This article was first published for www.civilconnections.org in October 2021 – but due to its relevance, it is here reposted.
In this blog, I reflect on probably one of the most influential projects I have had the privilege to set assail in my career. The intention is to give the public the opportunity to intervene with two terms that dominate the Danish or call it the Nordic migrant/migration debate – namely, integration and inclusion. And through narratives and the reflections of 30 different migrants over a period of 1 year, present what these voices – that are commonly absent in these debates and discussions, perceive of these terms – and what a way forward could be.
A couple of years after my arrival in Denmark and actively engaging in the social fabric of the country, I remember the debate on integration coming to new heights. There suddenly started emerging more specified definitions of the term integration – this among others taking connotations of “speaking fail-free Danish, being ‘well placed’ on the job market (with minimum income demands), and the question of social mobility to count as a Dane also coming with caveats of carrying original ethnic Danish traits, etc.”. And when one spoke the language with an accent there would be representations of not being well integrated.
I remember being part of uncountable discussions and debates about integration, and what in fairness would be achievable from a personal perspective, and integration’s relations to its other relatives like assimilation and inclusion. At that time, when someone talked about integration, I would tell them, no, it is not integration we need to talk about but rather inclusion. This was because the emerging definitions of integration made it difficult to achieve by anyone not ethnically Danish. And if you went on with this, then it would be more beneficial for the debate if we outrightly called the theme assimilation.
Integration defined fairly is a lifetime journey that changes and is negotiated according to the context of the society and a specific moment in time, which makes it very fluid and too dynamic to make fair policy around. Examples of this fluidity from contemporary Denmark and Europe at large include changes to laws in the face of shocks like the “the refugee crisis” that triggered new approaches to how we saw people entering our boarders. The economic crisis at the start of the 2010s and its influences on the job market, and or the rise of right-wing nationalism witnessed across the 2000s, probably triggered by the other incidences, but that also defines new and stricter standards for integration.
All these events and ‘integration redefinition’ and policy demands, only attest to the fatigue that comes with maintaining a dedicated focus on an integration model that calls for assimilation, rather than inclusion and active participation in the lives of our communities. Taking this approach is very tiring for both those that define and set the standards and those that need to keep adjusting their lives to fit the changing standards. But if we settle with inclusion, then this frees us and in a real sense means that we also create the chance to change the view of things from expecting and forcing others to fit in, and instead work to creating spaces, opportunities, and to facilitate others to fit in.
So based on this line of thinking, we in the fall of 2020 initiated a project “Coming to the Nordics” that set out to delve into stories of migrants and to understand their everyday, motivation to be part of the Nordic societies, their daily navigation, and commitments that we do not see in the bigger lines, their hidden contributions to these societies, etc. And through these stories, then go back to ask our question if these are not striving for inclusion or not included already! And, if there is a need at all to continue using the term integration where in a real sense we are demanding assimilation.
Exemplified narratives – and suggested reflections on inclusion:
On a human/personal level, the project exemplifies to both the migrants and the locals in the Nordic countries that it doesn’t matter whether people are speaking perfect Danish, English, Norwegian or Swedish, but that people get up every morning and are part of their local society, its lifestyle, and everyday dynamics.
By this I could take my own (Andrew’s) life example – updated in 2023. As of 2023, I have lived in Denmark for 13 years, I have two lovely children – my son is 13, and my daughter is 11. When people ask me where these two come from I without much thought wonder why, because to me these – my babies – are fully Danish, not because I say it to them, or I try to hypnotize myself to believe this – they are Danes born and raised in Copenhagen.
The society also accepts them as Danes – their schools, clubs, friends, airports/entry points, health system, etc. But is it not tragic or problematic that their father – who was by the bedside on their delivery both in Gentofte and Rigshospital, changed their diapers across their toddler years, has over the years made sure that they are proper citizens of Denmark – teaching them Danish values. Reading Danish bedtime stories – sure with an imperfect access – yet they have learned these by hearing, and singing with them in “Alberte Synger med de Små”, is written off as not integrated?
In fact, as I wrote this example, I had to ask my wife if by saying that “my children have a connection to Uganda”, will not politically polarize and get them deported with the argument that they have a bigger connection there. These are indeed some of the extremes we have witnessed, where some children in family-unified marriages have been sent out of the country after the death of the strongest Danish connection or have lived a part of their lives abroad. We also took a discussion on the implication of gaining dual citizenship vis-à-vis your “proven strong connection” to Denmark. We ended up into a joke that maybe for one to be sure of not being judged as lacking in Danish connection should skip dual citizenship.
