People come to Denmark for many different reasons: to work or to study, for family, for refuge, or for love. Each person’s experience is different, and your circumstances, background, attitude, and resources, as well as a degree of luck, all play into how you view your time here, to what degree you integrate to Danish society, and how long you stay. This is a story of three job seekers from three different countries who are trying to capture in interviews and art how immigrants to Aalborg view their role in Danish society, how well integrated they consider themselves to be, and what contributes to their feeling of being integrated – or not.
Akvile, Elizabeth, and Federica met in the autumn of 2014 during the last phase of their Danish language training at Aalborg Sprogcenter. Preparing to take Prøve i Dansk 3 (PD3), the three did not actually socialize much at the time, but they finished the class feeling that the camaraderie among their classmates had been strong. This friendly familiarity would play an important role in their lives a few months later…
Akvile and Federica both came to Aalborg to study at AAU. They arrived in 2012 and completed master’s degrees in marketing and consumption (Akvile) and development and international relations (Federica) in the summer of 2014. Both chose AAU for the degree programs it offered. “I looked at programs around Europe and found this one, which seemed to fit and was in English,” said Federica, who comes from a town near Milan, Italy, while Akvile, who based her decision partly on the recommendations of friends from her native Lithuania, told me that she was accepted at both AAU and University of South Denmark but chose Aalborg because she preferred the program AAU offered.
The two young women began studying Danish during the evenings while they were working on their degrees, but switched to day classes when they finished. Having successfully passed PD3, both are now in the Studieprøve class at Aalborg Sprogcenter in order to improve their speaking and writing skills, which they hope will help them land jobs here.
Elizabeth arrived in Denmark 10 years ago. An art and art history graduate, she was inspired to move to Europe from the US after finishing a post-baccalaureate degree at the School of Museum of Fine Arts Boston. Her first home on the continent was Berlin, where she lived as an artist. There she met someone, moved to Aalborg, started a family, and pursued and completed a Master in Communication degree at AAU. “I thought it would be useful to managing projects and writing in an academic way, which are skills that could supplement my artistic abilities,” remarked Elizabeth. She ended up doing so well in the program that she was accepted into a one-year pre-PhD program, which she also completed. Along with Akvile and Federica, she successfully passed PD3 last December.
The three women have more in common than the fact that they’re from outside Denmark, speak Danish, and have master’s degrees from AAU: they are all looking for work here and would like to stay but are finding the search difficult. “I was very confident I would get a job quickly, given my educational background and experience working for art galleries in the US – but it didn’t happen, which really surprised me,” said Elizabeth. Among the three of them, the women apply for myriad jobs each week, which brings me back to my ‘cliffhanger’ at the end of paragraph two…
Konkret Dialog is born
In January of this year, shortly after passing their Danish exam, Akvile and Federica started frequenting Aalborg Main Library. Each felt the urge to get out of the house and get in touch with other people as they continued their job search. Twice the two met randomly at the library and decided to sit together. This led to planned meetings at the library to help boost one another’s morale and motivate one another. Independent of this, Elizabeth also started showing up at the library, recognized Akvile and Federica, and joined them.
Less than two months later, Akvile got a praktik (internship), which lasted from the end of February to the end of April. During that period, Federica and Elizabeth, who continued to job hunt from the library, commiserated and talked about what they could do to supplement their searches. They discussed art, being immigrants, and integration, each contributing ideas until they lit upon the one that seized them both: an art project that would explore, through interviews, and display, via photos or sculpture, what immigrants do to integrate to Danish society, focusing, in particular, on finding an inspirational voice through their problems and their successes.
Once the rough idea had been formulated, Elizabeth and Federica worked closely together to build the structure of the project. They honed the idea further and decided to interview and photograph people who have moved to Aalborg from different countries and are working to build a life here. They also investigated whether anyone had done anything similar, but while they found projects involving art and dialogue, art centered on text, and art on the subject of refugees, they found nothing that combined them the way they planned to. When Akvile finished her praktik, she joined the two and became a significant partner on the project, contributing, in particular, marketing and dissemination ideas.
Confident that they had an original project, the women turned to the subject of interviewees and an audience for their work. Given that all three are members of a-kasse, receive unemployment, and must follow the rules set by their a-kasse in order to continue to receive payments, they had to carefully design the initiative as a non-profit and do the project in their free time.
Aware that many immigrants to Aalborg live in Aalborg Øst, the women decided to look for interviewees and support in that district of the city. Elizabeth started a volunteer relationship with the Aalborg 9220 Project, wrote a project proposal, and the three women made a presentation to Project administrators, who responded positively. They hope to make public art in two different forms – as photos framed with immigrants’ quotes superimposed over them and sculpture (metal, rusted raw) with key phrases from interviews cut out into the metal. They have just begun interviewing immigrants (yours truly, included) and hope to make their work available for display in public sector buildings and facilities like bus stations in the near future.
So what motivates Akvile, Elizabeth, and Federica to pursue this project, which is not bringing in any money for them? First, they see it as a way to gain experience, make contacts, and produce something tangible to show potential employers. Second, it provides them with motivation to – let’s put it frankly (all of you who have been unemployed will understand) – get out of bed in the morning and get moving. As the women told me, “It’s a project we’re proud of. It requires us to be responsible and stay active, and helps keep us on the job-seeking track.” Third, as immigrants themselves, they want to help and inspire others and they see potential in the project to do just that. “It can be discouraging at times to be an immigrant – art is a symbol of motivation, support, positivity, which can help,” commented Elizabeth. “Visual symbols could be very meaningful to someone who is just walking around Aalborg. We see this is a way to communicate to other immigrants ‘you belong here, we recognize you, you are welcome here’.”
Federica wasn’t focusing on integration while she was studying. It wasn’t until after she finished her degree that she started to think about it and considered staying, getting a job, and really making an effort to learn the language. That was when the struggle of integrating started for her. The project has helped her get into contact with the community, and see that there are other people with whom to talk and share. “If you go out and meet people – both internationals and Danes – then integration gets easier,” she said.
“The project is a great way to use my competences while I am searching for a job, as well as build my networks and meet new interesting people,” commented Akvile. “Hearing others’s stories and seeing that I am not the only one struggling to integrate and find a job helps me as well. There are a lot of people who eventually succeed, and that is inspiring. The quotes in the art are also supposed to be positive and give hope to other people who are in a similar situation.”
With overlapping skills and experience, the three women work well together. Often they have to write emails and documents in Danish and they share their drafts and correct one another. Elizabeth and Akvile designed the logo, while Elizabeth and Federica came up with the name of the initiative. Konkret Dialog refers to the fact that the art should communicate a message but it’s not just a one-way street; it should act as a conversation starter, a way to engage in dialogue.
Akvile, Elizabeth, and Federica want to stay in Denmark but they admit that it is challenging for a job-seeking immigrant. “I think you can’t really feel settled here until you have a job,” stated Elizabeth. We can only hope that by developing and disseminating their artwork, the three will inspire others and help them feel they belong, while starting dialogues that will lead to job opportunities for themselves.
NOTE: Konkret Dialog’s Facebook page can be found here. If you would be interested in participating in this initiative as an interviewee, please contact Akvile, Elizabeth, and Federica at firstname.lastname@example.org. All interviews are anonymous and, as you can see, images in the photos are blurred sufficiently to prevent the identification of the individual.
 The highest level Danish class offered at Aalborg Sprogcenter, which prepares people to take classes in Danish at Danish institutions of higher learning.