"I decided to just take the matter into my own hands"

In 1997, Nicole fled Eritrea to avoid military conscription. Her story is a story of female empowerment and strength. Coming to a new country, Nicole had to overcome the challenges of being “othered” due to her birth name, Rahwa.

"I was born in Ethiopia, but that part of the story I only found out later. My father kept it secret that my stepmom was not my biological mother.

I left Eritrea in 1997 to avoid military conscription, because they say it’s two years but it’s never two years—it’s forever. I had to go through the mountains to get to the Ethiopian border, because we were not allowed to leave. In 1998 the war started, and I haven’t been back since.

To be honest I thought the war wouldn’t last long – I wanted to return home to my boyfriend, but it didn’t turn out that way. I waited the first months, when it was still possible to communicate between Asmara and Addis Ababa. In the end they cut the phone lines. My lifeline was just closed," Nicole tells. 

"I met my first husband in Addis. He is the father of my daughter."

Originally from Denmark, Rahwa’s husband proposed a move to Europe.

"It’s difficult – you’re a young mother, you just came here to Denmark, you don’t know the country, you don’t know the language."

Her husband would soon grow tired of family life, however, and leave them behind for new opportunities abroad.

He left us in the middle of nowhere with nothing. So I decided when my daughter turned one that I would divorce and return to Ethiopia.

"As fate would have it, it was not to be her last trip to Denmark. She soon met the man who would become her second husband – another Dane! 

"I started language school and thought, ‘Oh my goodness, this language is really difficult!’ But I was determined.

"I told myself: 'I have to make it, I have to understand what is going on around me and I have to know what people are saying. I want to know what is going on in society, because it’s very important' – if not you’re just a lonely ranger roaming around without knowing what is going on – so it was very important for me that I understood.

"I’ve always been blessed with languages – I speak five – and it’s always been a little easier for me to learn. I was also very quick to learn Danish – but it was more difficult than the others."

"We had this Danish teacher who was very demeaning to foreigners. Before we finished the course, he asked us about our plans for the future. One student said he wanted to be a dentist, and the teacher laughed and said ‘You’ll be on a cleaning crew.’ Another, she wanted to be a graphic designer – ‘Haha! You’ll be taking care of the elderly,’ he laughed. And to another still he said, ‘You’ll just be a welfare recipient.’"

We are as human as you are. Maybe we come from underdeveloped countries, but that doesn’t mean that we are idiots and don’t have any brains, and that we don’t have dreams like other people do.’


From Rahwa to Nicole 

"I was sending applications, sending my CV, and I never got anything back. And those who replied, they just rejected me and said they weren’t interested. 

I came across this article about a guy who lived his entire life here, and after he finished his education he was looking for an internship, and nobody would give him one. And he was really qualified. And he didn’t understand it, until he found out it was because of his name – because his name was Mohammed. So he changed it to something more European.

When I read that, I said ‘Ha!’ The light bulb clicked – I told my husband, ‘I know why they won’t give me a job, because they see Rahwa and they assume I’m a Muslim, I’m a foreigner, and then they just think, 'Forget it.’

I sent in an application to change my name. I asked my friends to help me choose between Lilli and Nicole, and they looked at me and said ‘you know what? Nicole fits you much better.’"

It is what it is. I’m not going to be a victim and sit home and feel sorry for myself and not have any job because nobody wants to give me one because of my name, so I decided to just take the matter into my own hands.


You can't be good at everything, but you can be good at something 

"When it comes to school, I just say to my daughter: 'remember that education is the key for the future, and the only thing you have to remember is that we are so lucky to live in a country where we have free access to education and you can be whatever you want to be. You have a chance to do whatever you want."

"I told her: 'we can’t be good at everything, so just be good at something. Something that suits you – something that makes you happy."

"If I was born here in Denmark, then my dream would have been to be a psychologist. It really fascinates me – I like to analyze, to analyze people’s behavior, and I like to listen."

Approach people with kindness

"I have been in Denmark for over 20 years, and I will have been working at a jewelry shop for 15. I really love it. Though I would have liked to work with people as a psychologist, I’ve loved jewelry since I was young, because my mom did too."

"It’s very fortunate to have this job. I speak with people, I have a lot of interaction, I love to talk to people! People feel comfortable when they talk to me, so I just listen to them – and they become very good customers."

If you approach people with kindness, they will treat you with kindness. You get what you give, as I say to my children – always remember, if you give respect you get it.


Nicole published her first book, an autobiography entitled 'Fremmed i Danmark' ('A stranger in Denmark'), at the beginning of 2021. 

She hopes to do some tours to present her book and make some speeches!

Related stories