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The Barriers Can be Overcome: The Integration Experience of Bosnian Refugees in Denmark

Danish, lesson one

Where do you come from?

I come from Bosnia.

Are you a Muslim?

No, I am not.

Then you are a Serb.

No, I am not.

Then you must be a Croat?

No.

So what are you?

Homeless.

Milena Rudez

Bosnian Poet

The Barriers Can be Overcome:

The Integration Experience of Bosnian Refugees in Denmark

If I saw you on the street, you would have to convince me that you are not Danish.  White skin, blue eyes, and fair hair; you could be a Dane.  

Councilor of the Bosnian Ambassador to Denmark

Bosnian.... they are not like us.  They’re white.  And they think differently than we do.  It’s easier for them to relate to the Danes.  My sister has a PhD and she can’t get a job because she has brown hair. The Bosnians, you can’t see them. They look like Danes.  

Iraqi shopkeeper in Brondby Strand

A decade after the end of the war in Bosnia, there are about 20,000 Bosnian refugees living in Denmark today. While there is great diversity within this community, Bosnian Danes generally experience a good quality of life, positive relationships with Danish people, high levels of educational attainment, and inclusion in the Danish professional world. Compared to many other groups of foreigners, Bosnians have a better opportunity to blend into Danish society.  Possessing white skin and European cultural habits, Bosnians generally have fewer obstacles to integration than immigrants from Arab or African countries.  

While many Bosnians have experienced successful integration into Danish society, it is inappropriate to characterize Bosnians as the “model minority.”  The Bosnian community in Denmark is notably stratified, and large group of Bosnians are largely isolated from Danish society. The challenges of post-war trauma, the language barrier, job market obstacles, cultural differences, and the experience of being an outsider have made it difficult for many Bosnians to integrate successfully into Danish society.  What’s more, while the welfare state serves as a springboard for many Bosnians to advance themselves, for others it is a crutch that slows their progress. Within the small Bosnian community in Denmark, there are striking social differences that one would not expect to observe within a group of 20,000 native Danes.  

Historical Backround

The region once known as Yugoslavia was made up of the following republics: Bosnia and Herzegovina (B&H), Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Slovenia, and Macedonia. Once united under a communist regime, these regions are ethno-religiously diverse.  The vast majority of Croatians are Roman Catholics, most Serbians are Orthodox Christians, and Bosnia and Herzegovina is a mixed region - home to Muslims, Catholics, and Orthodox Christians.  In 1991, the idea of a united Yugoslavia was losing ground, and nationalism was on the rise. The collapse of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1991 led to segregation among the republics.  While religious awareness was marginal under the communist regime, political extremists used the religious differences among the republics to justify and promote their nationalist goals.  

The war broke up the region, leading to three-year war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. These events caused over 200,000 causalities in Bosnia and uprooted over two million people (UNHCR, 6 Feb 2003).  

Over one million Bosnian refugees now live in countries across the world.  

Arrival in Denmark

At the beginning of the war in Bosnia, Denmark accepted about 17,000 Bosnian refugees. They were placed in refugee camps across the country.  Many Bosnian refugees were moved from camp to camp for several years. The Danish Refugee Council and the Danish Red Cross maintained the refugee camps, some of which housed over 2,000 Bosnian refugees.  Bosnians of all ethnicities were mixed together in the camps.  According to Andreas Kamm, the current General Secretary of the Danish Refugee Council the refugees were mixed because the conflicts of the country of origin had to be left behind when refugees entered Denmark; Denmark did not want to import ethnic conflicts.  At the same time, Bosnians were not meant to stay in Denmark; they were considered temporary residents and were meant to be sent home as soon as it was possible. For a few years, the Danish government did not grant asylum to Bosnians. Mirzet Dajic, a refugee from Srebrenica who arrived in Denmark when he was sixteen years old, remembers that the worst thing about being in a camp was not having any clear picture of the future: “I didn’t know what tomorrow would bring.” 

