Danish Adult Education Association (DAEA) is an umbrella organisation (NGO) catering for 34 countrywide member organisations, all working with non-formal adult education.
In cooperation with a number of member organisations, DAEA has launched the initiative “Non-formal learning for refugees”. The purpose of the initiative is to draw attention to the mane existing activities, to share knowledge and experience and inspire others, to take part in the public debate in favor of human equality and active citizenship.
Every Thursday, 30 women meet at the arts & crafts room at the Engholm School in Allerød. Nearly half of them have recently arrived in Denmark as refugees from Eritrea, Syria or Afghanistan. The rest have lived in Allerød and the surrounding area for a longer while. Together, they create new and interesting needlework from recycled materials.
Each meeting starts with two of the women sharing their stories, after which the group splits into five different workshops where they create textile prints on tablecloths, jewellery from copper wire or crocheted carpets from bed sheets. Everything they create is made from recycled materials.
Needlework gives them a common language, which allows them to understand each other - thereby facilitating diversity and cultural exchange. Though some of them cannot speak or understand Danish yet, they do know what a sewing needle can be used for.
The women talk about a wide range of topics, big and small, while they work. In the midst of it all, one of the women, Hasia, shouts: “I know how to use a sewing machine, yay!” This is her first encounter with voluntary associations in Denmark.
“In the olden days, women would sit around the table, knitting or embroidering while telling stories. That’s what we want to revive,” said Lena Becker, Principal at DOF Allerød Recreational School.
“Our advantage is that this is ‘subtle’ integration. For example, one of the women is from Afghanistan and has no family or friends in Denmark. She is going to meet two women who she’s gotten to know through the course, both of whom also have a different ethnic background, but have lived in Denmark longer. There is also a Danish mentor who wants to help her,” said Henriette Rolf Larsen, one of the teachers.
The immigrant women on the team are from Palestine and Iraq. They help with interpretation, as half of the refugee women do not speak Danish. One Iranian woman who works with the Danish NGO Neighbourhood Mothers, which helps vulnerable and isolated immigrant women, is also part of the course. Besides helping interpret, she also shows the refugee women that making a dedicated effort to integrate into Danish society pays off.
It all began with a typical Danish evening school team: The recycled materials design team at DOF Allerød Recreational School. The team designed various things out of cleverly recycled materials such as bell wires, old tablecloths, books, bicycle tubes, etc. The finished products were put on display at two libraries and the local Red Cross shop.
One day, the teacher, Henriette Rolf Larsen joked: “Maybe we should invite some refugees to join us?”
Everyone was immediately on board. The school principal, Lena Becker, helped the group get funding for the idea through DOF.
Two newspapers published articles about the initiative. The team held an intro-meeting and advertised the initiative in the local newspaper together with information on whom to contact, and it turned out there was no shortage of people willing to help. Needlework instructors from the recycled materials design team and a number of Danish women signed up as volunteer mentors. The Danish refugee organisation Venligboerne also helped spread the word via Facebook. A garage set up to receive recyclable materials from the local community was soon flooded with donations.
Making contact with refugee women
However, it turned out that it was no simple matter getting in touch with interested refugee women, despite help from both Venligboerne and the Danish Refugee Council.
The breakthrough came when the team contacted a social worker in the Allerød ‘Integration House’ (Integrationshuset). The social worker was also interested in needlework, and immediately appreciated the concept of using the activity as a means to facilitate integration. Soon after, a group of refugee women had signed up for the course.
Voluntary and informal
“We can have a chat with a woman about educational opportunities while sewing at the same table as her. We are not a public authority and problems here are resolved in an informal manner. The Integration House is full of praise for us because we create a different atmosphere here and the women learn what it’s like to go and do something in their free time,” Larsen said.
The group has become a community for the women and helped them build a network. While they work they discuss a wide variety of topics, both big and small. The refugees get to practice their Danish, which gives them a boost in self-esteem. Lastly, they get to participate in a regular activity and experience the joy of learning something new.
“The first batch of refugee women has told others about us. At the same time, it’s a very educational process for the Danish women. It’s led to some very unique friendships,” Larsen said.
DOF Allerød Recreational School hopes to contribute to the integration of refugee women through this project, which also aims to give them a chance to learn more about and experience Danish evening school culture.
The course is organised as an evening school course of 24 lessons over 8 Thursdays.
The project is funded by the Danish Adult Learning Association (DOF).
Each of the course participants either pays DKK 20 or brings a cake or something else to eat
Most of the materials have been donated by the local community in Allerød