Meet the refugees’ Danish grandmother
© Rikke Østergård

Meet the refugees’ Danish grandmother

By Rikke Østergård

Why you should read this: Danish Anni Kanafani has dedicated her life to refugee children in Lebanon. She can’t imagine retiring, even though she will soon be 82. Her life’s work, kindergartens for Palestinian refugee children, is something she created following the death of her husband, Ghassan Kanafani. And she can not let go of it.

© Rikke Østergård
The cheerful colours of the kindergarten are a stark contrast to the often dilapidated concrete buildings in the refugee camp.


Her hair is white but reveals a reddish or brown past. The small, slight lady has lively eyes that appear through a fine mesh of wrinkles heavy with experience and making the skin crinkle when she smiles or laughs. And that is exactly what she does when the children around her play.

She raises the grey-brown glance, looks around with a warm smile toward her children. Like any other grandmother.

Her name is Anni Kanafani. She is Danish, but the laughing children around her toss Arabic phrases around. She understands them, and they understand her. Language is almost surplus here.

Democratic paint brushes

Nothing makes Anni happier than seeing the happiness of her kindergarten children. When they play peacefully together, when they dance and sing, or when they democratically share the paint brushes fairly among themselves when working on pieces of art together.

The place is equipped with child size turquoise chairs, and the walls are the colour of oranges. Outside the kindergarten’s blue door, in the refugee camp’s curved, narrow and intricate roads, the concrete surface crunches underfoot when you walk. Two boys are playing on a rusty frame for swings but but swings are long gone.

Electrical wires mixed with old water pipes hang lazily in networks of intricate twists and bundles just above head height. They run through all the streets where they are connected in complicated knots. Quite often, the residents here in the Palestinian refugee camp Burj el-Barajneh in Beirut get such strong electric shocks from the deficient installations that they die.

© Rikke Østergård
Life in the camps is made dangerous by the crumpled wires over the heads of the residents.

During the past 40 years, thousands of children have come under the wings of Anni. She is the head of a foundation that runs kindergartens, children’s libraries, special centres for children with disabilities and other activities for children in six of the twelve Palestinian camps across Lebanon.

The Palestinian children here are still stateless, even though most of the families fled here in 1948, nearly 70 years ago, when the state of Israel was created.

Not like other grandmothers

These kindergartens are their only options, because Palestinians do not have access to public institutions in Lebanon the way Lebanese do.

Anni Kanafani is nearing 82 years. It was not prerequisite for her to spend her life in the midst of marginal electrical installations and refugee children at play. She could have been a grandmother enjoying time for cookies and afternoon coffee somewhere in Denmark.

Why does she continue? The answer can be found somewhere among the landmarks such as a world war, a civil war and the murder of her husband. Combined with an urge to continue her life’s work. To understand why she is in no hurry to be a pensioner we must go all the way back to a quiet residential street in Valby. Because this is where Anni’s story began.

© Rikke Østergård

A residential street in Valby

Anni Høver was born on May 27th, 1935. And although that is now a long time ago, she remembers clearly growing up on the quiet street in Valby. With her parents and two brothers, her childhood was safe in the family home and Anni remembers how she felt free right there in her childhood streets. And she enjoyed a great freedom as a child although the times in the society were hard and unemployment was seen among many working families.

Her parents struggled to manage the family economy and housewives counted pennies in the hope of stretching salaries a little further. When the Second World War swept in over Denmark, it became even worse.

In 1961 we were completely blind.  We had no idea what had happened.

Anni Kanafani

Some people have since spoken of the period during the German occupation as the five cursed years. Little did Anni know at this time that life under an occupation would later determine her approach to life for many years to come.

Anni’s father was a fervent supporter of the labour union movement and very committed politically. During the war, he was also involved in the resistance movement. When Anni recalls those dark years in Europe, she can see how her father sowed a seed in her. It was during her childhood and teenage years that Anni realised she wanted to work with children.

