Young, male and Muslim: A community divides over its new refugee neighbours

The safety of children and young women is being hotly debated in a wealthy Copenhagen suburb after it was announced that a temporary refugee shelter would be established in the middle of the community. But other residents are prepared to take on the challenge of integrating the massive influx of refugees that have been assigned to the municipality, which has been accused of using shady tricks to keep the numbers down

Sitting prominently at the rise of a hill, Copenhagen International School (CIS) used to educate 700 children from around the world at the heart of the wealthy community Hellerup. CIS moved into its new state-of-the-art facilities in Nordhavn in January, but the buildings will continue to house international families of a different sort – refugees.

When the municipality, Gentofte, announced the news late last year, some residents sounded the alarm.

“I am no way a racist and of course we need to help people in need, but we have to protect ourselves and our values,” stated one concerned resident in a letter to Gentofte mayor Hans Toft, which was published by left-wing publication Modkraft following a freedom of information request.

“We have heard many times that refugees perform widespread vandalism, rob shops, set fire to cars, assault random people on the street, and rape young women,” wrote another.

A third argued that, “thumping disco beats from school parties, lightly dressed girls in the summer heat and the municipality’s beaches will, without a doubt, act as a magnet for frustrated and bored young males refugees. Will the municipality ensure they are educated in how to treat women?”

Sudden increase
Gentofte City Hall was also annoyed that a portion of their new 85-million-kroner acquisition would have to be used to house refugees. But they had little choice. Compared to other municipalities, they own very little public housing or land suitable for development.

Even if they could build new homes, the housing need is immediate. Over the next year Gentofte will be assigned 201 refugees to house and care for. This is a steep increase on the 137 they received in 2016, and 89 in 2015. After family reunification, the number normally triples.

Hans Toft – Gentofte’s mayor for 23 years and member of the Conservative People’s Party (Konservative) – voiced his outrage in December when the Immigration Ministry announced the new quotas.

“The problem we face is finding the number of temporary and permanent homes,” Toft told TV2 News. “The responsibility is [immigration minister] Inger Støjberg’s who knows that we don’t have the housing but still wants us to house the number of refugees that she does.”

If it were a simple conflict between the government and a wealthy municipality, the story would have ended there. Gentofte does have a severe lack of public housing that it can use to house refugees and their families, and the government has no choice but to care for refugees and distribute them fairly across the country. It’s also hardly news that there is a sizeable portion of the Danish population who are made anxious by Islam and Muslims.

But there’s another set of Gentofte residents, who shook their heads when they saw Hans Toft attempt to shift blame on to the immigration minister. The portion of the community who are tired of Gentofte’s depiction as wealthy, intolerant and unwilling to pull their weight. And who now argue that it is time they put their ample resources to good use.

A bitter pill
Gentofte might not even be in this situation if it had accepted its fair share of refugees in the first place.

Refugees who are granted protection are divided between Denmark’s 98 municipalities, who take responsibility for their integration into Danish society. It’s a longstanding policy, designed to prevent ghettoisation and the concentration of immigrants and refugees in deprived parts of the country, separate from mainstream Danish society.

The quotas are set based on the size of the municipality, its share of non-European residents, and the number of foreigners who have settled through family reunification in the past year. As a result, Gentofte has historically received relatively few refugees – 38 in 2014 and 26 in 2013.

In late 2015, Gentofte’s local newspaper Villabyerne reported the reason: diplomats and Philipino au pairs were included as non-Western immigrants, thereby reducing the number of refugees Gentofte was assigned.

There was a national uproar that Gentofte could reduce the financial burden of housing and integrating refugees, because its residents were wealthy and could afford to hire help at home.

The Immigration Ministry agreed, and after they changed the formula to omit au pairs, foreign researchers, diplomats and students, Gentofte was told in 2015 to accept triple the number of refugees it had before.

Starting dialogue
“It’s deeply embarrassing that Gentofte has not taken our fair share before – it’s scandalous that we included diplomats and au pairs in our quota,” says Marianne Victor Hansen over a cappuccino in busy café.

Marianne Victor Pedersen wanted to bring residents together after concerns were raised about the new refugee centre. Her petition, asking the mayor to involve civil society in the task of integrating the new arrivals, was signed by several hundred local residents.

A 52-year-old independent development aid consultant, Hansen was disappointed by Toft’s reaction to the new quota.

“I was struck with indignation, that it’s so typical that the richest people don’t want to support or give space to refugees, even though we should have more resources and space for them.”

She was also moved by the letters of concern her neighbours had sent to Villabyerne, as well as those sent to the mayor, in which they demanded the refugees get screened for infectious diseases and speculated that their property prices might drop.

