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Migrants are doing it by themselves


Alma Bekturganova and Rose Anne Valera organise learning for other migrants in Denmark, guiding them through the informal rules of Danish society.

Alma Bekturganova Andersen (top) Young filipinos spending a summer’s day together (bottom)

Photos: Verdens kvinder


We are better at motivating other migrants for learning, and we are better at explaining the informal rules and habits of Danish society“. Alma Bekturganova Andersen and Rose Anne Valera are organising learning activities for other migrants in Denmark.

Alma Bekturganova Andersen and Rose Anne Valera came to Denmark from two very different parts of the world – Alma from Kazakhstan in the former Soviet Republic and Rose Anne from the Philippines.

Alma is married to a Dane and working as a consultant and project coordinator at the World Cultural Centre, a community house in Copenhagen. Rose Anne came to Denmark as an au-pair in 2008. She is now studying, and she has been volunteering in the Filipino community around a catholic church in Copenhagen since she arrived.

They both have taken a central role in self organised learning activities among migrant women. The two women do not know each other, but they certainly agree about the advantages of learning, organised by the migrants themselves.

The Fun Approach

The learning activities of the Filipino au-pairs are just the latest in a range of activities, organised by themselves and volunteers of the Catholic Church. These include social events, sports events and spiritual events.

“The au-pairs always work in the morning hours. This is also the time that we mostly are offered Danish language lessons by the municipality. That is why we began to organise our own Danish lessons which take place in the evening,” Rose Anne explains.

Lessons take place in a room in the basement of the Saint Anne’s Church. The teachers are Danish volunteers from the Church. Classes are very informal.

“The au-pairs work hard all day, and they are often tired when they arrive. So they are not ready for traditional intensive school-teaching. We know because first we tried that.
Instead we now use the fun approach, just trying to talk and learn the words of everyday Danish language. It is more relaxed. It is another learning method, but we still do home work as well,”
says Rose Anne.

The benefits of learning

Au-pairs are usually in Denmark only for two years. Many host families prefer to talk English with them, because it is less complicated than helping them learning Danish. The result is that not all the young women are very motivated for learning the language.

“I and other Filipino volunteers who have been in Denmark for a longer period are working very hard to convince the au-pairs about the advantages of learning Danish,” says Rose Anne.

She explains how:

“First, we tell them to go out and explore Danish society. Many au-pairs stay in their rooms, connecting on Facebook with friend and family in the Philippines. They are homesick and they risk getting depressed.
Talking a bit Danish will help them connect to the Danish society. We also organise trips to museums and other places to explore Copenhagen. We even went to Legoland in Jutland on a trip.
Secondly we explain how they will benefit from learning Danish in the long run. Many employers in the Philippines want employees that are multilingual. Social and learning activities in Denmark make their CV more attractive, and they may get higher salaries.
Thirdly some of the women go on to another country to be au-pairs there. Having learned Danish will make it easier to learn Norwegian or Swedish.
Finally, some of the au-pairs want to study in Denmark like me, and some get married here. For those Danish language of course is very important.
That is how we try to motivate the au-pairs to learn Danish language and culture.”

The volunteers also organises information meeting about the laws and their rights in Denmark and about Danish culture and habits.

Women of the World

The World Culture Centre is full of activities mostly related to migrant communities and international topics. There are meeting rooms of all sizes and a nice cafe that is open most of the day. In addition consultants like Alma help individuals, groups and associations with all kinds of activities.

“We don’t take the initiative and invite them to activities at community centre. They come to us with their ideas about different cultural events, and we help them realise the activities.”

That is how Alma Bekturganova Andersen describes her job at the centre.
At the same time she is on a personal basis member of one of the many groups that are using the building. It is called “Women of the World in Denmark”. They started their activities eight years ago with a core group of women coming from the former Soviet Republic and other Eastern European countries. Since then, women from other countries have joined.

The Clever Monday

The association organises all kind of learning activities: lecturers, study circles and political debates. “The Clever Monday” was the first. Almost every Monday the members are invited to a lecture on an important issue. Among the topics this spring were “cloth and identity”, “feminism and everyday problems”, “the Danish health system”, “why membership of a trade union?”, “Danish pedagogy principles in kindergartens and schools”.

“Mostly the lecturers are other migrants. They are the only ones that can really relate to the problems that migrant women have in understanding the Danish society, the laws and the informal rules,” says Alma.
“For example, women from the former Soviet bloc and many other countries are used to just do, what their superior at the workplace tells them to do, not thinking or deciding by themselves. That is how you are expected to work, from where we come. If you act like that in Denmark, you will be considered a bad employee.”

Alma and “The Women of the World in Denmark” normally insist on speaking Danish at meetings.

“We have to learn the language, and we have to try to understand each other even if we don’t speak the language very well. But there was one topic that we had to deal with in Russian. That was the Danish tax system. It is so complicated that we had to talk about it in our mother tongue,” she says.

Literature and society

The association also have study circles in Danish literature. Alma tells about this activity:

“We don’t read the books as just pieces of art. We choose them to understand Danish society. For example we read a novel about a lonely old man, living in one of the allotment areas that are called “kolonihaver” [Note from the editor: These are small gardens in urban areas, usually with small sheds that are only fit for overnight stay in the summer time]. From that we learned about old people in Denmark and about the Danish “kolonihave”-culture.”

Coffee Hours is the title of a series of informal debate meetings with Danish politicians.

“This helps us understand the political traditions of Denmark. But, certainly it also helps the politicians understand us. Some of them seemed very surprised about how articulate and critical we were,” says Alma.

Wasted years

Most of the women of the association have some kind of education from their home country. This makes them more inclined to other learning activities in contrast to many Turkish, Pakistani and Somali women in Denmark.
Alma tells the story about a meeting with about 25 Turkish women, she was invited to.

“My first words were: Today, you are not allowed to speak Turkish! Why? Because I don’t understand it. But we don’t speak Danish, they said.
I then asked them how long they have lived in Denmark. How long did you live in Denmark, they replied. Seven years, I said, and they got very quiet.
I asked them why. Because we are embarrassed, some of them said. We have lived in Denmark for 20 years, and we don’t speak nearly as well as you do.
Then we had a good discussion about the need to learn. At the end of the meeting some of them told me: We realize we have wasted time. We thought we would soon return to Turkey and did not need to speak Danish, but now we know we will stay here.
I think that  – little by little – also the migrant women without educational background will start learning,”
Alma reflects.

One small step in that direction is another initiative by Women of the World in Denmark. A collaboration between women of four ethnic associations (ex-Soviet, Bosnian, Moroccan and Somali) recently started a series of debate meetings about identity: identity of second generation migrants, identity of young girls and identity of strong women.

This article was produced in cooperation with InfoNet adult education network.

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