Waiting idly in the camps was frustrating for the refugees. Without jobs, the adults had little structure in their everyday lives. The Red Cross and the Refugee Council attempted to help the refugees maintain a normal life by organizing schools and cultural activities. Schools for Bosnian refugee children were staffed by Bosnian volunteer teachers. Due to limited funds and staffing the schools were inadequate to meet the needs of the Bosnian children.  Secretary Kamm explains that the Danish government was conflicted; the Bosnian children should have been sent to Danish schools but such an action posed many problems. Integrating Bosnian children into Danish schools would have created a false hope of being permitted to stay in Denmark. As Kamm said, it would not have been a wise decision to make action plans with the aim to integrate the Bosnian kids into Danish schools when they could be sent home any day. In addition, the Danish government wanted to help Bosnian children continue their education upon return to their country. For this reason, the lessons were based on Bosnian curricula.

Conditions in the camps were taxing on the refugees. As Kamm recognizes, “Twenty-five percent of the refugees were traumatized to some extent—post-war trauma. We knew that many refugees had scars on their souls and needed a helping hand.”  In addition to their personal losses, refugees lost a sense of their societal and family roles.  Dajic remembers a friend who began to think of his son as a peer. He said, “I have a small closet; my son has a small closet. I get some pocket money; my son gets the same amount of pocket money. I have a small bed; my son gets a small bed as well. We are equal; he’s like my buddy.”  Dajic notes that this system erases the distinction between parents and children. He recalls how parents lost their sense of morals and children were forced to grow up too fast.

Contact with Danish Society: Schools

As a teenager, Mirzet Dajic desperately wanted to maintain the semblance of a normal life, and participate as a useful member of society.  On his own initiative, he approached a Danish gymnasium [high school] and asked to join the class.  He was allowed to join as an unofficial student, and was eventually lucky to be granted a diploma.  It took the Danish government a few years officially to welcome Bosnian students into their schools.  Until that time, only the lucky and ambitious Bosnians were able to integrate into the Danish school system.  

Marko Sladoje, a student at Copenhagen Business School, attributes his successful integration to his full immersion in Danish society.  Upon arrival, his family was placed in northern Zealand, and had little contact with the Bosnian community.  As a result, he learned Danish in six months. He was received warmly in the first Danish school he attended.  When the government decided to transfer Marko and his brother to another school in Hellerup, their friends and teachers protested, offering to write a letter to the Ministry of Immigration and to collect some money to help their family stay.  When he arrived at primary school in Hellerup, the school principal refused to admit Marko.  The principal insisted that Marko could not speak Danish well and sent him back to a Bosnian school.  Marko was shocked because his Danish was very good.  

Daida Hadzic, who currently works for the Danish Ministry of Social Affairs, remembers being very discouraged in the Danish schools: 

The first Danish school I entered was horrible.  I didn’t speak enough Danish and every paper I got back was covered in red.  This was very painful. My progress was so slow. It was a long process from there to finally graduate in the top of my class. I was the only foreigner at my gymnasium to take the language track. One day I got a letter from the school—they made me go in and take all these extra tests because they didn’t trust my high scores!

In the face of these challenges, Hadzic was committed to success.  According to researcher Tommy Heisz, the successful integration of Bosnian refugees is largely due to this ethic. In the Bosnian culture, he writes, it is very important to be able to provide for oneself. As a result, Bosnians were quick to enter the Danish schools and workforce (Heisz, “Unge Bosniere med sår på sjælen”).

According to Ante Nevastic, Councilor of the Bosnian Embassy to Denmark, Bosnian children are aware of the advantages that Danish society has to offer.  He says that most Bosnian children are good students.  They have realized that there are many opportunities in Denmark, and they are taking advantage of them.  They know that there is a possibility to get an education and to have a successful career.

Job Market Integration

Before escaping to Denmark, Milena Rudez was an architect in Sarajevo.  By volunteering as a schoolteacher in the refugee camps, she learned Danish from children, who learned the language very quickly. Her language skills allowed her to enter the Danish labor market. Although she spoke Danish, Rudez could not find a job as an architect. Now she works as a construction engineer. Her husband was an engineer in Bosnia but is currently employed as a laborer in a Danish factory. It was very difficult for him to learn the Danish language. He has taken many courses and still cannot understand Danish in a real-world context. The language courses designed for refugees are ineffective; they do not prepare people to speak Danish outside of the classroom. “You can talk about discrimination,” Rudez says, “but the language is the most important thing.” Rudez recognizes that most adult refugees could not learn Danish as easily as she could, since “most people did not start learning Danish when they arrived because they thought they would soon go back home. They thought that there was no need to learn Danish.  In addition, they weren’t allowed to work, and didn’t interact much with Danish society, so they actually didn’t need the language.”  

