On a rainy Sunday afternoon in Copenhagen, I sat on the floor of a community center space with Amy Jensen as she sharpened and organized colored pencils.
Jensen is a volunteer at the center, Trampoline House, which its organizers call a refugee community justice center. She helps run the children’s club, where she entertains the children of families who attend the center, often from the country’s asylum and deportation centers. Jensen is also a teacher at an international primary school, located in the northern part of the city.
As we began talking about asylum policy, she brought up an interaction she recently had with an eight-year-old at the center. They were drawing together, a rainbow unicorn, when she asked the child where she went to school.
“I go to the camp,” the child responded. It took Jensen a moment, she said, to realize the child was saying she attended school inside an asylum center. Jensen told the child she was a teacher and that she teaches children who are similar to her age, eight to nine years old.
“Then she asked me what kind of school is it, and I said it’s an international school,” Jensen explained. “She asked me what international meant and I said, ‘Well, they’re children from all over the world.”
The child responded, “Oh, they’re children just like me, international children.”
Tears welled up in Jensen’s eyes as she recounted, “That’s when I just realized, no, they weren’t just like her. They were nothing like her in terms of the power that her family has to move around and make decisions on her behalf. They’re powerless. They can’t choose what school they put their kids in.”
“It opened my eyes, just that wee girl.”
While reporting in Denmark in the summer of 2022, similar parallels kept coming up in my conversations and interviews. People I connected with were confronted by the fact that although they were physically in the same place, they were living different realities because of their identities—and also because of gaps in understanding.
This is a key worry I found at the crux of the main narrative of my reporting, a school impacted by Denmark's first school desegregation order. I pitched a piece to the Pulitzer Center about how Denmark’s assimilation policies impact the identity of youth, specifically in the education system. The welfare state has been criticized in recent years for its forced assimilation of refugees and migrants, such as with the “ghetto package” in 2018 which ordered the breaking up of ethnic enclaves. The country announced its first nationwide school desegregation order during my Pulitzer fellowship, with a similar goal of breaking up schools with majority students of foreign descent, and I shifted my reporting to center that narrative.
The overarching goal of the desegregation order is not unfamiliar in the context of desegregation efforts writ large. Schools are segregated. That’s a problem. The government ought to order them to mix. Through interviews with educators, researchers, and students, however, a much more complicated picture emerged—one way being that people worry the order stops short of true integration.
Even if the order does have its intended effect of physically mixing students, will forcing people into the same space actually bring about true and sustained integration? Will the students interact socially? Will there be a sharing of thought and understanding?
Further, what really is the ‘problem’ integration seeks to address? Does upholding integration as the ideal devalue the minority communities it targets? I set out to see how assimilation policy shaped identity, but I also found that it is often where policy falls short that a lot of learning and identity formation happens.