“I was struck by how many of the letters were representations of fear. Most often it was a fear for their children – what does it mean when our daughters are at the beaches half naked in the summer? What sort of cultural meeting can we expect? I thought why couldn’t we, instead of digging trenches, try and listen? Ask what is it people are worried about, rather than simply reject them as racists, or horrid rich people?”

So she started an online petition to gather together residents who were eager to take on the challenge of welcoming the new arrivals. The petition gathered around 400 signatures, and was directed at the mayor, asking him to present the community with specific ways in which they could help.

Hansen also explains that it was designed to send a message to neighbours who were scared by the news.

“Fear can also be reduced by taking the problems up front. Of course we have to have a dialogue about norms and cultures. About how they should behave with our children running around half naked in the summer. Its important for our children to behave this way because they always have done it in Denmark, so let’s start a dialogue.”

Young, Muslim men
According to the municipality, most of the facilities in the old CIS Hellerup campus will be used for sports, adult learning and child care for the community. But some of the former classrooms will also be converted into housing for around 60 adult refugees.

A third will be families and the remaining will be single men – around 30 of which are expected to be between 18 and 33 years old. The vast majority have fled conflict and persecution in Syria, Afghanistan, Iran and Eritrea.

While refugees are already housed in around 60 locations around Gentofte municipality, few currently live in the wealthier areas Hellerup and Charlottenlund along the coast. Hellerup is especially known for its harbour, beach, and high quality shops. One concerned resident argued that this made it a target.

“The location on Hellerupvej is, in our opinion, more tempting than another locations in the municipality for weak souls because it lies close to an attractive residential area, a train station in walking distance, excellent retail on Strandvejen, and a beach only five minutes away, where lightly dressed women will be a temptation,” wrote one resident.

Another added that the refugee centre on Hellerupvej ought to be equipped with 24-hour surveillance as its location near the train station “makes it easy for radicalised Muslim gangs to access”.

With so many references to crime and the safety of underdressed young women, it’s not hard to read between the lines – young, single Muslim men are perceived by some residents as an inherent risk to the community.

Gentofte is globalised
Across the street from the former CIS campus is Bernadotteskolen, a lower-secondary school with both Danish and International departments. Following the news that young, single refugees would be moving in, many parents wrote concerned letters to the school principal Marina Kaiser, who was compelled to reply.

“I think we should look to the experience on Hospitalsvej, where there has been no increase in crime according to (Mayor) Hans Toft,” she wrote in the letter.

One parent understands the concern, but thinks it is exaggerated.

“I don’t know what they’re expecting, that their children are going to be snatched off the street in broad daylight?” asks Deborah Marlow, an American film producer who has two daughters in the school. “It makes me feel like I’m naïve for not being scared at all. I don’t want to be naïve, but I definitely don’t want to be fearful.”

She still understands where the fear comes from. The attacks on New Years Eve in Cologne, Germany, last year did nothing to appease the simmering mistrust toward Muslims that exists in some layers of Danish society.

“People are worried that it’s young single men who are traumatised and don’t understand our lifestyle. Will they get it? But my position is that if we look at them with scorn in your eyes, how are they then going to react to us? We need to embrace it from the beginning. I just feel like we have a responsibility to get involved and help this integration process.”

At the nearby international bookshop Books & Company, owner Isabella Smith offered a similar message.

“It’s a small group of people who have been through so much already, so why not go out and be positive and try and make a difference? When we make people feel welcome, they become an asset to the community – people don’t do well when they don’t feel welcome. This could be a huge opportunity. We have the resources, so why don’t we lead by example and show the government what could be done? It is important that we change the discourse and not allow the negative voices to drown out the positive initiatives.”

Isabella Smith, owner of Books & Company in Hellerup, thinks the community should see the new arrivals as an opportunity.

Still, Smith couldn’t help identify a degree of hypocrisy in the reaction from some of Gentofte’s residents

“Globalisation has done so much for Gentofte. People come in to my shop exuberant with all the experiences they bring back from around the world. Now these different cultures are coming to us, let’s hope we have the decency to show the same enthusiasm and generosity. It really is as simple as treating others as we ourselves would like to be treated.”

Community action
A few kilometres west, alongside Vangede train station, I sit with Frederik Hostrup-Pedersen in the volunteer centre Netværkshuset (Network House). It’s a Saturday so it’s quiet, but in the kitchen women with headscarves chat and young boys interrupt our conversation to ask where the Playstation has disappeared to.

“People talk about the house as their second home. We aren’t part of the municipality, so we are on their side – we don’t deal with their money or residency.”