During her studies as a kindergarten teacher, Anni met a group of young people who had formed a choir and dance group. They took a great interest in the world outside of Denmark and would travel to a wide range of places together. This would change Anni’s life forever.

A shock in Dubrovnik

© Pixababy
The old city in Dubrovnik.

It was on one of those trips that Anni would face a great shock.

During a conference in Dubrovnik in what is now Croatia, in 1961 Anni met students from all over the world and in particular a group of Palestinian students made an unforgettable impression.

They were sweet and gentle. But they had not been conversing for long before they began to explain about what had happened 13 years before. An event that had shook and spread their people in all directions. They told touching stories and showed pictures, Anni recalls. She was absolutely overwhelmed by their words.

Anni was aware that the state of Israel had been established, but while in Denmark she had mainly thought of it as a good thing that the Israelis would now have their own state. Now she was confronted by her new young friends who told her about how their families were fleeing and how their land had been abruptly taken from them.

The words made a deep impression, and Anni felt suddenly so blind and ignorant. Her thoughts went back to the situation during the occupation, and how many Germans had later said that they had now not been aware of what was actually happening. Anni felt her anger grow. As though she had been misled and that the story about what had really happened had been concealed.

“In 1961 we were completely blind. We had no idea about what had happened”, says Anni Kanafani.

The platform

Anni stepped out of the train onto the platform and was suddenly hit by the hot sun that baked down even though it was still early in the day. The countryside had alternated between mountains and long stretches of green vegetation, while the carriages had bumped their way along the tracks from southern Turkey and over the border into Syria.

But here she was. In Damascus, a lively city with throngs of people. She was 26 years old, Danish and completely alone. Anni’s Palestinian friends had given her the address of a student hostel for women where she could stay. But she had no idea how to actually find her way to it.

© Rikke Østergård

Anni stepped away from the platform and started to move around to try to get an overview. Stared at the signs. Everything was in Arabic. Just right there at that moment she felt lonely. What in the world was she doing here, she wondered?

Travelled alone

After the student conference in Dubrovnik, Anni was so taken by the thought of the Middle East that she had decided to travel there to experience it. She visited several countries together with a girlfriend – who then had to return home due to illness in the family. But Anni refused to give up and go back home. At this point, she had to travel on. Which is why she would now find herself alone on the platform.

He said to me: ”But you will have to go home to Denmark afterward”. You couldn’t have a Danish girl like that wandering around in Damascus

Anni Kanafani

She left the train station with caution and wandered around in the streets nearby. And there she noticed a car that she could not let back out of sight. It had Danish license plates! Her best bet would definitely be to stand by the car and wait for the owner to arrive.

Suddenly a man strutted along the street and over to the car.

The owner turned out to be a really nice man, but he was slightly sceptical about Anni’s decision to travel alone to Syria’s capital at such a young age. He took pity on her though, and showed her a little, comfortable hotel where he often had lunch. After that he promised to show her around town. The gentlemen’s name was Mr. Jørgensen, Anni remembers. He was a veterinarian and worked for the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation.

For Anni it was absolutely fascinating to see Damascus. So different, pleasant and romantic. But Mr. Jørgensen’s scepticism did not vanish. It was fine that he could just show her Damascus, he said, but her travels around here could not go on.

“He said to me, ”But you have to go home to Denmark afterward.”” You simply could not have a young Danish girl like that wandering around alone in Damascus.

After three days she succeeded in finding the recommended hostel. She parted from her new friend, Mr Jørgensen, and promised to contact him once she was safely home in Denmark again. Little did she know that she would never really be back there again.

© Rikke Østergård

The meeting

© Kalle Høver
Ghassan Kanafani was a highly regarded journalist in Lebanon in the 60’s.

Anni had a letter with her when she travelled across the border from Syria in to the Lebanese capital. She wanted to experience Beirut, but didn’t know anyone. So her new friends in Syria gave her a letter to take to a Palestinian journalist in Beirut in which they asked him to show Anni around and look after her.

