The Fattal family outside their Aarhus area home. Photo: Michael Barrett
Outside the Fattal family’s home on a side street in suburban Aarhus, almost everything is white. It’s a Saturday morning in the middle of January and there has been heavy snowfall overnight. The roads have not been cleared, there is no traffic and little evidence of pedestrian footprints. A few stray lines, dug into the snowy road by bicycles, have left a handful of thin, tangled trails.
The Fattal family – Mohamad, aged 32, Dima, 27, and their children Mahmoud, 5, and Karim, nearly 3 – reached Denmark in November 2014. They spent a month at a hospital in Helsingør before being transferred to the town of Vester Hjermitslev in northern Jutland, where they stayed in a former retirement home converted into a centre for families seeking asylum. By March 2015, their applications had been approved and they were given a place to live in Aarhus, Denmark’s second largest city and the provincial capital of Jutland.
The family had not specifically planned to reach Denmark when they left their home city of Damascus the previous summer.
“We thought about staying in Germany,” says Mohamad. “But actually, we found it difficult there with the language. Not many people spoke English. We then heard that people were nice in Denmark, and that they could all speak English.”
After arriving in Germany by car via Italy, Mohamad, Dima and their children decided to take a train from Augsburg to Hamburg and finally to Copenhagen. The couple immediately found the Danes to be friendlier than their southern neighbours.
“In Vester Hjermitslev, a lovely lady named Kirsten came to the camp every day after her work. She had nothing to do with the administration, she just came. We couldn’t go to the language school yet, so she helped us with Danish," Dima said.
"When we moved to Aarhus, she drove all the way here with furniture that had been donated for us. ‘You have your own car and chauffeur today,’ she told me. She came to Mahmoud’s birthday, too. I think she wanted to play the grandma," Dima smiles as Karim, wearing an orange and blue stripy jumper and brandishing a green balloon on a stick, jumps down from her lap and runs into the kitchen.
Once they had arrived in Aarhus, Dima and Mohamad were put in contact with the Venligboerne (‘Friendly Locals’) initiative – a movement started and organised entirely by volunteers which grew exponentially all over the country during 2015 as the refugee flow, and publicity surrounding it, became the major news event of the year.
Using Facebook as a communication platform, Venligboerne enables citizens to donate furniture and clothes, organise social events or offer other practical help to refugees. The Aarhus Venligboerne Facebook group alone has over 8,500 members.
“It’s a relief when you can have someone who can accept you for who you are, and doesn’t think that you are here for money,” Dima says.
She says volunteers helped her eldest son when he had difficulty learning Danish and engaging with other children in his daycare.
“It was difficult for Mahmoud at first. He kept asking me why were we here and said he wanted to go back to Syria. He didn’t speak to the other children at first. Kirsten and her sister came [to visit the family] just to play with him, to help him with that. After that, he got better quickly.”
The Danish language is one of the biggest challenges faced by Syrian arrivals, and not just for children.
Marianne Jensen, the deputy head of the Lærdansk language school in Aarhus, where all refugees living in the municipality are required to attend language lessons, told The Local that the experiences of individual Syrian refugees with learning Danish vary greatly from person to person.
“There might have been some kind of expectation that everyone would be highly educated – but there is a mixture.”
Around 50 percent of the 196 Syrians attending Lærdansk follow the programme known as Danish 2, which is designed for students with high school but without university education from their home country. Another 25 percent attend Danish 3, a faster-track line for those with university backgrounds, while the rest are enrolled in Danish 1, the programme for those with no formal education.
The overall aim for Lærdansk is to enable all of its students to speak Danish at the level necessary to find employment.
“We have an agreement in place with the [municipality-run] Integration Network that helps us place students in work experience while they are still at the school,” Jensen says. “Then they can receive language lessons including technical terminology while at work.”
"Recently, one of our students was doing work experience with [industrial laundry firm] Midtvask, and they decided to give him a job before he’d even finished his work experience,” she adds.
As they approach their first anniversary of moving to Aarhus, it is this kind of transition to employment that both Dima and Mohamad are keen to overcome, so that they can move on with their lives.
“The last job I had in Damascus was as a senior accountant in the Finance Administration department of Byblos Bank [a Lebanese-owned bank with branches across Lebanon and Syria, ed.]. I would like to do that here,” Mohamed says.
“I’ve been doing some praktik [work experience] in Grenaa. It wasn’t exactly in my department, it was in the marketing department as that’s where there was space. But the most important thing is to be able to speak Danish. Even though people speak English, for work, you have to know Danish.”
Mohamad and Dima attend language classes three times a week, but admit that they find juggling parenting, language lessons and adjusting to cultural differences difficult.
“Arab culture is all about family getting together,” says Dima. “[Here] we don’t know our neighbours.”
“Neighbours can be even more important than your brother and sister in Syria,” adds Mohamad. “They are right next to you. Here, sometimes they don’t even say hello.”
If you missed part one in this series, in which the Fattal family detailed the journey that brought them to Denmark, you can find it here.