Another example I commonly give is of a Ghanaian mother that fell in love with a Danish guy while he worked down in Tamale and on his return to Denmark, he decided to have her come with him. They have since been married, and the young woman has now raised two teenage sons 18 and 15 years. For the past 18 years, she is the person that has made food packs “madpakker” to her children on their way to school. She has woken them up every single morning, changed their diapers while small, been the shoulder that they have cried on, and recollected after challenges. And when the kids come home after their busy days there is always a hot meal made with love for them. The two teens are proud Danish citizens on their way to contributing to the economy a few years from now.
After all these years, however, their mother still struggles with the Danish language – mostly the accent – and has tried several jobs and settled with a cleaning job somewhere in a restaurant where perfect Danish is not a big demand. Given that she had only achieved a high school education in Ghana and when she moved to Denmark, she immediately started with her mother role, she is insecure around anything academic and professional connotating. She tries to visit the library occasionally but as soon as the talks become academically demanding she retracts to a corner and only watches as another mother in her group takes on discussions and dialogues one after another.
Her safe space is her home, her chosen friends, her children, her husband, and the restaurant job that gives her the agency to go by Føtex, Fakta, or Neto and contribute to the housing economy – she loves Denmark. Should we demand more than that of her? Should we demand that she speaks fluent Danish, or else she is not good enough? I would say, we will and in fact, are in the process of killing her self-worth – her agency in including herself in the Danish society.
I argue that we should be more open to who she is and support her to continue doing exactly what she finds interesting as long as it’s within legal confines, as opposed to identifying all the wrong things about her. By this we will make the public place more secure for her, and instead if retracting from conversations, it is almost certain that she will get more involved with time – and this might take a long time, but it is worth it.
A third example also around what we commonly believe is a successful integration, is in the definition of success itself. I remember we had this discussion and agreement within the project Coordinating Group, that success has to be defined by the person we are interviewing, where they reflect on their lives in the Nordics and find a spot they themselves believe was success. And there are many examples.
Imagine a 30-year-old that has never gone to school, or at most achieved high school in Uganda, he comes to Denmark and is able to get a kitchen job. He for sure struggles a lot with learning the language, but slowly starts understanding and eventually speaking the language – and has no limit to interacting within his local society. Through his kitchen job, he can fend for his family, and you can generally say that he has a settled life. When asked if he is successful, he nods in approval. He doesn’t need to be a rock star he says.
So, when we were designing the storyline for coming to the Nordics and who we were going to interview, we intentionally decided not to start with the so-called “success stories” as defined by and according to the integration criteria. Because what is success? We were in clear agreement that the moment you define success based on the definition of integration that leans more towards assimilation than inclusion, then you would end up in the same trap of success being only achievable for the exceptional few.
Those that have listened to the first episodes of the podcast have given the exact feedback we hoped for, ie. “this is powerful”. We have gotten artists like Moussa Diallo and Mpho Ludidi to donate songs to the podcast, as well as featuring the podcast project at the Danish Folkemødet 2021 as a grassroots support platform and its foreseen significance in contributing to the sociocultural development of the local Nordics.
Our hope is that as we release more of the podcasts, and people read the compiled storybook, these will create a basis for a stronger debate with time. The podcast as well as the storybook will then be utilized in training within the local communities the different organizations work in, as well as offered as a free online training material.
The project and its outputs:
Between 2020 and 2021 Civil Connections – the NGO I was Daily Leader for then implemented the project – “Coming to the Nordics”. The project developed several products – including:
- A 30-episode “Coming to the Nordics” podcast gives listeners many months/years of engaging with inclusion.
- A storybook formed out of the life stories of the different people/“migrants” we have had on the podcast.
- An online course in podcasting for others to start podcasting and creating more life stories for inspiration.
Yet, the biggest lesson we have gained on this journey is the urge to reflect on the commonly desired state of integration, and what this really means vis-à-vis the structuring and daily negotiations of the lives of migrants especially in their early years of arrival in the Nordics.
This exploration has convinced us that while we all desire to achieve integration as fast as possible, it may be more useful to focus and consequently redefine demands to newcomers towards inclusion, as this is really what we all desire to be met with, and which creates space for “a feeling at home and at peace” with our new societies and our roles in them – which we believe should be the definition of integration.
Learn more about the project below:
All the project products are available here: https://civilconnections.org/coming-to-the-nordics/ A specific link for the course is here: https://courses.civilconnections.org/courses/an-introduction-to-the-basics-of-podcasting