders and their families and banned from talking their mom tongue. CNN has reached out to the Danish Red Cross for remark.

Seen as strangers by Greenlanders, lots of the children returned to Denmark once they turned adults. Up to half of the group developed psychological sickness or substance abuse issues in later life, Jensen mentioned. Many have been unemployed and led exhausting lives, Thiesen mentioned.
The Danish authorities “took our identity and family from us,” Kristine Heinesen, 76, who, together with Thiesen, is among the six Greenlandic social experiment survivors alive immediately. Walking in a cemetery in Copenhagen the place a few of her pals from the experiment are actually buried, Heinesen admits her life has been respectable since her days in the orphanage. “But I know many of the other children suffered more growing up, and I think because we’re only six left of 22 — that tells the story very well,” 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 pals are actually buried.
Save the Children apologized in 2015 for the half they performed in 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 current Danish law and human rights, including the plaintiffs’ right to private and family life under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR),” reads their declare.
In a assertion to CNN, Denmark’s Minister of Social Affairs and the Elderly mentioned the federal government was trying into the compensation declare.
“The most important aspect for the Danish Government has been an official apology to the now adult children and their families for the betrayal they endured. This was a major step towards redressing the Government’s failure; a responsibility no previous government had taken on,” Astrid Krag mentioned.
“The government and I believe that recognizing the mistakes of the past is in itself crucial, and we must learn from these so that history is never permitted to repeat itself.”
The listening to is prone to occur in the subsequent 10 months and “it is still our hope, that the government will settle the case and pay compensation before the hearing,” Pramming mentioned.
After all of the six victims have been by way of, “they don’t think an apology is enough,” he added.
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Heinesen was simply 5 years previous when she was separated from her household.

‘Cultural eradication’

The purpose of the experiment, which was greenlit in 1950, was to recruit orphans, nevertheless it was exhausting to search out sufficient children, mentioned researcher Jensen. The parameters have been broadened to incorporate motherless or fatherless households and 22 children have been chosen, though a lot of them have been dwelling with their prolonged families or one guardian, 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. But she finally agreed on the promise that Thiesen would get a higher training.
As colonizers, Danes, who helped establish the children for the experiment, held authority in Greenland, Jensen defined.
It would have been exhausting for a Greenlander to refuse them on the time, Karla Jessen Williamson, a Greenlandic assistant professor on the University of Saskatchewan and member of the Greenland Reconciliation Commission, informed CNN.
“As with any colonized nation, the authorities (were) respected and feared; rebutting these authorities cannot be done,” she mentioned.
According to the report Jensen co-authored on the experiment, there have been doubts as as to if among the dad and mom have been totally knowledgeable or understood what they have been agreeing to.
In some ways, what occurred to the children represents the devastating and deliberate results of cultural eradication throughout colonialism, mentioned Williamson. “In colonial times, there was an eradication of the uniqueness of culture, of the relationship with the land, the range of languages, spirituality — and these would have been done away with so that (the colonized) can be socialized into becoming part of the colonial state,” she mentioned.
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The children spent their first 4 months in Denmark at a vacation camp generally known as Fedgaarden.
On arriving to Denmark, the children have been housed in Fedgaarden, Save the Children’s vacation camp on the southern Feddet peninsular, for 4 months. The children have been banned from talking Greenlandic — a dialect of the Inuit language — and have been as a substitute taught Danish.
The children have been each terrified and amazed by their new environment. Heinesen was solely 5 years previous on the time and clearly remembers “all the trees — we don’t have any trees in Greenland, so I remember how tall and big they were.”
They have been later positioned with separate foster families for round a 12 months. Thiesen didn’t really feel welcome in the house 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 was homesick every day,” 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 children remained in Denmark and have been adopted by their foster families. The adoptions have been “completely against the whole idea of coming back (to Greenland) and becoming the intellectual elite,” mentioned historian Jensen. “In my opinion, it was a mistake,” he mentioned.

