Creative Integration: Denmark to Immigrants -- Let's Ride

By Josh Ward

Immigrants to Denmark have to learn how to become Danish. And if there is one thing the Danes do a lot of, it's ride bikes. Classes to teach newcomers how to cycle have proven popular.

A Red Cross volunteer teaching immigrants to ride bicycles in Denmark.
Danish Red Cross / Anders Sejeroe

A Red Cross volunteer teaching immigrants to ride bicycles in Denmark.

In the summer of 2005, Denmark decided that, if you want to live in Denmark, you have to do what the Danes do. The mandated checklist includes learning Danish, understanding the "fundamental norms and values of Danish society," and making an effort to participate in the community.

Those who drafted that law, however, seem to have forgotten one vital aspect of being Danish -- expert command of the humble bicycle. The country's Red Cross though, is doing what it can to fix that omission.

For three years now, the Danish Red Cross has been offering free cycling classes for immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees. Most of the people who take advantage of the program are women from the Middle East, according to Uzma Andresen, a consultant who helps the Danish Red Cross develop and implement integration programs.

"It's an outdoor activity," Andresen says. "You ride the bike to work and to go shopping, and those are mainly masculine activities in their home countries."

One Way to Integrate

More than that, biking is also an integral part of being Danish. According to a study released last year by the Traffic Club Austria, the Danes bike more than any other Western population. One third of Danes bike to work, and the Danes ride more than any other Western population. In 2006, the average Dane clocked 954 kilometers. That compares, for example, with 298 in Germany, 84 in Great Britain and 33 in the US.

The prominence of biking results partially from Denmark's flat landscape but also from a general eco-consciousness in the population and its promotion by the government. Bike lanes are everywhere and, in certain parts of the country, publicly owned bikes are free for use. Bikes can be pocket-friendly, too, as public transportation can be comparatively expensive.

Which is certainly a motivation for many immigrants who enroll in biking courses. The program is offered in 10 branches of the Red Cross spread around the country. Students are provided with bikes and protective gear during the course. Afterwards, the police have been known to make repossessed bicycles available to those in need. Teaching immigrant women to ride bikes is one more way to help them integrate themselves into society and function in it more smoothly and effectively.

"We found that if these women learned to ride a bike, then they'd be able to take their children out when they wanted to, without it costing a lot," Andresen explains.

Andreas Rieckmann, 20, has been volunteering his Saturdays to help teach people to bicycle at a branch of the Danish Red Cross in Copenhagen since the bicycle program started three years ago -- shortly after the country became one of the first in Europe to legally require that its 231,000 immigrants integrate.

'My Time to Decide what I Want to Do'

The program at his branch started when two younger Somali immigrant women in a language course asked for help learning to ride. Most of his current bicycle "students," though, are older immigrant and refugee women, between 50 and 60, who come from countries where women do not traditionally ride bikes.

"I had one student," he recounts, "who came in and told me: 'For 50 years, I've been a good wife and raised my children; now it's my time to decide what I want to do.'"

Getting on the bikes and going, though, can sometimes be tricky. For one thing, there are the psychological barriers.

"At first, many women are afraid they might break something," Andresen explains, "but when they hear from other women who have done it, it's much better."

Some hurdles come with age, as it is often harder for older people to learn to how to balance. And other barriers can be cultural.

"I've had women show up for the first class in long, flowing dresses," Rieckmann says. "But, by the second class, they usually show up in jeans."

Students come to learn to ride a bike not only for convenience, but also to help them get jobs. For example, the Danish Ministry of Refugee, Immigration and Integration Affairs has a program in place that encourages and subsidizes immigrants and refugees who would like to become social health workers, and work in places such as elderly homes. One recent change in the government's program is a requirement that the job applicant has a certificate saying that he or she can ride a bike.

Why the women really come, though, might be less obvious. One reason seems to be to improve their language skills by speaking Danish with the cycling instructors and other learners.

Biking, Cooking and Make-Up

"They want to meet people," Andresen says. "They've been hearing so much about Danish people, and seeing them, but not meeting them."

"Unfortunately, every Dane knows how to bicycle," Rieckmann says. "We can't get both Danes and immigrants together. But that would be great."

Andresen also points out that the immigrant and refugee experiences can also be particularly isolating for these women, which can lead to depression. "A lot of them want to do something to help them meet other people," she says. "Plus, when you do a physical activity, you are more likely to get out of depression."

For some, it would seem that the courses are a good excuse to briefly get away from their everyday lives. Besides biking, the centers also offer discussion groups and group activities. Topics such as childcare and first aid are treated. The women cook together. A recent hit was having a make-up artist come and teach the women how to apply certain types of cosmetics.

"When you give these women some confidence and comfort, then they discuss personal things as well," says Andresen. "I guess that's where it becomes more meaningful." Such things have even led to groups of the women viewing romantic movies together that, Andresen says, "they wouldn't see with their men or if men were there."

The bonding that takes place at the Red Cross centers remains even after new skills have been learned.

"One student learned how to cycle very well," Rieckmann says. "And she just kept, kept coming."

"And," he added, "they're very grateful."

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