Ever since the first wave of refugees hit Europe in earnest, the people of Europe have responded unwaveringly: whether it was flying to Greece and Turkey to assist the refugees as they came ashore from their dilapidated boats, or stockpiling food and supplies, or opening up their homes.
Initiatives involving the public are popping up all over Europe to house the refugees and migrants. And across the border in Germany, the response has been staggering. One parliament member, Martin Patzelt, has even opened his home to two refugees from Eritrea.
But how about Denmark? Is there more to the Danes than anti-refugee ads in Lebanese newspapers and politicians calling for tougher border checkpoints and for refugees to stay away?
There certainly is. As the first wave of refugees arrived in Rødby on Sunday evening, Danes lined up to say ‘Velkommen’ and lend a helping hand where they could. And for an increasing number of Danes, opening their hearts to the refugees also means opening the doors of their homes.
One such initiative is Venligboerne (friendly neighbour), which has engaged the public to help in welcoming refugees to Denmark for some time now, opening up chapters across the nation, from Copenhagen to Frederikshavn.
The initiative inspired Sami Idrissi Hvidtfeldt to create Venligboerne åbner deres hjem (friendly neighbours opening their homes). The group aims to organise housing for refugees, both for short and longer periods of time. In just five days, the site has attracted over close to 3,000 members.
“I was inspired by the grass roots refugee aid channel Venligboerne to do something after seeing many people looking for options to host refugees in their homes,” Hvidtfeldt told the Weekly Post.
“I could see how Danes were helping with aid, money and even going to the Greek Islands to help out. It’s also essential to show that many Danes don’t feel the same as their government does.”
The Danish people’s response to the arrival of the refugees has been spectacular and breathtaking, according to Jonas Keidling, the secretary general of the aid organisation Red Barnet.
Keidling underlined that Red Barnet only operated through an official framework and worked in Denmark to help refugees – children and parents in particular – to overcome the trauma sustained when they are confined in camps here. But the efforts of the public had not gone unnoticed.
“I am in awe and inspired by this great initiative from all of my fellow citizens to stand up and reach out to people in need at this time of crisis,” said Keidling.
“It encourages me to continue to work as hard as I can. That’s what relief work is about. It’s about the mobilisation of people to help other people in need.”
But extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. Red Barnet does most of its work abroad, but for the first time since the end of the Second World War, the organisation has opened up a psychosocial intervention inside the reception centre in Rødby Havn – a closed-off area with child-friendly furniture, toys and colouring pencils and teddy bears.
“We might have done it after WWII, but not in recent times, so this is a unique opportunity for us to draw on our overseas experience and help children recover from some of the most traumatic and dire conditions in war and disaster zones – and actually carry out the work in Denmark.”
Some muncipalities in Denmark, such as in Aarhus, Lyngby and Furesø, are also getting in the mix, although their reasons are perhaps born more out of need and integration.
They have all established official initiatives aimed at finding citizens who wish to house one or more refugees for shorter or longer periods of time. Furesø was the first municipality to turn to its citizens for help late last year.
“The municipality is doing everything it can to give the refugees the help they need,” said Karen Adler-Nissen, a spokesperson for Furesø Municipality. “That doesn’t change the fact there isn’t enough temporary housing for the refugees.”
“Being able to live with Danes is a huge integration benefit to the refugees. They can see how people live in Denmark, learn where to shop, have access to a network and learn the language and culture.”
It’s been a slow start – the municipalities have encountered a number of hurdles including a Danish law forbidding people from living in basements that are beneath ground level and less than 2.5 metres in height – but they have received lots of positive feedback and things are running more smoothly.
That problem could become even more critical in the near future. This week, the president of the European Commission, Jean Claude Juncker, called for a mandatory redistribution of 160,000 migrants in the EU over the next two years.
Leading by example
One person who won’t need any convincing to help out is Rosemary Bohr, who has been opening her doors to students in Denmark for years now. Taking in refugees would come naturally to her and she contends that Danes should be better at opening their homes to people in need.
“It’s about humanity. I’m old enough to remember my parents having to flee France in World War II as refugees. It takes no imagination to realise that they’ve had to leave everything behind to undertake this appalling journey to get here,” said Bohr.
“The worst of it is the number of elderly people living all alone in large houses round here, but I know from trying to interest them in foreign students that they won’t take anyone in – they are reluctant to share their bathrooms!”