‘Could not see anything through my tears’

They returned to Greenland in October 1952 and have been positioned in an orphanage run by the Danish Red Cross in Nuuk. According to the authorized declare, custody of the children was transferred to the headmistress of the orphanage.
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Thiesen solely noticed her mom a handful of occasions throughout the seven years she was at an orphanage.
Thiesen remembers seeing her household ready for her by the jetty in Nuuk. “I dropped my suitcase and ran to them, telling them everything I saw. But my mother did not answer 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 children 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 to the orphanage — I was so looking forward to see my town but I could not see anything through my tears.”
The orphanage was the place 16 of the children lived. They have been solely allowed to talk Danish, have been put in a Danish-speaking college, and phone with their families was restricted or non-existent. No one informed Heinesen that her organic mom died quickly after Heinesen joined the orphanage, in accordance with the authorized declare.
Emphasis was positioned on conserving in contact with the foster families, mentioned Jensen. Thiesen’s mom was solely allowed to go to her daughter a couple of occasions throughout the seven years Thiesen was there, the authorized declare states.
It was psychologically traumatic “for these kids to be separated like that from Greenlandic society and their parents,” Jensen mentioned. “Even those who (had family in Nuuk) said they were not allowed to visit their family. Sometimes the orphanage invited the family to coffee on Sundays, but the children were never given a fair chance to contact their families.”
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Gabriel Schmidt seems to be by way of previous pictures. He is among the six social experiment survivors alive immediately.
They have been enrolled in a Danish college and have been restricted from enjoying or interacting with Greenlandic children in the city. The solely individuals the children have been allowed to socialize with have been distinguished Danish families who lived in Nuuk, survivor Heinesen mentioned.
Greenlanders started to think about the children as outsiders. Gabriel Schmidt, 76, one of many six from the social experiment who now lives in Denmark, informed CNN that Greenlandic children in Nuuk would say: “You don’t know Greenlandic, you’re not Greenlandic,” and throw rocks at them. “But most of what they said I didn’t understand as I had lost my language in Denmark,” he mentioned from his residence.
Greenland was totally built-in into Denmark in 1953 and in 1979 it was granted residence rule. In that interval, Jensen mentioned, Danish and Greenlandic authorities misplaced curiosity in the social experiment as Greenland’s infrastructure tasks, enterprise sector, and healthcare reforms took heart stage.

‘Are you sitting down?’

By 1960, all of the children had left the orphanage, and finally virtually all of them moved again to Denmark. For the six who’re nonetheless alive, they are saying discovering their sense of identification has taken a lifetime.
Schmidt returned to Denmark to stay together with his foster mom, the place he finally obtained a job as a solider in the Danish military. Speaking from his tidy residence in Copenhagen, Schmidt mentioned the military gave him a calling. “It really saved me. It gave me structure, friends and a purpose for my life, and in many ways that time was the best of my life.”
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Schmidt mentioned he was thought of an outsider in his native Greenland.
Thiesen struggled to attach or forgive her mom, offended along with her determination to ship her away. “I thought my mother did not want me and it is why I was angry with her for most 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 residence with some devastating information. “She told me, ‘are you sitting down? I found something in Copenhagen, you have been part of an experiment,’” Thiesen mentioned. “I fell to the ground and cried. It was the first time I had been told of this and it was so awful,” she added.
“I felt sad when I learned the truth,” Heinesen, who moved to Denmark in the Sixties and have become a seamstress, informed CNN. “You just don’t experiment with children — it’s just wrong.” In 1993, she put an advert in the native paper in Greenland that she was coming to go to and was on the lookout for dwelling family. “It was a great moment to be back and to visit — (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 residence 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 biggest gift … to learn the Greenlandic language, but also he taught me fishing, hunting and all those things I had never done as a child, but which are key elements of the Greenlandic culture.”
It has not wiped away the big injury created by the social experiment however has, in some methods, helped her reconcile the ache that started aboard MS Disko in 1951. At least now she understands why her mom despatched her away.
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Thiesen sits at her residence in Stensved, Denmark. She has reconnected along with her Greenlandic heritage.



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