Rudez believes that immigrants and refugees should not expect to find the same jobs in Denmark as they had back home: “Some people need one month, one year, or even three years to accept that they have to start from the bottom - to prove that they are somebody.  You have to go down to come up.”

According to Andreas Kamm of the Danish Refugee Council, the educated refugees experienced disappointments. It is a challenge to have one’s diploma recognized in Denmark: “Danish society sees those with Danish educations as extraordinary, while those educated in Bosnia are seen as strange.  Denmark does not know what to do with them.  Usually foreigners get demoted—if you are an engineer, you might get a job as a technical drafter.  And then you have to take a lot of courses - eventually you may become an engineer again.”  In general, Kamm reflects, Bosnian refugees have more success in the Danish labor market than other immigrant groups.  He believes that the path to education and the labor market is easier for Bosnians.  Kamm acknowledges that the road to the labor market is long and hard.  “The Danish society sometimes destroys people mentally.  When a person comes to Denmark, his entire identity might be based on the fact that he is a doctor. In Denmark, he can’t be a doctor, and he is devastated.”

Kamm also describes the discrimination in the Danish labor market: “A Bosnian person is always competing with many qualified Danes.  If a Bosnian and a Dane with equal qualifications apply for a job, it is likely that the Dane will get the position.”  Council Nevistic of the Bosnian Embassy agrees with Kamm’s description of labor market discrimination, but adds that Bosnians are preferred over other foreigners, such as Pakistanis, Turks, and Arabs.  

Successfull and Unsuccessfull Integration: Parallel Communities

While many Bosnians are able to integrate into Danish society, this process is not easy for them.  Daida Hadzic explains the trials of integration: 

Integration is an enormous psychological pressure.  In the beginning, people were trying to teach us how to use the bathroom and how to cross the street.  Also, Danes insist that we speak the language perfectly and act like them, and not do anything different.  It is a great psychological burden to go through this everyday, and some people don’t want to deal with it.

The pressures of integration are complicated by a number of factors, including a person’s age, attitudes, education, and post-war trauma.  In many cases, these factors combine to prevent successful integration, leading to parallel communities of integrated and isolated Bosnians.  

Marko Sladoje, who is now twenty-two, has mostly Danish friends.  His mother, on the other hand, has few Danish friends.  Because Sladoje arrived as a child, his integration experience was fundamentally easier than that of his mother. In most cases, children are able to integrate into Danish society more easily than adults.  The adjustment process is more demanding on adults and they often face more resistance from Danish society.  In response, some adult refugees resist change and refuse to adapt.  Milena Rudez explains these attitudes: 

As the politician Naser Khader said, you have to unpack your suitcases.  But there are so many people who don’t. Some people don’t want to change too much, because they fear they will lose their identity. If you are in a ‘Bosnian group’ then you have ‘supporters.’ It’s their way to defend themselves—it’s not that they don’t want to integrate, but the language is a big problem. 

Feelings of isolation, poor Danish language skills, and resistance from outside society push many adults to the margins and they often form their own social groups that operate outside of the mainstream.  There are also groups of young Bosnians with similar attitudes.  One nineteen-year-old Bosnian girl describes these groups:

Many of them don’t have any Danish friends.  They stay together; they choose the same classes in school.  They feel that they don’t belong, and they want to belong somewhere.  Maybe they feel different, and they feel more comfortable around people with their same beliefs.

Marko Sladoje suggests that these attitudes are often a result of residential segregation.  For three years, he attended a Danish school where he and his brother were the only foreigners.  While it was not easy for them there, he realized that being surrounded by Danes gave him great advantages over his Bosnian friends who lived in immigrant ghettos and attended schools dominated by foreigners.  

Sladoje also notes that parents play a big role in their children’s integration.  His mother encouraged him to learn Danish while other parents resisted.  However, many Bosnian parents are not able to aid their children in this process; they struggle with their own integration.  Many parents were profoundly affected by the war and refugee experience and can’t offer a support to their children.  Each Bosnian in Denmark is forced to grapple with these issues of identity, community, and society.  Some choose to isolate themselves, while others are fully integrated into Danish society.  Despite all these differences, the general opinion is that post-war trauma is an obstacle that will forever occupy Bosnians’ minds.  Mirzet Dajic describes Bosnians as rivers: “Wherever we are, we will accept our lives as they are; we will accept society; we will be successful members of society; avoid all obstacles and find the easiest path to the sea, just like a river.” 

