Asylum seekers busy as bees

Joint initiative sees asylum seekers tending to 500,000 bees in city centre

When Joseph* and his friends collected honey in Nigeria, they wore an extra layer of clothing, lit a torch and kicked the hive from the tree to take the swarm’s sweet nectar.

Now living at Sandholm Asylum Centre, Joseph is studying a more conventional method of beekeeping alongside more than 20 other asylum seekers at Copenhagen’s Bybi (City Bee Association).

The six-month training program, which began in March, is a joint initiative between Bybi and the Danish Red Cross, with support from the Roskilde Festival Fund.

With half a million bees in the asylum seekers’ care, any profit they make from honey sales will be used to help them become beekeepers in their own right.

The asylum seekers come from all over, including countries such as Lebanon, where families commonly keep their own hive for personal honey consumption.

The director of Bybi, Oliver Maxwell, said the asylum seekers, some of whom attend the Trampoline House featured in The Copenhagen Post last week, are positive and fun to work with.

“For those who will stay in Denmark, it gives them a window into Danish society and culture," Maxwell said. "And for those who can’t stay, they are still learning skills that can be used anywhere in the world.”

For Sanjida, a Bangladeshi woman who has lived at the Avenstrup camp for just over four months, Tuesdays, when she attends bee school, can never come around fast enough.

“The first thing that came to mind when I heard about the honey-making course was I have to get out of this camp,” she said.

Whilst it takes most of the asylum seekers more than an hour to travel to the course, Danish Red Cross's education and training supervisor, Merete Zerlang, said that is one of the things the participants like most.

Zerlang came up with the idea to run the program after working with a Somali student who wanted to learn beekeeping.

“I had thought, ‘Why do you want to do that?’, and he said ‘Because in Africa, nobody owns the bees.’ I guess that comment stayed with me,” Zerlang said.

On a deeper level, Bybis’ Maxwell says a bee hive is a “wonderful metaphor for society”, and that the project, held at the University of Copenhagen’s Niels Bohr Institute, allows participants to meet eye-to-eye as beekeepers rather than as asylum seekers.

“We want a city where there is a place for everyone, where they have a right to work and bring productivity to society,” he said.

The group will harvest its first batch of honey at the end of June.

*The asylum seekers interviewed requested to be named by their first name only.

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