Maria Pedersen decided that she’d had enough. It was March last year, and the government had just announced new cuts to unemployment benefits, which threatened to put families on the streets and keep children locked in poverty.
So she joined a Facebook group called Næstehjælperne – which roughly translates as ‘neighbourhood helpers’ – that had just been launched as a network for protest, solidarity and practical help for those affected by the reforms. Six months later she is now an administrator of the group, which has more than 14,000 members from across Denmark.
I first met Pedersen in a refugee camp on the island of Lesbos in Greece. A nurse, she had visited the island once before to provide medical assistance to refugees after their journey over the Aegean Sea. She had grown frustrated with the handling of the refugee crisis and decided to mobilise colleagues in her field to address the lack of medical care. This initiative ultimately resulted in the creation of the organisation Nurses for Refugees.
“My work in Lesbos and other projects have all simply sprung from a sense of ‘what the fuck is happening here?'” she explains at home in Bananhuset in Christiania, where she lives with her partner Klaus and their two cats Coco and Zorro.
“I’m driven by a social outrage and anger. Shouldn’t we see if we could do this just a little bit better? I’m from a time when all middle-aged women, such as myself, were encouraged to get a coaching education and where it’s been emphasised that we need to ‘remember to think about yourself’. But I would actually really like us to act less on this sentiment. I would go nuts if I stayed alone at home and detoxed and got healthy and mindful. That just doesn’t work for me.”
Pedersen has a long history of activism and social outreach, particularly on issues of homelessness and drug abuse, and has worked with a number of organisations such as Gadeplan, Hjemløsedagen, and Arbejdet Adler.
Næstehjælperne focus on a different group – the ‘middle-group’ as she calls it – who are at risk of homelessness or drug abuse, who have families and a place to live, and who have been affected by factors such as mental health disorders or poverty.
“We can reach them through Facebook, because this is their platform. This is where they have a social life because many of them deal with so much social anxiety and social phobia that they don’t go out beyond their screen,” says Pedersen.
Maria is direct, unapologetic, takes action when she sees injustice. When the government announced a welfare cap for those receiving unemployment benefits, there were concerns that recipients could have their welfare slashed just for regularly eating dinner with friends, neighbours or partners. Municipalities argue that this sort of help can in some cases be interpreted as cohabitation, which would reduce welfare payouts. But Pedersen sees it as another example of the climate of fear and uncertainty the government uses to maintain pressure on the unemployed.
Pedersen believes that the current approach is counter-productive, and that if the unemployed are to find work again, they need all the help and support they can get.
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“You can’t expect someone to get up out of their chair if their stomach is screaming with hunger. We can’t pull them out on a rainy day for a demonstration if they don’t have proper shoes.” she says.
“People who have been on unemployment benefits for 30 years probably haven’t found a job because there is something else wrong with their life. Just a few years back you would have classified those people as having other problems, not just that they were unemployed. We need to take people by the hand.”
No questions asked
Soon after joining the group, it was evident to Pedersen that there was a need for the work they were doing.
“We realised how bad the situation had really become for a lot of people – how penniless some were, unable to afford anything at all. This was right before school began, so it was very basic things like pencil cases, joining the school’s milk program, school bags, and gym clothes.”
Group members began gathering and distributing clothing, food and other household items to those who had expressed a need for something specific. As the network grew, some members started local sub-groups to make it easier to distribute supplies across the country.
Those who are uncomfortable asking for help publicly are allowed to reach out to the group’s admins to ask on their behalf anonymously. And those that do make public requests are shielded from being judged or questioned by other group members.
“If someone says ‘I’ve got no cigarettes for the rest of the month’, no one should reply with, ‘well maybe you shouldn’t ask for cigarettes when there are children starving’. Because of course you can need cigarettes if you are in a shitty situation and everything is falling apart, and you smoke. You shouldn’t also have to be told that you should stop smoking.”
Næstehjælperne also cooperates with social workers, who accompany unemployment recipients when they meet the municipality to discuss their welfare payments.
“It’s interesting sitting with people in the municipality, and interfering mainly to say, ‘Can you please talk respectfully to this person?’ When they ask, ‘Who do you think you are speaking to?’, I just answer, ‘Well, who do you think you are speaking to?'”
Næstehjælperne is also a protest platform, bringing together hundreds of people on the opening day of parliament in October to send a signal to the government about its constant cuts to Danish welfare. But Pedersen also fears that while volunteerism can make up for the withdrawal of government assistance, it may be counterproductive in the long term.
“We have to help. And that’s why I think we’ll see a lot more of these types of groups in the future. But honestly I’m deeply anxious that I am running the errand of liberalism by doing this.”
Despite this, she still argues that people have a moral responsibility to help others. And Næstehjælperne’s success rests on coming to the rescue of people before their lives spiral too far out of control. It is a project founded on dignity, equality, and respect, which helps at-risk people with material security, and supports them as they navigate the bureaucratic power structures back towards self-sufficiency.
“I don’t think I’ll ever be able do anything this big again to be honest. So I feel both a sort of disappointment that it is necessary, and a pride that it really fucking works.” M