The Palestinian newspaper Al-Hurriya’s offices were in the middle of Beirut near the iconic Martyrs’ Square, named after those who were executed when the Ottoman Empire controlled the country. Now there were palm trees swaying gently in rows in the enormous square. Young women drank coffee and observed the busy traffic.

That day when Anni turned up would be almost fifteen years before a devastating war was to break out and transform the majestic square into a feared front line, where snipers shot with live ammunition along the house fronts.

A young journalist

From the first moment Anni met the 25 year old Ghassan Kanafani at the newspaper, she knew that he was something special. He had a warm and friendly energy, he was well liked by his colleagues, knowledgeable and so smart that he could write an article and at the same time provide most of the entertainment in a conversation. The tone was straightforward and usually flavoured with humoristic subleties.

© Private photo
Anni still remembers how romantic it was when she met Ghassan in Beirut.

From the first moment Anni met the then 25-year-old Ghassan Kanafani at the newspaper, she knew that he was something special. He had a warm and friendly energy, he was well liked by his colleagues, knowledgeable and so smart that he could write an article and at the same time provide most of the entertainment in a conversation. The tone was straightforward and usually flavoured with humouristic subleties.

He invited her out the same day. Their evenings melted into one another as time flew in each other’s company in Beirut’s neighbourhoods and cafés. Night life blossomed in the city that to many was known as the Paris of the Middle East. It was due to the romantic curved balconies, the refined cooking and the, in some places well known, brothels, while poverty then, as now, also had a strong grip on the city.

Anni noticed the poverty when the street children welcomed her with flowers for sale late in the evening as she moved around. Ghassan told her all about it in a lively and entangling way. And also Ghassan’s own personal story touched her deeply.

Should have moved on

It was the story about how he, the year before, had come to Beirut from Kuwait where he taught art. And how before that, he had lived in Syria with his family after he had, at the age of 12, fled with them from their home-town of Acre in the then Palestine in 1948.

Two months after she arrived in Beirut, Anni gave her parents at home in Denmark quite a surprise. She was getting married.

In fact, Anni was supposed to travel on to Cairo to visit some other friends and she had even promised to visit her brother and his wife in a cottage in Italy that summer, but now the realities of life had found a way to change her plans.

“Stay just a little longer,” Ghassan asked her and finally, he would ask her to be his wife.

Her parents’ response was quite sceptical. The Middle East was seen by many people as a mysterious, strange and faraway place, even though Anni considered Lebanon a place that offered her great freedom and a life with rich culture, new friendships and passion.

“My parents were very concerned. Especially my mother. But I got support from my brothers who said, ”Listen. Anni is grown up. She knows what she’s doing.”

© Kalle Høver
The young couple were very happy. Here at their second wedding dinner which took place in Denmark.


On a winter day in 1962, there was a knock at the door.

Anni is not a person to become frightened easily. Still, she had hoped that war and turmoil belonged to the past, now that she had made her life with her husband in Lebanon.

But that day, when there was a knock at the door, Anni was concerned.

An attempted coup was under way in the country and the ringleaders were going from door to door in the streets to find out who lived where. Anni and Ghassan were in their flat on the third floor on Hamra Street, when the ringleaders got to their building. Ghassan was registered as a Palestinian refugee in Syria, but not in Lebanon and he didn’t have a work and residence permit there.

A knock on the door

Anni still remembers that evening clearly. She didn’t know if they wanted to harm Ghassan. But the knock on the door told her that an uncertain period could be underway in Lebanon. The janitor managed to prevent the visit quickly by assuring them that a Danish lady lived in the apartment. During the following two months, Ghassan had to stay at home where he spent his days writing his famous novel “Men in the Sun”. A novel that would later be well known in the entire Arab world and also made into a film.

The coup failed. But not many years from then, the times would again prove themselves difficult.

