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What does a day in the life of an asylum seeker in Denmark look like?

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Arriving in Denmark is not easy. Language, customs and culture are challenging. While being a Dane means having much admired social privileges such as the access to a high-class health care system and social benefits, Denmark remains an exclusive society.

The application process for asylum is complex and the future remains uncertain.This is how refugees in Jutland structure their day in order to both keep busy and become acclimatized to the country.

Tekst: Anja Boencke
Foto: Teresa Weikmann

A glance at the map of Denmark’s asylum centers reveals an obvious fact: all of them are located outside of Denmark’s cities, in the countryside.While official statistics by the Danish government show how more and more Danes are gravitating towards big cities, refugees are living in rural areas. Accommodation is often located in small villages or made up of a couple houses outside the Danish community.

The challenges this creates for refugees range from daily tasks like buying groceries to the simple issue of boredom. The need to fill the day with something meaningful is strong, as bureaucracy and complex processes make applications for political asylum dense and nearly incomprehensible.

 At the regional Red Cross Office in Voldby, Claus Pedersen and his team function as a point of intersection for all asylum seekers living in Grenaa, Lyngbygaard and Voldby. Busses commute from the isolated centers to the regional office every day to take children to the kindergarten or elementary school and adults to their Danish classes, the health clinic or the job centre. Thus, Voldby makes up an important location for everyday life of refugees from the entire region.

“If you have been to an asylum centre, you get an impression of what life is for them. It is not easy. You and me? We can handle the situation maybe for a year. If you know it’s only a year, it’s okay. And we will do the best to keep up the spirit. But after a year, what can you do? You want to be a member of the society, but you just can’t.”- Claus Pedersen

The Red Cross is not involved in the process asylum application process in Denmark — rather, they take care of the refugees. With funds and budgets set by the state and managed by contracts, they have provided accommodation, infrastructure and support for asylum seekers for more than 25 years.

The system Pederson manages as Regional Manager is highly complex and includes an interdisciplinary team of teachers, doctors and social workers.

To get an impression of what an average day in the life of an asylum seeker in Denmark looks like, let’s take a walk through the Red Cross facilities in Voldby.

Stop 1: Kindergarten.

All kids under the age of five have the option to attend Kindergarten, a place where kids can learn and play in a safe environment. The educators are specially trained for their sensitive task: taking care of often times strongly traumatized children, who have not had the freedom to be children for a long time.

To have a safe place where parents can leave their kids is also crucial for their parents. This way, they can participate in educational programs in Voldby without being worried about their children or go to appointments with the Danish authorities with serenity.

Stop 2: Children and Youth school – Playing, learning, being safe.

Just like all other children and young people in Denmark, the children in the asylum centres have the right to attend school. All subjects are taught in Danish and include a wide range of subjects like natural sciences (mathematics, science and technology) to art, language and music classes. If things are going well and the children have developed sufficient language skills, they can move on to a Danish elementary and school – the first step towards integration into Danish society. Pedersen: “We want the kids to be able to go to a Danish school, a normal school. If they stay here for a long time, we want them to be a part of the normal system.”

Alternatively, their families are granted asylum and the families move to other municipalities.

But this is not always the case, as in many cases the children must return to their home countries when their family is denied asylum. The name tags on the lockers in the elementary school grant a false comforting impression of permanency.

Stop 3: Clothing market.

Once a week, volunteers from the region open up a little clothing market in the centre. Clothes are mainly donated and sold for a small price, so refugees can have access to cheap winter clothes.

Stop 4: Adult education and personal development – Where are you headed?

Danish classes take place 10 hours a week and are accessible for all adults. “We have good attendance in classes, because we work on it. If someone doesn’t come to school we go over once a week to find out why someone doesn’t show up and if we can help with anything. But 99 percent of all adults attend classes” says teacher Theresa Juul.

“It is a very delicate situation, being an asylum seeker. So we go over and talk to them and say: ‘Please, don’t give up! Try to be active. We know it’s very difficult. But please come.'” – Pedersen.

Danish lessons mostly consist of phrases that can be used in everyday life and to give some orientation on what to say around the supermarket, when ordering food or asking for directions.

“And I teach them all the polite phrases. ‘Godmorgen’, ‘Mange tak’, ‘Hav en god dag’. Being polite is so important in Denmark. It’s a new country, new customs.” – Juul.

Furthermore, Danish classes also include practical information about Danish customs, traditions and characteristics. Juul explains the Danish school system, and that in Denmark, education is not just for children, it’s for everyone and it does not stop when you are 18. At Voksenskole, Danes can improve their qualifications at any age.

Additionally there is a computer room, which is open all day and serves as a communication base between refugees and their families and friends back home.

One of the greatest challenges for Pedersen’s team is not just to keep the adults occupied, but to provide them with basic skills for their daily life. A lot of young men arrive in Europe as refugees alone. “They don’t know how to handle their own food, so you can bring them here and teach them a little about how to help themselves in the kitchen so they can make themselves a decent meal,” says Pedersen.

Job Centre, Red Cross Centre, Voldby

All have access to adult education and a job centre, which provides information about internship opportunities with local businesses and voluntary-based job opportunities at the centre in Voldby. Additionally, Red Cross workers help with the entry challenges of the Danish job market such as writing a CV in Danish and English.

Stop 5: Health Clinic – Staying healthy, staying sane.

Experienced Red Cross nurses offer medical support to all asylum seekers with health issues. In Voldby, refugees also have access to specialized doctors and psychologists. Manuals on the health care system and how to receive the help they need are available in many languages.

Stop 6: Social support – Keeping in touch.

Social worker Marie is taking care of all the social problems in the region. Everyone’s personal situation is very different, from families who have problems with their children to single men and single women. And the issues asylum seekers are facing in social contexts are diverse. It’s hard to explain the situation of being a refugee to a child. “It’s not that parents don’t know how to take care of their children, but they are so stressed that they struggle,” explains Marie.

Stop 7: Leisure time – Sports, clubs and touch points with Danes.

After a long day of school, language classes and homework, both children and adults at the Voldby centre engage in recreational activities. Once in a while, the centers organize tournaments in soccer, basketball or other sports and compete with each other.

When it comes to touch points between Danes and asylum seekers, most of them are based upon Danish volunteers who help out at the centers.

After a racism-motivated offender set one of the volunteer’s car on fire in front of one of Jutland’s asylum accommodation centers, over 2000 people came to show their support for refugees. “They showed their sympathy. Most people were stating the need to talk about possible problems and clashes between cultures, but were marking a strong sign: ‘This is too much. We do not accept this!'”, Pedersen says.

For Christmas, Pedersen’s team organized a special opportunity to get in touch the local culture: “A lot of Danes offered to invite refugees over for Christmas, so they can experience it as a normal day and learn about our crazy ways to celebrate this holiday!”