Grundtvigs Højskole is a traditional folk high school in Hillerød, Denmark. It started as a school for farmer kids in 1895 but today serves as a transitional point for young people of many backgrounds between the age of 18 and 28, where they can study and choose a direction for future education. Every year more refugees are coming to Europe. There were about 6000 applications for refugee status in Denmark during 2016. To address this situation the Danish government started a special refugee program at folk high schools all across Denmark. At these schools young refugees study Danish language, culture, history, and literature. Grundtvigs Folk High School is included in this program. In the spring of 2017, 10 of 150 Grundtvigs students attended as part of this integration project. Though the Danish government has started paying more attention to this processes, integration into Danish society remains a challenge for refugees. No matter how many years some refugees live in Denmark, many still can’t – or won’t – call themselves Danish. The language, religion, and culture gaps are too big. This causes loneliness and a sense of detachment from mainstream Danish society.
Reshan is 25 years old. She grew up in Quamishli, Syria. A brutal civil war and increasing oppression of Kurds forced her family move to Denmark 6 years ago. They chose Denmark because her elder brother already lived there for a few years. Reshan moved to Denmark three years later. “When I was born, my father wanted to give me the Kurdish name ‘Reshan’. But he changed his mind because it could have caused a lot of problems. Syria is Muslim country, and Syrians don’t like Kurds, so my father had to give me an Arabic name – ‘Rasha’. Now I have two names – my family calls me ‘Reshan’ and I am ‘Rasha’ on my passport. It was also forbidden to speak in Kurdish language at school. If teachers noticed that, they would punish us.” For Reshan, Grundtvigs folk high school is opportunity to learn Danish language and to meet new friends. She wants to pursue higher education and find a job afterwards. But she needs to pass a Danish language exam first.
Mohammed came to Denmark 20 years ago. He left Iraq with his elder brother after the first American invasion when he was only 8 years old. Mohammed’s family didn’t have money to buy fake passports, so along with other refugees his family sailed across the Black Sea to reach Bulgaria. A border guard patrol stopped the ship and they had to swim to Bulgarian coast. There were not enough life jackets. Mohammed’s older brother gave him his life vest. “My brother sank. I reached the Bulgarian coast alone. I didn’t have any money or food. I ate grass as there was nothing else, and finally got sick. Refugees from Eritrea and Palestine found a doctor. We travelled together to Germany. After Germany I went to Denmark where I was stopped by immigration service. They took custody of me, which is why I stayed in Denmark. After three years the rest of my family also moved here.”
Mohammed and Reshan met at Grundtvigs. They often spend time in the living room with other refugees after classes.
Reshan is showing her arm. “When my family moved to Denmark to join my brother, I remained in Beirut. I felt very lonely there. I tried to commit suicide three times, and every time somebody saved my life. My route to reunite with my family wasn’t easy. From Lebanon I went to Turkey, because I didn’t need to get a visa, then to Greece. I bought a fake passport in Greece and tried to fly to Denmark but it didn’t work. After 18th try, I flew to Italy. From Italy I finally flew to Denmark to join my family.”
“I didn’t know the Danish language; that was the most difficult thing for me in Denmark. Learning Danish is very hard. Denmark is wealthy country with high standards of living, but I wish I could have stayed in Syria. The Danish winter is a long and cold period when people mostly stay at home. I hate winters here.”
Reshan is cutting hair of a Polish student. “My brother insisted that I study hairdressing. I studied in English, as I didn’t know any Danish at that time. He was right: it helped to distract me from hard feelings about moving to Denmark and war in Syria. I also met new people here.”
Mohammed went to Grundtvigs through a program for ex-prisoners, sponsored by the Danish government. “The First time I went to jail I was 16 years-old. I stole a car. In prison I met people from a mafia; they found me a year after I came out of the jail. We started working together. I was in prison three times after that for a total of 4 years and 6 months.”
“The last time I was in prison, I decided to quit the mafia… not for myself, but for my two daughters. My brother told me about the program for ex-prisoners at Grundtvigs where I could live and study. I started a new life here. I want to get a bachelor’s degree after højskole and work as a chef in a restaurant.”
There are 150 students at Grundtvigs folk high school, 10 of them are refugees. Usually students can choose which subjects to study at school. Danish culture and language are obligatory for refugee students; they can choose the rest of their subjects. Reshan chose physical training, the history of War in Europe, and modern Danish literature.
Reshan and her friend Mariam ready to begin a physical training lesson.
Danish language notebook of a refugee student.
Reshan in her friend Mariam’s room. Mariam came to Denmark from Palestine. Refugee students normally live with Danish students for full language immersion. Mariam doesn’t have a roommate now so Reshan often stays in her room at night.
The folk high school does excursions to Protestant churches for refugee students to learn about foundations of Christianity, which is the predominant religion of Denmark. Mariam had never been to a Protestant church before.
Danish attitudes towards refugees are slowly changing for the better, but cultural and religious differences still separate migrants and indigenous people. Reshan said, “I don’t have many close friends among the Danes. I have one Danish friend in Copenhagen. We live in the same city district. Danish people are very private, so it’s hard to make friends here. I have many acquaintances at school, but they aren’t my close friends. My close friends are mostly other refugees: Mariam and Mohammed.”
Not everybody at Grundtvigs knows about Mohammed’s criminal past. Two days ago the police called him with a demand to go to a prison for a week for an earlier charge of driving a car without a license. He committed this offense two years ago, before his last prison stint. Mohammed was very upset about it, because 8 months ago he made up his mind never to go to a jail again.
Mohammed preparing to share his story with students at Grundtvigs.
Grundtvigs folk high school has a tradition: every day students share news during lunch. Mohammed took this opportunity to tell everyone the story of his life.
Mohammed and Reshan.
Mohammed, Reshan and Mariam in the schoolyard.
Resham, Mariam and other friends saying goodbye to Mohammed before he returns to prison for a week.
Mohammed is leaving for the prison.
Mariam and Reshan leaving school for a weekend to visit their families.
“I’ve lived in Denmark for 20 years already, but I still can’t call myself Danish. I certainly borrow some traits from Danish people, but nevertheless, I will always remain a Muslim in foreign country.”
Reshan is heartbroken over the violence in Syria: “5 months ago the building near the place I used to live was bombed. 150 people died; two of them were my close friends. I follow the news about the war in my country. My roommate at school often asks me about the war in Syria but I can’t talk about it, not even with other Kurdish people. I talk about how beautiful my country was before the war. I have an opportunity to speak with a psychologist, but I don’t feel that I am ready, even three years after I left Syria. People in Europe think that refugees move to their countries for high living standards and money. I don’t think that’s true. We move here simply because we want to survive.