Cultural encounters with Danes of similar age produces better integration
Pictures of large groups of people walking along the Danish motorways occupied much of the media in autumn 2015. The flocks of people were refugees, often from Syria, who had left their war-torn homeland and had come to Europe hoping to find peace.
Some refugees were on their way to Sweden, while others remained in Denmark during what became known in Denmark as the refugee crisis. The Immigration, Integration and Housing Ministry registered 8,608 asylum seekers from Syria in 2015.
When refugees apply for asylum in Denmark and are distributed across the municipalities, they are met with a formal plan from the authorities, and the receiving municipality must offer the refugees an integration programme consisting of Danish language training and employment-oriented offers.
But there is also an alternative to formal education. It is a more informal initiative, which is often overlooked by the Danish authorities, according to new research from Professor Michelle Pace from Roskilde University.
Refugee flows are one of her research areas, and since February 2016, she has been working on a project to show how education in a broad sense can promote democratic principles and strengthen social stability and cohesion in, among others, Denmark. The project was funded by the Fund for Academic Cooperation and Exchange between Denmark and the Arab World (FACE), which is part of the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs' Danish-Arab Partnership Programme.
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In this context, she has followed and interviewed a number of unaccompanied young Syrian refugees, who came to Denmark as teenagers in autumn 2015. A common feature they share is that the informal connections with Danish society are something they value, and which also have a beneficial effect. The informal activities can be sports, communal dining or cultural events.
"One of the things we discovered about the young refugees was that the best way to learn a language and learn about a culture is to meet with and spend time with people of their own age. The refugees respect that they are surrounded by teachers, educators, psychologists and other professionals, but they missed being integrated with people of their own age” says Michelle Pace.
Michelle Pace has worked with six municipalities in Denmark, including organising a field trip to Lebanon for Danish practitioners to see how a country that has accepted a large number of refugees from Syria copes with the challenge. In the current project, she has worked closely with Roskilde municipality in particular, where the interviewed refugees are living.
Dance brought refugees and Danes together
When Michelle Pace emphasizes the benefits of informal education on the road to integration, it should not be perceived as an either-or choice between formal and informal measures such as language tuition.
"You definitely miss out on a lot if you cannot understand and speak Danish, because Danish is important. But it has to be a combination. We also have to understand the nature of everyday life for these young people” she explains.
The informal education that has been central to Michelle Pace's research project can have several different forms and has often had links to culture. Among other things, she has observed the meeting between young refugees and Danes of a similar age in a Friday youth centre, where the young people could meet in connection with e.g. film and food experiences across nationalities.
Another informal education activity that Michelle Pace observed, was a dance workshop with young refugees and Danes, whose highlight was a public performance at the annual Light Festival in Roskilde.
"I observed the training. The choreographers arranged all the youngsters in a circle. Initially, the participants stood next to those they felt safe with, but over the course of the week, they gradually mixed more in terms of nationalities and gender” explains Michelle Pace.