Frederik Hostrup-Pedersen manages the volunteer centre Netværkshuset (Network House) in Gentofte. Around 300 residents pay to volunteer their time to help refugees skills, langauges and how to navigate Danish society. He is pictured here in the centre's bicycle repair shop.

Frederik Hostrup-Pedersen manages the volunteer centre Netværkshuset (Network House) in Gentofte. Around 300 residents pay to volunteer their time to help refugees skills, langauges and how to navigate Danish society. He is pictured here in the centre’s bicycle repair shop.

Hostrup-Pedersen manages the centre as the only staff member, and creates the framework within which 300 paying volunteers offer their skills to the municipality’s refugee population.

“There’s a willingness among residents to help these residents. We don’t see Gentofte residents as people who don’t want to help. We see them as being resourceful and open people who have compassion for people in a difficult situation,” he says while eating his lunch.

He explains that on a weekday around 150 refugees will walk through the door for help with homework, looking for jobs, or simply to socialise. We take a tour through the two floors and he shows me where they learn, play table tennis, or browse the internet. One room downstairs is packed with dozens of bicycles, tools and spare parts, in another a few boys play pool. 14-year-old Feras Eyad Muad fled from Syria and now goes to a local lower secondary school. He has learned Danish in just one year, but he says that’s normal for the child refugees.

“The adults can’t, but we can,” he says before he and his friends huddle around a mobile phone.

Hostrup-Pedersen sympathises with the mayor and the difficulties he has finding appropriate housing for the refugees. It’s not the only problem the refugees face, though. Gentofte is largely residential, and has little unskilled jobs to offer the refugees, who often lack the qualifications and language skills to enter the Danish labour market.

Some businesses do view the refugees as a resource, however. Eight refugees currently work at Ikea in Gentofte, which has taken on around 24 refugees as apprentices and other paid positions over the years. McDonalds didn’t have numbers specific to Gentofte, but stated that they have taken on around 75 refugees over the past 20 years.

Bakri Jejan (left) and Feras Eyad Muad, both 14, are refugees from Syria. They have been in Denmark one year, speak Danish, and go to a local lower-secondary school.

Bakri Jejan (left) and Feras Eyad Muad, both 14, are refugees from Syria. They have been in Denmark one year, speak Danish, and go to a local lower-secondary school.

These businesses help, but Hostrup-Pedersen is still worried by the lack of opportunity.

“It would make me really happy if there were lots of unskilled jobs to give – they want to work. There is an economic incentive because welfare for refugees is low, and they want to build a life up in Denmark, free of public support,” he says.

“The situation is not improving in the countries they come from, such as Syria and Eritrea. They don’t know their future; it’s an awful situation. It’s really hard to live like that.”

Religion is private
The following Wednesday I meet Hostrup-Pedersen again in Gentofte City Hall. We are here for an information meeting that has been called by mayor Hans Toft. Around 350 people fill the central hall, and TV cameras and journalists follow the proceedings.

Toft starts by thanking everyone for their interest.

“There is a wide spectrum of opinion but I hope you understand that we have to live up to our obligations. We have a responsibility to find the best possible solution,” he says. “Refugees who have been invited here have to be treated well, which means proper housing. Otherwise we can’t integrate them properly.”

He is followed by presentations from a municipality representative responsible for the integration programme, and local volunteer organisations that explain how to get involved in helping the refugees integrate.

The floor is opened to questions and number of residents use the opportunity to urge their neighbours to get involved with the integration efforts.

One resident asks whether the mayor would build extra youth housing after a portion had been reassigned to house refugees, and another asks whether extra surveillance would be installed to improve security in the neighbourhood.

“A lot has been said about how we should treat the refugees well,” one elderly man says. “But we also need to be treated well. No one has talked about religion. People are afraid.”

Toft replies diplomatically, assuring the speaker that all refugees and immigrants to Denmark have to live up to a wide set of demands.

Then 17-year-old refugee Solaf Masoud takes the floor. She has lived in Denmark for two years since she fled Syria. She explains that she learned Danish by spending a lot of time with Danes who helped her with the language and made her feel welcome.

“Their help made me want to give back,” she says, before sharing an observation.

“In Syria religion is private. You couldn’t talk about religion. When I came here I thought it wouldn’t matter what I believed in. I thought it would be not allowed to ask what I believe in. But I was asked a lot by Danes if I was Sunni or Shia – this would never be asked in Syria! It was so strange. It’s private. It really doesn’t matter what you believe in.” M

Features, News

By Peter Stanners

Co-founder and Editor-in-chief. Occasional photographer.

Facebook comments