© Private photo
Ghassan’s stories could spellbind many. And his books were read widely.

Despite this, Anni enjoyed her life in the Lebanese capital, got a job in a nursery school and later spent a couple of years as secretary for the agricultural attaché at the Danish embassy.  But it was obvious that the tension was increasing as time went by. Ghassan’s career moved quickly, he became a Lebanese citizen and in 1963 he became the editor in chief of one of Lebanon’s   biggest daily newspapers. Simultaneously he would publish books and write plays, and he gradually became more involved in politics.

Summer war

In 1966 their daughter Laila was born, four years after her big brother Fayez, and the same year the family moved into a house in the beautiful mountainous countryside near the suburb of Hazmieh close to Beirut.

There was a peaceful and optimistic feeling in the country during those years. Various religious groups lived side by side in the streets of Lebanon.

© Private photo
Ghassan with the children Laila and Fayez.

But a tense situation in the Middle East developed dramatically in 1967 and led to a war in the middle of the summer. A war that Lebanon did not involve itself in directly, as it was being fought between Israel, Egypt, Syria and Jordan and which resulted in Israel’s occupation of among other things the Palestinian West Bank and the Gaza Strip. But even though Lebanon was not part of the war, the Palestinian resistance movement developed in the following years in the country.

Ghassan had, as a journalist, joined the resistance movement and became one of its intellectual and political spokespersons.

The Israeli authorities became increasingly aware of and worried about the Palestinian resistance movement. While the horrifying Lebanese civil war didn’t start officially until 1975, many people think that it actually began during the years leading up to this.

“Nobody knows the day before the sun sets,” Ghassan used to say during those years. In 1972 the war would personally begin for Anni, and the culmination for her would be on the 8th of July.

© Rikke Østergård

A kiss and see you later

The sun was blazing over the home in Hazmieh that Saturday morning. But it was not just a regular morning as Ghassan’s close family from Kuwait had just come to visit. Time flew while chatting over Turkish coffee. Fayez played with his two cousins and Ghassan was trying to fix the electric model train for the playful children.

Ghassan was on his way out of the door to drive down to his office in Beirut in the family’s little car. On regular Saturdays, Anni would join Ghassan for the drive down the mountainside to run errands and buy groceries in town. That Saturday she did not go along.

Ghassan’s beloved 17-year-old niece Lamis wanted to go with him to visit some of her cousins who lived in Beirut. She was looking forward to it. Coffee was finished and the repair of the train was done around 10:30. Lamis and Ghassan kissed their family members goodbye and made their way down to the car in the garage.

The bang

A few seconds later the whole house shook. The powerful bang was deafening. The glass in all the windows in the house shattered all at once. Ghassan’s sister Fayzeh and Anni hurried out of the building first. The others followed quickly. The air around them was thick from smoke.

“Ghassan!” they shouted.

They found Lamis first. Her body laid a little distance away from the remains of the car which was still being eaten by strong flames. Lamis’ little brother kneeled down beside his sister and talked desperately to her, as though he could wake her up. He couldn’t.

© Rikke Østergård
Anni thinks of Ghassan daily and remembers his willpower in his work.

Fayez and Laila were frightened and called for their father, Ghassan.

“Father, father!”.

Anni looked desperately for him too. Suddenly she noticed a leg. The rest of him was later found near the banana plantation below the family’s house. That morning had become their last one together.

In the years to come the assassinations became more frequent. Especially spokespersons for the Palestinian cause had attracted the attention of the Israeli authorities, who considered it a great risk that the Palestinian’s resistance fight might grow stronger inside the borders of the neighbouring country, Lebanon.

And bombs like the car bomb that killed Ghassan and Lamis would come to kill several people in the small country before the cruel civil war that really began in April 1975.

