Refugee parents raise teens between cultural differences

While many parents with non-Danish backgrounds may fear the words “sex education,” the dreaded subject might actually help their children avoid early sexual relationships and have a significant understanding of the Danish culture.

By Nour Ibrahim


For Khanum and Mehmett Rumi, moving from Syria to Denmark has brought many changes on to their lives. It has not only affected their ability to work and the unity of their family but also, the way they choose to bring up their children.
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PHOTOGRAPH: Mehmet is a father of five children and a refugee in Denmark. (Photo credits: Nour Ibrahim)

Mehmett, the father of five explains, “Here in Denmark, we give them more freedom than we used to in Syria. We try to observe our neighbours and their children and deal with our children similarly. It’s impossible to control them here like we did in Syria.”

Even though the Rumis have accepted many of the changes that have touched their lives since they moved, there are things that they still haven’t embraced. Sex education for their children is among the things that they worry about as parents from a different cultural background.

“We’re not used to our children learning about this (sex),” says the mother who has been in Denmark for only one year.

Deceiving perception

Even though sex education is mandatory up to 9th grade in Denmark, some parents like the Rumis see it as a taboo. In their culture, sex is a private matter that should not be discussed publicly.

According to Ghanim Almahbobi, adjunct senior research fellow at Curtin University in Australia in an abstract published by Australas Medical Journal, individuals with different cultural backgrounds perceive sex education differently.

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PHOTOGRAPH: Anette Østergård in her office. (Photo credit: Nour Ibrahim)

Anette Østergård, a health nurse at Aarhus municipality,says that a common misconception is that education encourages young people to have sex earlier. Anette teaches sex education at different public and private schools. Based on her experience, the word “sex” can frighten some parents.

(Anette talking about why sex education can scare some parents).

Same interests, different approach

In spite of the parents’ fears, Anette believes that teens are actually relieved to hear someone speak to them about the reality of sex.

“I think they know, they have found out on the internet or in books how you make babies and how people have sex even though they are told something else,” she says.

Even though Anette thinks that all teens have the same interest in learning about sex and sexual behavior, she acknowledges that the power of cultural differences affects her teaching style.

(Anette talking about how she modifies her teaching methods to fit an audience with a different ethnic background)

She also recalls her experience in a Turkish private school where she was asked to separate the boys and girls as the parents and the administration thought it would be more appropriate.

In her opinion, even though this separation may encourage students to ask more questions, it does not enable them to know more about the other gender.

More to sex education

Not only does Anette think that sex education is important for the Danish society, but she sees it as vital for the integration of teens and adults from different ethnic backgrounds as it displays well how individuals interact in the Danish community.

Even though sex education may highlight some cultural differences, she welcomes those differences in class and tries to guide the students to what is acceptable in Denmark.

In Denmark, both teachers and school nurses are involved in teaching children about sex education. While the nurses mostly help with the biological aspects of the curricula, teachers  discuss more psychological issues like family life and cultural understanding. 

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According to Anette, the biological and the psychological issues are intertwined. For example, cultural differences arise among not only Danes and children of different ethnic backgrounds but also among Danes who come from different backgrounds.

For instance, a Dane who comes from a religious family that doesn’t believe in sex before marriage and a Dane who was raised by an unmarried couple may have different views on what would be the right time to start having sex.

From Anette’s point of view, sex education might also form a good platform for cultural exchange. She explains that it’s not only about helping children with other backgrounds understand that it is not acceptable to hit a woman but also about helping Danes show more affection to their loved ones by learning from other cultures.

Changing the parenting approach

Even though fear of sex education might exhibit many of some families’ fears of melting into the Danish community, it most importantly shows the confusion that parents feel on raising their children in a different community.

Ane Hamilton is head of the Children and Family section at Integrations Net in Aarhus, which is part of the Danish Refugee Council, one of the largest NGOs that help refugees in Denmark.

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PHOTOGRAPH: Ane Hamilton at Integrations Net. (Photo credit: Nour Ibrahim)

According to Ane, Integrations Net workers help the families that suffer the most with the integration process in Denmark. They are asked to interfere when the local municipalities’ social workers can no longer help the families.

She explains that parenting can be a challenge especially for families that come from the Middle East due to the drastically different parenting approaches.

VIDEO: Ane explains the cultural differences in parenting approaches.

Social worker Shadman Salih also works at Integrations Net. He has moved to Denmark 17 years ago from Iraq.

From his own experience, he explains how hard it can be for families to integrate themselves into the Danish society especially when they feel that their stay in Denmark is only temporary.

“When someone decides to migrate from one place to another, they want to travel so they expect that the place they are going to is different in terms of norms, traditions, culture and everything. It might be therefore easier for a migrant to adapt compared to a refugee who doesn’t really know how to live in the new place where they reside and doesn’t have the option of returning back to their home country.”

He adds that even though the refugee parents are living in a different country with different traditions, they sometimes want to raise their children in the same way that they were raised in their home country.

They may also compare their children to their peers back home in a constant attempt to try to prove to themselves and to others that they have managed to preserve their culture and traditions.

In addition, Shadman mentions that some individuals are always thinking “Someday, I’ll return. I’m only a guest here.” So even though their refugee status may last for years, the thought that the situation is only temporary hinders them from trying to integrate themselves or their families.

Rules are rules

Khanum and Mehmett think about the future. Mehmett hopes to find work soon and they both hope to reunite with two of their children who are currently far away. As for their concern over sex education, “Maybe with time, we’ll get used to it. We still don’t know the rules here.”

While Anette believes it is important to prepare the parents well in advance and inform them of what their children are learning, Ane also believes in the necessity of a discussion when parents object on something.

However Ane’s work has taught her that sometimes she needs to be firm.

(Ane talking about how she sometimes needs to face the individuals she helps when they refuse to accept something they are legally bound to do)

While the Rumis may not need to hear that, other families are in desperate need for Ane’s help.