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


Helene Thiesen was once one in every of 22 Inuiit kids separated from their households in Greenland 70 years in the past.

Editor’s observe: This tale is a part of CNN’s dedication to overlaying problems round id, together with race, gender, sexuality, faith, magnificence and caste.

Seven-year-old Helene Thiesen peered out from aboard the passenger send MS Disko, understanding she was once surroundings sail from Greenland to a spot known as Denmark. What she may just now not perceive is why her mom had selected to ship her away on that unsatisfied day in 1951.

“I used to be so unhappy,” Thiesen, now 77 years outdated, recalled to CNN. Inflexible with sorrow, Thiesen was once not able to wave again to her mom and two siblings, who had been gazing from the harbor off the coast of the Greenland capital, Nuuk. “I appeared into (my mom’s) eyes and idea, why was once she letting me move?”

Thiesen was once one in every of 22 Inuit kids who had been taken from their houses now not understanding that they’d finally end up being a part of a failed social experiment. Elderly between 5 and 9 years outdated, lots of them would by no means see or reside with their households once more, changing into forgotten about and marginalized of their place of origin.

On the time, Greenland was once a Danish colony, and Greenlanders had been affected by top ranges of poverty, low high quality of lifestyles and top charges of mortality, mentioned Einar Lund Jensen, a venture researcher on the Nationwide Museum of Denmark.


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The Inuit kids are noticed at an orphanage again in Greenland dressed in outfits made for them after a talk over with from Queen Ingrid of Denmark. Thiesen says the women known as them their “princess attire.”

Denmark’s purpose was once “to create little Danes who would change into the intelligentsia; position fashions for Greenland,” mentioned Jensen, who co-authored a contemporary government-commissioned record investigating the experiment.

The Danish authorities felt forced to modernize the arctic colony, hoping to carry onto their pursuits as post-war decolonization actions swept in the course of the globe. They took up an concept from human rights group Save the Youngsters Denmark of bringing Inuit kids to the rustic so as to get better from what had been perceived as their dangerous dwelling prerequisites, he mentioned.

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

After a 12 months and a part in Denmark, lots of the kids had been returned to Greenland to reside in an orphanage run by way of any other charity, the Danish Pink Pass, in Nuuk — separated from Greenlanders and their households and banned from talking their mom tongue. CNN has reached out to the Danish Pink Pass for remark.


Observed as strangers by way of Greenlanders, lots of the kids returned to Denmark once they changed into adults. As much as part of the gang evolved psychological sickness or substance abuse issues in later lifestyles, Jensen mentioned. Many had been unemployed and led exhausting lives, Thiesen mentioned.

The Danish authorities “took our id and circle of relatives from us,” Kristine Heinesen, 76, who, together with Thiesen, is among the six Greenlandic social experiment survivors alive nowadays. Strolling in a cemetery in Copenhagen the place a few of her pals from the experiment are actually buried, Heinesen admits her lifestyles has been respectable since her days within the orphanage. “However I do know lots of the different kids suffered extra rising up, and I feel as a result of we’re best six left of twenty-two — that tells the tale rather 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 Youngsters apologized in 2015 for the phase they performed within the social experiment. The Danish authorities issued an apology 5 years later, after force from marketing campaign teams, however has refused to compensate those that are nonetheless alive, mentioned the attorney of the sufferers, Mads Krøger Pramming. He filed a repayment declare of 250,000 kroner ($38,000) every in Copenhagen’s district court docket in overdue December 2021.

The six accuse the Danish state of performing “in violation of present Danish regulation and human rights, together with the plaintiffs’ proper to non-public and circle of relatives lifestyles beneath Article 8 of the Ecu Conference on Human Rights (ECHR),” reads their declare.

In a remark to CNN, Denmark’s Minister of Social Affairs and the Aged mentioned the federal government was once taking a look into the repayment declare.

“Crucial facet for the Danish Govt has been an legit apology to the now grownup kids and their households for the betrayal they persisted. This was once a significant step in opposition to redressing the Govt’s failure; a accountability no earlier authorities had taken on,” Astrid Krag mentioned.

“The federal government and I consider that spotting the errors of the previous is in itself the most important, and we should be informed from those in order that historical past is rarely accredited to copy itself.”

The listening to is prone to occur within the subsequent 10 months and “it’s nonetheless our hope, that the federal government will settle the case and pay repayment prior to the listening to,” Pramming mentioned.

In the end the six sufferers were thru, “they do not assume an apology is sufficient,” he added.


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Heinesen was once simply 5 years outdated when she was once separated from her circle of relatives.

‘Cultural eradication’

The purpose of the experiment, which was once greenlit in 1950, was once to recruit orphans, but it surely was once exhausting to search out sufficient kids, mentioned researcher Jensen. The parameters had been broadened to incorporate motherless or fatherless families and 22 kids had been decided on, even supposing lots of them had been dwelling with their prolonged households or one mum or dad, he added.

Thiesen’s mom, who was once widowed, to start with brushed aside the request of 2 Danes to take her younger daughter to Denmark, Thiesen instructed CNN. However she in the end agreed at the promise that Thiesen would get a greater schooling.

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

It could were exhausting 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, instructed CNN.

“As with every colonized country, the government (had been) revered and feared; rebutting those government can’t be achieved,” she mentioned.

Consistent with the record Jensen co-authored at the experiment, there have been doubts as as to if probably the most oldsters had been absolutely knowledgeable or understood what they had been agreeing to.