A new chapter

Hard times would follow. Ghassan’s death had created a bomb crater in Anni’s mind that would never completely heal again. Anni could of course have left Lebanon to travel back to Denmark. But she felt that she owed it to Ghassan to get up and complete his mission, so she spent the next two years getting back up and moving out of the shadow of sorrow. She took a job at the Palestinian research centre in Beirut and warmth and overwhelming support from Ghassan’s and her close, solid circle of friends and family surrounded her.

Ghassan’s lively character and personality were missed by many and Anni got together with some of Ghassan’s close friends to collect and publish some of his literary works. Soon after that, she also persuaded several of their friends to support the idea of establishing a nursery school in the Palestinian camp in Beirut.

Many supporters

In those days, as now, Palestinian refugee children can enrol in a UN school, but before they turn six years old there are few opportunities and no kindergarten for them. Anni’s education as a kindergarten teacher was rooted so deeply within her that she grew a burning wish to help the children, a wish that Ghassan and she had shared. In 1974 the organisation known as the Ghassan Kanafani Cultural Foundation (GKCF) became a reality.

© Rikke Østergård
It was an incredibly hard blow for Anni to lose Ghassan.

That same year, the first of Anni’s kindergartens opened. The money was few, but their supporters were many.

Anni and the newly established cultural foundation were given a building in Burj Barajneh, even though space in the Palestinian camp was tight. A carpenter built furniture for free for the kindergarten and people would come from all over to donate old toys and other things for the children. A Swedish pastor fell so much in love with the the idea that he, through aid concerts in Sweden, collected a considerable amount of money.

Kindergartens in the shadow of war

In the years to come, the kindergartens popped up in camps all over Lebanon. The need to create a better childhood with solidarity and learning for the Palestinian children was tangible.

The children flocked in to make new friends, learn to paint, draw, sing and play. Anni employed young women who lived in the camps themselves and who would develop into good teachers. The young women had the same background as the children and it quickly turned out to be still another obvious reason to employ women from the camps – they would still be able to turn up for work once the civil war started. They could look after the children even when the country would be falling apart.

© Rikke Østergård
Nothing touches Anni as much as seeing her many children happy.

Yet another war

It would not take long before war caught up with Anni again. When the war began for real in Lebanon in 1975, Anni had to leave the country for a while. It was autumn, and the right wing Christian Phalangists had taken control of Hazmieh where the family lived. Their neighbours, two friendly generals, saw the danger developing.

“The two generals in our building said, “You have to leave, you must go.”

Chaotic years followed. Anni and the children couldn’t stay in Lebanon but moved to Kuwait where the family lived with Ghassan’s sister and brother-in-law until June 1976, when they moved to Copenhagen to stay with Anni’s brother and sister-in-law. In Copenhagen Anni kept track of the struggles in the country she had left behind along with her life project.

New attacks ahead

When there was a lull in the fighting in Lebanon in 1977, she and the children left Denmark again. But five years later the civil war still had not come to an end. Anni somehow managed to get used to the periodic atrocities and the bombs that exploded in the city, but suddenly that summer it became too much.

© Rikke Østergård
Martyr Square in Beirut today.

It was in June 1982 when the now 20-year-old Fayez, who had stayed behind and lived in Copenhagen, was visiting Beirut. And that day he was in town to see a play written by the well-known and much loved singer Fairouz’s son, Ziad Rahbani. But suddenly, the Israelis came from the south and attacked Beirut with heavy bombardment in an attempt to destroy the Palestinian resistance movement in the town once and for all.

Her life-long project still standing

Bombs rained down over the Israeli targets in Beirut and Fayez tried in frustration to get access to a hospital to give blood. The war came again very close to Anni’s nearest and dearest.

Also the Palestinian camps were attacked and families in the camps were massacred by the hundreds.  The major part of Anni’s life-long project, the kindergartens, survived, but four of them were badly damaged.

The attacks forced the family to flee home to Denmark once more, but they had to go through Syria as Lebanon was falling apart.

