“I’m wasting my childhood being a refugee” Danish Youth Organization DFUNK shows youth with refugee background what it's like to be young in Denmark while also promoting space for refugee education and reformation. By: Lauren Gee

"I am 22 and I've been a refugee all my life," says Van Damme. With no knowledge of where he is from, Van and his family came to Denmark in 2015 with hopes to call Denmark home. However, after two years of waiting, Van along with his sister, his brother, his mother, and his father were rejected asylum in Denmark. For the past 10 months, the family of five has been living in Sjæslmark, a family deportation center 30 kilometers north of Copenhagen.

Van Damme (left) is stateless. "There is not a country in the world who will accept me. I have nothing."

In Sjælsmark, rejected asylum seekers like Van are denied access to basic education and job opportunities. They are treated “worse than prisoners with no activities, no clue what’s going on, deliberately to put pressure on people to give up and go home" says Michala Bendixen, Chairman of Refugees Welcome, a humanitarian organization dedicated to providing legal advice and assistance to asylum seekers in Denmark. "Denmark's asylum system makes refugees feel as if they are nothing."

“We are wasting our lives and our youth. I’m wasting my childhood being a refugee. I want to go to school to learn Danish to have a good education, but unfortunately when I am living in that camp, I cannot.” - Van Damme"

Recently, the Danish government concluded on a political agreement to put emphasis on the temporary stay of refugees, making it unclear if they would focus on integration at all. Søren Madsen, Ministry of Immigration and Integration’s press advisor says part of the agreement is to change the name of the ‘integration program’ for refugees and their families to a ‘self-support and return program.”

While the Danish government withholds integration activities at asylum centers and leaves many refugees isolated and uncertain about their future, Van finds his refuge at DFUNK.


a “young organization’s own refugee organization.”

DFUNK (Dansk Flygtningehjælp Ungdom AKA Danish Refugee Youth) is a program developed by the Danish Refugee Council which educates youth about the refugee situation and provides youth with refugee background a chance to experience what it's like to be young in Denmark.

Victoria Thorsen has volunteered with educating school children about the national, European and global refugee situation. She is now a project assistant at DFUNK who designs the teaching curriculum she once taught. Having first hand experienced the refugee crisis in Jordan and being a full time student pursuing her bachelors in law, Thorsen hopes to use her knowledge in advising young unaccompanied refugees their rights and laws.

Victoria Thorsen is part of Ask DFUNK where she answers people's questions on the refugee situation.

When asked what makes DFUNK special, Thorsen says the organization is run by young people ages 15- 30 and it gives opportunity for both Danish-background members and refugee-background members to be involved in leadership responsibilities. DFUNK is located in a major city in Denmark and pertains two main purposes: knowledge sharing and social activities with refugees. Thorsen started volunteering with DFUNK because she wanted to share knowledge and address myths about the refugee situation.

Debunking myths about refugees

Enlightenment and outreach projects include sending volunteers to teach students about the refugee situation, an open telephone line for anyone who has questions about the topic, and “refugee telling story” events for refugees to share their story personally.

"It's not told through the lens of the media. The media has such a big responsibility in all of this and it’s very much kind of shifting the view on the refugee situation its creating prejudice and basic facts are just lost. " - Victoria Thorsen

Thorsen believes DFUNK gives the opportunity to debunk common misconceptions; many students and teachers she’s encountered while volunteering did not know the difference between refugees and immigrants. The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) has well-defined concepts for whether a migrant is a refugee or an asylum seeker. The differences are described in this figure, but according to Thorsen, unknown to the general population, which uses refugee and asylum seeker as synonymous terms.

Secondly, refugees coming to Denmark is not a crisis, but more of a situation. "In the EU, it’s not a crisis of numbers, it’s a crisis of solidarity," Thorsen explains. Neighboring countries like Jordan, Lebanon, Uganda and Ethiopia are neighboring host countries that are experiencing a greater problem in numbers because there are too many people coming in to manage. Oppositely in the EU Thorsen says, "we are just kinda fighting who can have the most xenophobic policies in the area. So that’s the crisis."

"We [Denmark] don't have a problem of refugees, the number of them arriving is so small." - Michala Bendixen, Founder of Refugees Welcome

The graph above shows that people seeking asylum in Denmark is at its lowest when looking at the last 10 years. Michala Bendixen from Refugees Welcome believes numbers are "completely blown out of proportion." The Danish immigration Service reports that refugees only took up 3% of all residence permits handed out in Denmark in 2017.

Recapturing youth

Longing to gain asylum and a normal youth in Denmark, Van Damme started participating in DFUNK’s activties at the asylum center he was living in. Since 2015, he has been part of many DFUNK's social activities and has made all of his friends through the group meet-ups.

DFUNK tries to educate people about the refugee situation, whilst focusing on providing social spaces for youth with and without refugee backgrounds to meet up through communal dinners, sports activities, games, summer camps, activities at asylum centers and weekly young-group hangouts .

I met Van Damme at one of DFUNK's social programs: Madmekka

Madmekka [a play on words: "mad" means food in Danish and “Mekka” is Mecca for a place of gathering] is a weekly program hosted by DFUNK to build friendships between Danish citizens and youth with refugee backgrounds through food.

Using food as a conversation starter, culture expander, and friendship builder, Madmekka first started in Aarhus and is now in Copenhagen where 50 to 100 people have been attending each week. DFUNK provides places for youth to bond over food but also social events in major cities all over Denmark presented by Young to Young groups.

Youth culture in Denmark

In Copenhagen, Rune Gabriel spends his Tuesday evenings hanging out his friends from DFUNK going bowling, watching movies and playing games. As first year at the University of Copenhagen studying Arabic, Rune believes DFUNK influenced his choice in major so that he could better communicate with the youth with refugee background.

Rune Gabriel is on DFUNK's leadership board and runs the Young to Young group in Copenhagen. He believes that learning Arabic helps him to build friendships with the refugee youth and helps him further understand what they're going through. “For the first 6 months it was difficult to communicate with the young refugees because of the language gap so I wanted to make a step towards them and learn about their culture and language," says Rune.

Rune says DFUNK is a great way for refugees to be immersed in Danish language and culture. In exchange, him and other Danish youth find out they aren't as different as they thought. “There’s differences in cultures, but similarities in many other ways,” adds Rune.

“We go out and drink coffee, go bowling, play computer games, or just make food together and that’s the essence of it. Just showing what young people in Denmark do.” - Rune gABRIEL

Van Damme's hope for the future

DFUNK hopes to continue showing what it’s like to be young in Denmark, and Van hopes to tell the world what it’s like being a refugee in Denmark. On his free time Van writes about his life in Danish.

"The most important thing for me is sports and writing. Writing my story. I write in Danish and English. It's not because I’m practicing my language skills. It's because it helps me. It heals my body, I feel like I am somebody.” - Van dAMME

DFUNK is a space for youth to be able to share their story and educate others about the situation. While waiting to hear back on his Asylum, Van scored a praktik (internship), learned Danish, and tried to do everything authorities encouraged him to do in hope to get accepted.

In February of 2018, Van received notice that he and his family cannot stay in Denmark. Their application for asylum has been rejected with no clear reason why, and Van is living with uncertainty for his future. Still, he hopes that one day his story will be shared and the truth will make change in the way people see refugees.

"My hope for the future is that I wish for residency in Denmark because I cannot stay a refugee my entire life. I am 22 years old and I am still a refugee. I don't know why? I don't want to live my whole life a refugee." - Van Damme
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Lauren Gee


Lauren Gee

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