Integration of refugees from a local perspective – Anna Louise Todsen, Denmark

Living in an increasingly globalised world means that conflicts happening in one part of the world are not only affecting the regions nearby but that the consequences are felt in in all parts of the world. Conflicts such as the civil war in Syria are not only regional issues anymore –they have become global and have ended up affecting a large number of countries.

This became evident in the eyes of my local community when about 200 Syrian refugees fleeing war and violence in their home country arrived to Nordborg, a small city in Southern Denmark with about 6000 inhabitants. While seeking asylum in Denmark they are to be housed in there and when getting a permanent residence permit in Denmark, they will be distributed throughout the country.

The number of refugees seeking asylum in Denmark quadrupled from the beginning of 2014. there were 2,300 asylum-seekers in August, bringing the total number for 2014 up to 7,900. In addition 6000 people are expected to arrive in 2015.

The consequences of bad integration and what is necessary to avoid it, is a topic most heavily discussed in Denmark. How bad integration and immigration in general can lead to an increase of the crime-rate and results in economic burdens for the state and how these challenges should be handled fills a lot on the political agenda. These discussions are so focused on what the consequences are, that the original question, how we can ensure successful integration of immigrants, is overlooked.

The state already offers integration-programmes supporting newly arrived foreigners in acquiring the skills necessary to cope in Denmark, but this alone cannot ensure a genuine integration. Most importantly, a successful integration requires mutual respect and openness: both from the immigrants and from the citizens welcoming the newly arrived. If they cannot respect each other and their cultural differences, it is not likely that they will ever get integrated.

The integration of Syrian refugees into my local community has showed that. The refugees were only applying for asylum, and were therefore not participating in any official integration-programme. Instead they were met with openness from the local citizens, and they were themselves interested in and respectful towards the culture and community they moved into. This is an example of how an integration-process should look like – and it shows how far simple values as mutual respect and openness reaches.

When the Danish Immigration Service announced which municipalities and cities should temporarily house the refugees, the news was received with mixed emotions. Politically, there were many different opinions about whether or not Denmark should accept refugees at all.

When the rumour about the asylum-centre in Nordborg started spreading, at first it scared a lot of the local citizens. Stories and examples on how large numbers of immigrants in a city has negative impacts on the crime-rate and the local community in general made some of the citizens worried. There was concern about what kind of people they were, and some of the prejudices that people might have had hidden inside of them blazed up. The tight immigration policies and general view on immigrants of some right-wing parties, who has recently met an increase in popularity, might also affect the people’s general view on immigrants and surely not making them more open-minded and welcoming towards the arrival of more immigrants.

The decision of placing an asylum-centre in Nordborg met a lot of opposition from the local area, and people were generally dissatisfied with it. A very negative feeling towards the fact that the city should house refugees started spreading but the citizens couldn’t do anything about it: the decision was made.

That is when a local man, Martin Zeissler, took things into his own hands and organized a public meeting. He wanted to start a dialogue about how the local community should handle the situation and get the best of it. The aim of the meeting was to find out what the community could do to welcome the new arrivals in the best possible way.
During this meeting a “support-group”, a voluntary group of committed citizens who aimed to welcome and prepare the Syrian for their future life in Denmark was sat up. The meeting also encouraged other citizens to embrace and be open-minded towards the new arrivals.
Apart from this, the public meeting also started a discussion among the citizens on how to turn the situation into a positive thing. It gave the citizens a different and more positive perspective on the situation, which may have helped creating a more open-minded approach to arrival of the refugees. This meeting taught the locals how to overcome their anxiety, and even

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The first public meeting was organized by Martin Zeissler and about 250 citizens showed up.

About 200 Syrian refugees moved into the asylum-centre in Nordborg consisting of apartments rented by the Danish Immigration Service. The refugees were mostly men and when they arrived, the volunteer group wanted to hear from them what they needed. They had already collected clothes and electronic devices such as computers and televisions, but when they asked them what they really wanted, they replied in an unexpected way.

We asked them what they needed and they said: “We want to learn Danish, we want to integrate, we want to know how to live here, and want to get to know some people”, said Martin Zeissler to the Danish newspaper “Politiken”.

The group of volunteers has organized a lot of activities aiming to get the local citizens and the newly arrived refugees to get to know each other and to prepare them in the best possible way for their future life in Denmark.
Large joint dinners for both local citizens and the Syrian refugees have been organized and a group of volunteers have sat up Danish language classes. A football team has been formed and the Syrians are, along with a group of volunteers, making YouTube videos showing other newly arrived foreigners in Denmark how to behave in the Danish society in order to make their integration-process easier.

This story was brought up in nationwide medias and described as the “miracle in Nordborg”. But was it really a miracle, or just a group of people with common sense who stood up for that they believed was right?

The local groups of volunteers have done a lot for the refugees – but that would not have been worth anything if the Syrians had not met these initiatives with openness. They can along with Martin Zeissler visit local schools and educate students about the situation in Syria and tell them about their experiences, and what it is like to flee to another country. Through openness and respect they have seem to overcome the cultural and religious barriers there might have been expected to be between people from such different countries. It is these two values that have ensured the successful integration.

In my opinion, this is an example of how every integration process should be like, but unfortunately in many cases it does not work that perfectly. Even though this story is very local and only affecting a minor number of people, it clearly shows how simple it can be to solve this kind of problems. And I think that many people – civilians who have to welcome new immigrants into their community, refugees who are fleeing their home country and politicians – can learn something from this. It shows that integration is about a lot more than official integration-programs and political discussions about asylum rules: it is about people accepting and helping each other.

though not everyone was that convinced, the general feeling was that the Syrian refugees were welcome in Nordborg.

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