Later that year, when Anni and Laila returned to Lebanon, Fayez stayed in Denmark again. Anni and Laila endured the horrors of war until the peace agreement was finally settled in 1989 and the bloody events died out in 1991. By that time the war had cost 250,000 lives.

© Rikke Østergård

The children’s Anni

Anni and her cultural foundation have now run her kindergartens in the Palestinian camps for 42 years. Thousands of children have come and gone there. And in spite of her age, she can still dance, draw and laugh with the small, happy children who almost all recognize Anni as soon as she walks in the door.

© Rikke Østergård
Play, song and dance are major activities in Anni’s kindergartens.

There is no doubt that she has made a big impression on the children who have had the opportunity to be a part of the community. An impression that remains clearly in the children’s memories even when they have grown up.

Recognised by former kindergarten children

Some years ago, Anni met a young woman on a plane to Denmark. The woman told her, with a big smile, that she had gone to the kindergarten in Burj el Barajneh camp and that she was newly married. And another time, when Anni was taking a walk with a Swedish friend on the promenade along the waterfront in the city of Saida, they were watched carefully by a couple of young men in their early twenties who were leaning on the balustrade by the water. Suddenly one of them jumped up and greeted Anni enthusiastically. He too felt the urge to tell her that he was a former kindergarten child.

Of course it has also made an impression on the parents to see people come from outside and look at the children’s art and then buy the works of art.

Anni Kanafani

It makes it all worthwhile that the kindergartens clearly mean so much for the children, Anni feels. Many of the former kindergarten children also come back to become teachers in the kindergartens. Some of them even help in the children’s libraries or in Anni’s centre for children with special needs, where among others blind children can read entire books written in Braille.

Facing criticism

Over the years she has also received criticism. Mostly from parents with raised eyebrows. Anni spends most of the time giving the children paint, brushes and clay so they can express themselves through art. Usually the complaints would arise because the children did not learn to read and write as much as their parents would like. Anni would take some time to quietly explain how the ability to hold a paint brush can open up also for being able to write.

As the paints are exchanged and negotiated among the children as the big common project has to be coloured, they get to learn about negotiation, dialogue and thinking democratically. This is most certainly important to Anni; to learn about empathy and helping one another. 

© Rikke Østergård
The children learn a lot through art. And the works of art are often sold.

She smiles when she remembers how the mood suddenly changed when she, together with Laila and the art teachers, started to exhibit the children’s pictures. The exhibitions literally attracted outsiders who admired the imaginative painting and also bought them. Pride grew among the parents in the refugee camps because their children were able to do something so special and sensational. Later, the complaints ceased by themselves Anni assures quietly with satisfaction in her voice.

“Of course it has also made an impression on the parents to see people come from outside and look at the children’s art and then buy the works of art”, she says.

In recent years, a number of Syrian children have entered the kindergartens gradually as still more families have been forced to flee across the border from Syria and into Lebanon. And the Syrian children have adapted surprisingly well. Both Anni and her staff have been impressed by how well they get along with the other children. It is obvious that the Syrian refugee children come from good backgrounds, that before the war they have lived a good life in peace and quiet. They have a good childhood behind them which gives them a ballast and strength. And that illustrated very well what Anni, over the years, has realised:

“Children are after all children wherever they are,” she emphasises.

© Rikke Østergård
Although she is busy, Anni still has a lot of energy and her warm smile at the age of nearly 82.


And it is really great fun to see how children all over the world develop in the same way. They play the same games. And that is no matter where they are, she adds. In Copenhagen, Damascus, Palestine or Lebanon. They play hide and seek, skip rope and play hopscotch. As children, we are all born the same and can develop in the same way if we have the opportunity.
And that is an opportunity that is vital for Anni to be able to give children. A future.

If you ask Anni about her own future, now that she is 81 years old, she chuckles quietly and shrugs her shoulders. There is so much to do. Far too much to stop. And what should she do if she could not be there for the children?”