Refugee Friends: how a kid’s idea is helping integration in Aarhus

By My Pham and Maria Jose Villanueva, photos by Flygtningevenner

If you have recently taken a bus in Aarhus, you may have noticed a particular sign on its windows: a drawing depicting a child helping another off a boat. What is new about this otherwise stereotypical image is that both kids have smiles on their faces. The ad reads in both Danish and Arabic: “Shall we play?”.

Ronja, a Danish girl from Aarhus, designed the poster herself when she came up with the idea of Flygtninge Venner, which translates to Refugee Friends, back in 2014.

“She’s very sensitive and when she saw the photos of these people and kids coming to Denmark she got really sad” explains her dad Morten Schierup Larsen. “Everybody talks about the parents and how they can get a job and integrate and she only saw the kids.”

Ronja and her father created the spontaneous initiative of Refugee Friends with the hope to help refugee kids to integrate and to have Danish friends by organizing playdates where they can meet up at public playgrounds and have a fun time.

Ronja (left) enjoys spending time with her new friend from Syria, Roua (second right) (photo: Flygtningevenner)

Even though these events are mainly focused on children, they are also a chance for the adults to meet up and share their stories, their struggles and to get help from Danish parents.

Refugee Friends held its first event in March 2015, with the attendance of around 40 kids and their parents. Since then, another seven playdates have been organised and had attracted approximately 300 people.

Many fruitful friendships have started from those playdates. The relationship between Ronja and Roua’s is a good example. Roua is a Syrian girl who came to Aarhus in 2016. They met each other in an event hosted by Refugee Friends on February 2017 in Dokk1 and became friends since then.

“When you meet each other in a shared culture of play, it brings you a better place to integrate and get rid of prejudice,” says Morten, adding that sometimes the kids help bridge the language barrier between Dane and refugee parents by helping them with translation.

Turning challenges into opportunities

Despite its initial successes, there are still many challenges for Refugee Friends. The main obstacles the project faces are funding and time, as there are many people interested in getting involved, but not enough resources to make more regular playdates.

“Organising is difficult, it takes a lot of time. If we had more time and money we could make more events and more friendships”, explains Morten, who had to quit one of his two jobs so he could dedicate more time to the project.

He says it is not difficult to attract people to the events, but it is extremely hard to help them maintain long-lasting friendships after those playdates given the big cultural differences. Morten is planning the next step to make friendships last longer by encouraging children to join activities like soccer, boxing or the scouts where they can spend more time together and expand their relationship.

One of the recent events was held at the public library Dokk1, where parents and children had a chance to play (photo: Flygtningevenner)

Though challenging, the founder of Flygtninge Venner considers this project as an opportunity to change the way Danes interact with refugees. “Because more people have seen this project and are talking about it and even if they don’t have kids, this changes the way they think of integration and it gives them a voice. I think this is the most important thing. It’s nice that people meet, it’s nice that they can become friends, but to give a voice to the people who want to be friends with the refugees is the main thing about this.”

Refugee Friends recently won a 25,000 DKK funding from the Deltagerbudgetter, the Aarhus Kommune’s grant for community projects. With this money, the project’s founder plans to develop new activities and ideas to connect more refugees and Danes. One of his ideas is to create an “activity box” which will contain the instructions to organise a play date, so that the parents interested can do it by themselves anywhere in Aarhus. In this way, Morten hopes to multiply the events so that more cross-cultural friendships can be formed.

Be one of the Refugee Friends

If you are interested in the project and liked Ronja’s idea, you can visit their webpage flygtningevenner.dk to learn more about it or register for information about the next events.

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