The Welfare State: A Springboard or a Crutch?

Life for Bosnian refugees in Denmark is not luxurious. However, one has opportunity to work and become a full member of the Danish society.  The majority of Bosnian refugees is well-educated and enjoys jobs in the Danish labor market.  A small number of Bosnians have their own businesses.  A third group of Bosnians takes advantage of the government’s job training programs.  A fourth group has retired early because of post-war trauma and receive a pension from the state.  Finally, less than twenty percent of Bosnians in Denmark receive social security benefits.

Those who qualify for social security have proven that they cannot find work.  Most are unable to find jobs because they do not speak Danish.  However, some of them take illegal work as cleaners or laborers.  Many Bosnians argue that the welfare state has encouraged laziness within this small part of the Bosnian community.  Sladoje explains: “When we came here some people had a desire to learn the language but some didn’t. Having been treated so well by the Danes has made them lazy – it’s a scam – they take advantage of the system. They save money and go to Bosnia for six months for vacation, come back, pick up their money again, and they never learn Danish.”  Although some Bosnians exploit the welfare system, the majority of Bosnians who receive benefits would have trouble supporting themselves without social security.  Many Bosnians suffer from serious post-war trauma, and others have had legitimate difficulties adjusting to the Danish culture, language, and job market. 

The welfare state helps many Bosnians become successful Danish citizens. Daida Hazdic feels that the sense of security that the welfare state provides allows Bosnians to grow within Danish society: 

“I was able to leave my family and move to the city where I didn’t know anyone.  I went to school and got a job, and I didn’t have to rely on my family for everything because I know there is a net to catch me if I should fail.” 

Bosnian Danes Today

The picture of the Bosnian Danish community today is a bright one.  As Daida Hadzic says, “barriers can be overcome.”  Considering the plethora of Bosnian cultural groups, the number of Bosnians in high positions, and the success of Bosnian students, it is evident that there are many opportunities for Bosnians to succeed in Denmark.  There are over forty active Bosnian organizations in the country.  These groups promote the arts, Bosnian culture, education, and integration.  Within a few years, it is likely that Bosnians will be active in the Danish political scene.  Many Bosnian Danes are committed to making a positive contribution to Danish society.  While many Bosnian Danes are very successful, the Bosnian community is very diverse, and there is a noteworthy group of Bosnians who remain in the margins. Bosnian Danes are developing their own identities as unique individuals.  Many of them feel that they are bridging two worlds, trying to take the best from each.  

Still, integration into Danish society is a difficult process, even for white Europeans.  As a young Bosnian girl reflects:

I think I don’t really belong totally here, or anywhere. I would describe myself as being from Bosnia and living in Denmark. But, really, I feel like I’m a person, a European. Most of my friends from school see me as a Dane. You’re different, they say, you’re not like the other refugees. One of my friends once said at school that “all the refugees should go home.” I got so upset and I stood up and said “would you send me home?” They said “you’re different; you’re Danish; you have been here your whole life; you were born here.” I said I was not born here! If they know a person, they think that that person should stay but if they see them on TV they think that they should go home …

 

References

Interviews

 Ante Nevastic, Councilor of the Bosnian Ambassador to Denmark

General Secretary Andreas Kamm, Danish Refugee Council

Mirza Dajic, Bosnian refugee, President of the Bosnian Student Organization BONUS

Daida Hadzic, Bosnian refugee, employee at the Danish Ministry of Social Affairs

Marko Sladoje, Bosnian refugee, student, volunteer at GAM3 

Milena Rudez, Bosnian refugee, architect, poet, translator

Several other interviews with Bosnian refugees who wish to remain anonymous

Interviews with several immigrants and refugees from other nations who wish to remain 

anonymous

Books

Rudez, Milena. Den blinde rejsende fra Sarajevo. Copenhagen: Forfatterforlaget Attika, 

2002.

Internet

Heisz, Tommy. “Unge Bosniere med sår på sjælen.” www.menneskeret.dk

www.idpproject.org

 

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HIA Program:

Denmark Denmark 2005

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