Refugees help rural Denmark Danish village finds an answer to the refugee crisis

While countries within the EU are fighting over refugee quotas, the Danish village Vemb in the middle of no man’s land is welcoming their new ethnic neighbours with open arms. Small towns in Denmark have begun to realise that the refugees stop the decreasing population in the rural areas which can potentially save the cities. In addition, experts say the integration of the refugees seems to be easier in these small, engaged communities.

By Jesse Marijn Vonk & Anne Fønss Bach

The high street is decorated with red and white pennants swaying in the Western wind. The beech has burst into leaf, and on the corner at the grocery store stands the fishmonger, as he always does on Wednesdays. A few times during the hour a train pulls in on the almost deserted railway station located in the middle of the town. Everything seems to be the way it has always been in the Danish village Vemb located in Western Jutland. But the arrival of new citizens changed Vemb over the past year, and today the little town of 1000 citizens is an example for other villages around the country.

It all began with a handful of refugees and a tiny misunderstanding about the Danish traffic regulations.

“One day I saw some unfamiliar people walking in the middle of the road, and I thought: “They must be refugees. I better have to teach them that it is dangerous to walk there.” I already knew, that we were going to receive refugees, and the municipality promised, that they would call and inform us about it. But they forgot,” Leif Carøe tells us. He has been living on a quiet suburban street in Vemb since the early 1970’s and is the chairman of the Citizen and Business Association in the village.

Leif Carøe quickly arranged a town meeting in the common house where the 12 new neighbours - as he insists on calling them - had the chance to present themselves to the town. The attendance was overwhelming.

“We did not have high expectations. We booked a small room, because we expected, that maybe 45 people would show up, but it became the talk of the town, and we ended up being over one hundred people. And not a single one of them had anything negative to say about the refugees,” Leif Carøe says.

The town meeting was followed by a series of citizen-led initiatives, all with the purpose to make the new Vemb-residents feel at home. Some arranged course nights about Danish culture, others donated TV’s to them, and the business owners in the area offered internships. Currently, some of the refugees need new bikes, but that is nothing a shout out in the town’s own Facebook-group won’t solve, because in Vemb people come when called, Leif Carøe says.

New citizens save the city

As with many other cities in rural Denmark, Vemb has been struggling with decreasing population figures and a declining birth rate. The village is located in Holstebro Municipality. This area have had a decrease of 451 Danish citizens since 2008. But it still grew in population because 578 people with different ethnic backgrounds arrived to the municipality, according to Statistics Denmark. And the number keeps rising with the arrival of new refugees.

According to Leif Carøe, the villagers have a good reason to welcome their new neighbours with open arms.

“Everything we do out here has one purpose: to save our public school from closing. The schools are crucial to the survival of smaller cities. If they close, people move away, and our businesses go bankrupt. We can solve this issue if we receive these new citizens.” