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

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

Editor’s observe: This story is a part of CNN’s dedication to overlaying 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, figuring out 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 had 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 one in every of 22 Inuit children who had been taken from their properties not figuring out that they might 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 reside with their families once more, changing into forgotten about and marginalized in their place of origin.

At the time, Greenland was a Danish colony, and Greenlanders had been struggling from excessive ranges of poverty, low high quality of life and excessive charges of mortality, stated Einar Lund Jensen, a venture researcher on the National Museum of Denmark.


The Inuit children are seen at an orphanage again in Greenland carrying 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 goal was “to create little Danes who would become the intelligentsia; role models for Greenland,” stated 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 via the globe. They took up an concept from human rights group Save the Children Denmark of bringing Inuit children to the nation in order to get better from what had been perceived as their dangerous dwelling situations, he stated.

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 had been returned to Greenland to reside 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, most of the children returned to Denmark once they grew to become adults. Up to half of the group developed psychological sickness or substance abuse issues in later life, Jensen stated. Many had been unemployed and led exhausting lives, Thiesen stated.

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 right this moment. Walking in a cemetery in Copenhagen the place a few of her pals from the experiment at the moment are 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 stated, 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 at the moment are 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 stress from marketing campaign teams, however has refused to compensate those that are nonetheless alive, stated the lawyer of the victims, Mads Krøger Pramming. He filed a compensation declare of 250,000 kroner ($38,000) every in Copenhagen’s district court docket 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 claim.

In a assertion to CNN, Denmark’s Minister of Social Affairs and the Elderly stated the federal government was wanting 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 stated.

“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 stated.

After all of the six victims have been via, “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 goal of the experiment, which was greenlit in 1950, was to recruit orphans, nevertheless it was exhausting to seek out sufficient children, stated researcher Jensen. The parameters had been broadened to incorporate motherless or fatherless households and 22 children had been chosen, though lots of them had been dwelling with their prolonged families or one mum or dad, 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 schooling.

As colonizers, Danes, who helped determine 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 stated.

According to the report Jensen co-authored on the experiment, there have been doubts as as to whether a number of the dad and mom had been totally knowledgeable or understood what they had been agreeing to.

In some ways, what occurred to the children represents the devastating and deliberate results of cultural eradication throughout colonialism, stated 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 stated.


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

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

The children had been each terrified and amazed by their new environment. Heinesen was solely 5 years previous on the time and clearly recollects “all the trees — we don’t have any trees in Greenland, so I remember how tall and big they were.”

They had 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 stated.

Her second foster household had 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 had been adopted by their foster families. The adoptions had been “completely against the whole idea of coming back (to Greenland) and becoming the intellectual elite,” stated historian Jensen. “In my opinion, it was a mistake,” he stated.

‘Could not see anything through my tears’

They returned to Greenland in October 1952 and had 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 through the seven years she was at an orphanage.

Thiesen recollects 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 stated. 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 grasp.

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 had been solely allowed to talk Danish, had been put in a Danish-speaking college, and call with their families was restricted or non-existent. No one informed Heinesen that her organic mom died quickly after Heinesen joined the orphanage, based on the authorized declare.

Emphasis was positioned on holding in contact with the foster families, stated Jensen. Thiesen’s mom was solely allowed to go to her daughter a couple of occasions through 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 stated. “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 appears via previous pictures. He is among the six social experiment survivors alive right this moment.

They had been enrolled in a Danish college and had been restricted from taking part in or interacting with Greenlandic children in the city. The solely individuals the children had been allowed to socialize with had been outstanding Danish families who lived in Nuuk, survivor Heinesen stated.

Greenlanders started to contemplate 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 stated from his residence.

Greenland was totally built-in into Denmark in 1953 and in 1979 it was granted residence rule. In that interval, Jensen stated, Danish and Greenlandic authorities misplaced curiosity in the social experiment as Greenland’s infrastructure initiatives, enterprise sector, and healthcare reforms took middle 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 reside together with his foster mom, the place he finally bought a job as a solider in the Danish military. Speaking from his tidy residence in Copenhagen, Schmidt stated 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 stated he was thought of an outsider in his native Greenland.

Thiesen struggled to attach or forgive her mom, offended together 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 stated.

It was solely in 1996, when Thiesen was 46 years previous, when she found the reality. The late Danish radio character 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 stated. “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 in search of dwelling family members. “It was a great moment to be back and to visit — (it was) very emotional for all of us,” she stated.

Thiesen has spent a part of her grownup life making an attempt 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 homeowners 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 stated 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 together with her Greenlandic heritage.
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