Dozens of satellite dishes are affixed to the red brick housing estate Mjølnerparken. They indicate that the residents are beaming their television programmes from far off lands – around 84 percent of the 1,800 residents are non-Western immigrants.
Primarily home to refugees and their families, the housing estate is one of the most socially deprived in Denmark. One of the 25 Danish ‘ghettos’ classified by the government, 44 percent of the residents are not in work or education and around a quarter live below the Danish poverty line. The crime rate is dropping, but one in 50 residents has a conviction for drug or weapons offences.
Mjølnerparken’s reputation was dealt a further blow after four young men from the neighbourhood were charged with assisting Omar El-Hussein, the perpetrator of the 2015 terror attacks.
Eskild Dahl Pedersen isn’t surprised that the community was connected to the terror attacks. Since 2009 he has worked for Lejerbo, which manages the housing estate, and has headed up its social outreach programme since 2012.
“We face a difficult task in challenging the hate many residents have, whether it be toward the West, Denmark, the police, or the council,” he explains matter-of-factly in his Mjølnerparken office.
Pedersen paints a bleak picture of life in Mjølnerparken and the social and cultural isolation felt by a large propotion of its residents. Many arrived in Denmark as refugees in the 1980s and 1990s, but despite billions invested in integration programmes and benefits, a large number have failed to find a footing in Danish society.
“We have a concentration of residents who have lived on benefits for decades and who are increasingly marginalised from mainstream society. The result is that they have developed a warped understanding of how society works, which they then pass down to their children. When they meet mainstream Copenhageners they are ridiculed for their strange views, so they withdraw into their community that shares their values. It’s a problem that is growing and growing.”
No more benefits
Pedersen is campaigning for a radical rethinking of how we approach integration and unemployment. It’s an acute issue and new solutions are needed if the large wave of newly-arrived refugees are to be offered a better chance of becoming mainstream residents.
His proposal is simple: get them off unemployment benefits.
“We need to pull the plug and say ‘living on unemployment benefits is simply not an option’.”
The least generous unemployment benefit in Denmark is ‘kontanthjælp‘, which for couples with children can amount to around 14,000 kroner per month before tax. In March, the government introduced a benefits cap, reducing the total amount of benefits a family can receive. The idea is to make taking a minimum wage job more attractive, but Pedersen argues this strategy is not enough for refugees.
“These are people who have seen conflict and suffering. You really need to put them under much more pressure than taking a few thousand kroner each month to create an incentive to work.”
Instead, he wants to use the money spent on ‘kontanthjælp‘ to create jobs for anyone who wants one. He’s already had success with the approach in Mjølnerparken, which has a job guarantee for any resident aged under 18. The jobs are unskilled – cleaning windows and collecting rubbish – and are paid according to union rates, which is below the money typically paid by gangs.
“The union rate means we can pay under-15s 60 kroner an hour, which is the same they would get working in a shop. But selling drugs will make you 75 kroner an hour, which we can’t compete with. Still, the mothers prefer their children to take the lower salary. They know that the children who work with us end up finishing school, while those who sell joints end up going to prison and in debt to the state.”
Mums at work
While Pedersen says the programme has proved a success for young people, he wants to extend the job and education guarantee to a harder demographic – their mothers.
“The women in Mjølnerparken tend to have children young, so when they’re around 40 they need to find something else to do during the 20 years before they retire.”
Pedersen thinks this is the area that will have the greatest impact on breaking the legacy of marginalisation. He knows that many of the women studied and worked in their home countries before arriving in Denmark. If some study, the others could be paid to look after the children, he proposes.
But convincing the women, who may not have worked for decades, to go back to school or re-join the labour force is tricky. When he tries to convince them, he often uses an anecdote from his own life.
“When I meet women who say it’s not possible, I use my mother as a role model. I come from a poor family with six children. My dad worked and my mum stayed home. Neither were educated and we were poor. My mum had her first child at 17 and when she turned 49 there were no more children who needed her. So she went back to school, completing 8th and 9th grade before attending college and earning her teacher certification. When she turned 57, she taught her first class,” he says.
“We need to get the first generation of these women through education and into jobs to show them there is life after 40. Then the next group will be easier to convince.”
Pedersen is candid about the anti-democratic attitudes held by many of the residents in Mjølnerparken. He attributes it to a combination of ignorance and politics.
On the one hand, many residents have little real contact with Danish society and appreciation of how services and institutions are paid for or were established in the first place.
On the other hand, far left anarchists – who have traditionally supported refugees and protected them from far right xenophobia in Nørrebro – have reinforced a message that the Danish system is inherently unfair, Dahl argues.
“The anarchists presented a narrative that the refugees were being cheated. That taxes should be higher, that the wealthy should give more to the poor. The absurd consequence of this was the creation of far right attitudes among Muslims in Nørrebro.”
Pedersen says the Sunni muslim political organisation Hizb ut-Tahrir, which calls for a global Islamic caliphate, has a strong following in Mjølnerparken. He also alleges that many residents celebrate violence and harrass ethnic Danes, Jews and gays.
“So if we are to succeed we need to challenge the warped perspectives that have been created. That is mostly through education and making sure that everyone has a minimum of a 9th grade education. This means they learn far more than Danish and maths. They learn about history, geography and biology. Their views are challenged as they learn. They learn that Danish society has qualities that are worth valuing, and that have been created because people worked for them. There’s no such thing as a free hospital, someone paid for it, there’s no such thing as a free school, someone paid for it.”
Compassion and dialogue
Taken together, Pedersen argues that education and jobs will tackle the passive marginalisation of refugees.
“The only way to fight extremism is through contact, compassion and dialogue, not guns and jail. You can transform a far right extremist through conversation and persuasion. But in Mjølnerparken they have bounced between far left activists and radical imams. You don’t become a mainstream Copenhagener that way. So that’s my job ‒ to introduce them to mainstream residents, people who aren’t racists and who have a multicultural outlook,” he says.
“In Lejerbo I make a vocal point that everyone is welcome here, even Shia muslims. We have 22 Shia families who are terrified of living out here. But I make the point to the residents that everyone is welcome, gays and Jews too. The extreme Muslims say to me, ‘Eskilde, you don’t really mean that’. And I reply, ‘of course I do! You are also welcome to live here!’ M