In some ways, what took place to the kids represents the devastating and planned results of cultural eradication all through colonialism, mentioned Williamson. “In colonial instances, there was once an eradication of the individuality of tradition, of the connection with the land, the variability of languages, spirituality — and those would were achieved away with in order that (the colonized) will also be socialized into changing into a part of the colonial state,” she mentioned.


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

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

The kids had been each terrified and amazed by way of their new atmosphere. Heinesen was once best 5 years outdated on the time and obviously recollects “the entire bushes — we don’t have any bushes in Greenland, so I bear in mind how tall and large they had been.”

They had been later positioned with separate foster households for round a 12 months. Thiesen didn’t really feel welcome in the house of her first foster circle of relatives. She needed to put on an ointment for her eczema and was once now not allowed to sit down at the furnishings. “I used to be homesick each day,” she mentioned.

Her 2d foster circle of relatives had been kinder, purchasing her a bicycle and doll, and treating her as a part of the circle of relatives.

When it was once time to go back to Greenland, six of the Inuit kids remained in Denmark and had been followed by way of their foster households. The adoptions had been “totally towards the entire thought of coming again (to Greenland) and changing into the highbrow elite,” mentioned historian Jensen. “For my part, it was once a mistake,” he mentioned.

‘May now not see the rest thru my tears’

They returned to Greenland in October 1952 and had been positioned in an orphanage run by way of the Danish Pink Pass in Nuuk. Consistent with the criminal declare, custody of the kids was once transferred to the headmistress of the orphanage.


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Thiesen best noticed her mom a handful of instances all through the seven years she was once at an orphanage.

Thiesen recollects seeing her circle of relatives looking ahead to her by way of the jetty in Nuuk. “I dropped my suitcase and ran to them, telling them the whole lot I noticed. However my mom didn’t solution me,” Thiesen mentioned. It was once as a result of she was once talking Danish and her mom spoke the Inuit dialect of Greenlandic — a language Thiesen had misplaced the power to grasp.

Their reunion lasted 10 mins. A Danish nurse taking a look after the kids instructed her to let move of her mom as a result of she now lived in an orphanage, Thiesen instructed CNN. “I cried the entire option to the orphanage — I used to be so taking a look ahead to peer my the city however I may just now not see the rest thru my tears.”

The orphanage was once the place 16 of the kids lived. They had been best allowed to talk Danish, had been installed a Danish-speaking faculty, and phone with their households was once restricted or non-existent. No person instructed Heinesen that her organic mom died quickly after Heinesen joined the orphanage, in line with the criminal declare.

Emphasis was once put on retaining involved with the foster households, mentioned Jensen. Thiesen’s mom was once best allowed to talk over with her daughter a few instances all through the seven years Thiesen was once there, the criminal declare states.

It was once psychologically nerve-racking “for those children to be separated like that from Greenlandic society and their oldsters,” Jensen mentioned. “Even those that (had circle of relatives in Nuuk) mentioned they weren’t allowed to talk over with their circle of relatives. On occasion the orphanage invited the circle of relatives to espresso on Sundays, however the kids had been by no means given an even likelihood to touch their households.”


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Gabriel Schmidt appears thru outdated pictures. He is among the six social experiment survivors alive nowadays.

They had been enrolled in a Danish faculty and had been restricted from taking part in or interacting with Greenlandic kids within the the city. The one folks the kids had been allowed to socialise with had been distinguished Danish households who lived in Nuuk, survivor Heinesen mentioned.

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

Greenland was once absolutely built-in into Denmark in 1953 and in 1979 it was once granted house rule. In that duration, Jensen mentioned, Danish and Greenlandic government misplaced hobby within the social experiment as Greenland’s infrastructure initiatives, trade sector, and healthcare reforms took heart degree.

‘Are you sitting down?’

Through 1960, the entire kids had left the orphanage, and in the end nearly they all moved again to Denmark. For the six who’re nonetheless alive, they are saying discovering their sense of id has taken a life-time.

Schmidt returned to Denmark to reside together with his foster mom, the place he in the end were given a role as a solider within the Danish military. Talking from his tidy house in Copenhagen, Schmidt mentioned the military gave him a calling. “It truly stored me. It gave me construction, pals and a objective for my lifestyles, and in lots of ways in which time was once the most productive of my lifestyles.”


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Schmidt mentioned he was once thought to be an interloper in his local Greenland.

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

It was once best in 1996, when Thiesen was once 46 years outdated, when she came upon the reality. The overdue Danish radio character and author Tine Bryld known as Thiesen’s house with some devastating information. “She instructed 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 once the primary time I were instructed of this and it was once so terrible,” she added.

“I felt unhappy once I discovered the reality,” Heinesen, who moved to Denmark within the Nineteen Sixties and changed into a seamstress, instructed CNN. “You simply don’t experiment with kids — it’s simply incorrect.” In 1993, she put an ad within the native paper in Greenland that she was once coming to talk over with and was once in search of dwelling kin. “It was once a really perfect second to be again and to talk over with — (it was once) very emotional for all people,” she mentioned.

Thiesen has spent a part of her grownup lifestyles seeking to reconnect with Greenland and her folks. Her house in Stensved, a small the city an hour and a part clear of Copenhagen, is a testomony to that strive.

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

It was once facilitated by way of her 2d husband, Jens Møller, who’s Greenlandic. Thiesen mentioned he “gave me the largest reward … to be told the Greenlandic language, but in addition he taught me fishing, looking and all the ones issues I had by no means achieved as a kid, however which can be key parts of the Greenlandic tradition.”

It has now not wiped away the large injury created by way of the social experiment however has, in many ways, helped her reconcile the ache that started aboard MS Disko in 1951. No less than now she understands why her mom despatched her away.


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



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