How I practice languages while helping refugees

avatarMille Larsen
8 mins read

In this article, I'd like to share my experience with meeting refugees and exchanging languages. As a result of my passion for foreign languages, I have a limited command of some of the tongues represented by my country's new citizens, and this has provided me with the opportunity to practice these languages with native speakers. Other than that, the topic isn't specifically about language learning, but rather that of making friends with foreigners.

Volunteering in the refugee center's bicycle workshop

When I had finished my university studies, I found myself without a job or any other daily occupation than studying languages by myself. This was at a time when the crisis in the Middle East and Africa were at their highest and a steady stream of refugees were coming to my country, which spurred debate and angry exchanges in the media. The general opinion, at best, seemed to be that these people were going to be a charge on our fine tuned and well-oiled society. The refugees, however, seemed to be a topic of discussion that everyone had an opinion about, but nobody had any real experience with. Nobody actually knew these people. This is why, when a saw a request on Facebook for donations to the local asylum center, I contacted the person in charge, and asked how I could volunteer. He had recently started a bicycle workshop where asylum seekers could come two nights per week to repair bicycles for themselves and their families. He was out looking for old bicycles and spare parts for the shop, but he immediately asked me to come, when I proposed to volunteer.

The first evening when I showed up, I was met by a large group of people passionately working away in a busy workshop. Loud sounds of hammering and exploding over-inflated tires were in the air, as well as the voices of ten or twelve people eagerly trying to make themselves understood in a variety of languages. Not everyone had tried their hand on bicycle restorations before, so I got asked a lot of questions. People must have assumed that I was in charge, but I was really just there to socialize. My Arabic is limited, but back then even more so. I quickly caught up with the basic pleasantries, though, and began to ask everyone the same few basic questions. What's your name? Where are you from? Are you here with your family? They were all flattered and appreciative about my very limited command on Arabic, and they made great efforts to try and converse with me. Sometimes they'd ask me to interpret for them when they wanted to explain something to the other volunteers, which was quite challenging (and not always a success).

I also got to speak some French. Contrary to Arabic, French is a language that I speak fluently, so when I met a man from Congo in the bicycle shop, we started discussing. It's strange how your perception of someone depends on their ability to express themselves. To most volunteers, my Congolese friend was hard to communicate with. He made great efforts to learn some Danish terms, but couldn't advance due to the poor quality and planning of the language courses offered to asylum seekers (it gets better once they are granted asylum). To the other volunteers he therefore remained a stranger. Someone with whom one could only communicate with gestures. With me, he discussed politics, the feeling of alienation of being in another country, and the state of his homeland. Getting to know this person got me thinking about all of those people who remain "numbers" in the system because nobody gets to know them. When you're standing in line in the grocery store and the guy in front of you doesn't understand what is being said to him, don't be irritated. Even though his command of the languages is limited, he might very well be smarter and more experienced in life than you are.

I didn't do a lot of bicycle fixing, but I got to know people from Congo, Ukraine, Syria, Iraq and a few other countries. Some of these people have been sent back to their home countries by now, some have been granted asylum and some are in other centers now in another part of the country.

Making friends through language exchange

The local asylum center recently closed. Due to the European Union's agreement with Turkey, there isn't coming a lot of refugees these days. People are still in need, but our politicians managed to make that someone else's problem. Now, however, I have started to meet with refugees who have already been granted asylum, and whom are facing life in the Danish society on their own for the first time. Danes are notoriously hard to make friends with. Denmark is an introverted society where people, for the most part, keep to themselves and their firmly established social groups. While you can't generalize too much, most of the refugees are extremely social and outgoing, and everyone I've met so far have had the same impression with the Danes. They don't really want to say anything negative, but you can hear in their wording that they find it strange that the neighbor doesn't say hello when you cross him in the stairwell, that everyone stays inside after working hours and that the whole town seems to close down at 5. p.m. In most parts of the world you can make friends just by talking to someone. In Denmark, this isn't as easy, which is why some people have taken the initiatives to try and pair new citizens with Danish "volunteers". It all seems a bit formal to me. In my mind I am making friends, not "volunteering as a contact for new citizens," but I play along.

Most refugees are young males, whereas most volunteers are either families, pensioners, or women young and old. For some reason, most young Danish males, like myself, are reluctant to meet the new citizens, which is a shame. I wish I had the time to make friends with everyone. It doesn't work that way, though, but I have made friends with the friendliest and coolest people you'd ever meet. They all have different backgrounds. Generally, the ones who have studied in their home country have it easier, because learning the language is less of a hassle. I've also asked to be paired with people who have a hard time with the Danish language. These are generally people who have had a less fortunate life and and who haven't had the same opportunities as the ones who have academic backgrounds. These people generally speak their Arabic dialect and can't as easily accommodate my limited command of the formal "Standard Arabic" that I speak, although barely. It's a challenge for me, as well as for themselves to make a connection, but we're both pushed to learn.

Everybody wins when you make friends with immigrants

My experience with making friends with refugees has been a great one. I'm into language learning, and using my limited command of Arabic and my fluency in French, has granted me the opportunity (as well as a great motivation) to make friends with people I'd otherwise never speak to. Language learning can be a personal endeavor. Your reasons for wanting to pick up a language can be economical, due to fascination of the foreign tongue, a question of personal vanity or the need to show off. But when you seek out opportunities to practice  conversation, you can't help but make social connections no matter how egoistic your initial motivations might have been. You'll do some good in the world merely by practicing your language learning hobby. You'll make friends and you'll broaden your horizons. Without having the intention to do so, you'll take on the role of your country's representative, and you'll be the one thing that makes the newly arrived feel welcome and the first step in "good integration". I strongly recommend anyone who is learning a language so seek out the people who speak that language in your country. Make friends, and everyone will benefit.

How do I make friends with refugees and immigrants?

I strongly encourage everyone to make a connection with refugees and new immigrants in your country. I made my first connections through Facebook, where there appears to be networks and groups of immigrants who try to help each other learn the language for even the smallest towns. You'll often find that a lot of people will be interested in making friends simply by you speaking to them. I've had people invite me home for coffee after exchanging only a few words in their native language. Otherwise, you might want to check if your local municipality has any formal programs or events organized for making friends between immigrants and original citizens.

I'd love to hear your thoughts, personal experiences or answer any questions - don't hesitate to write a comment below, or to reflect on the subject on your own blog.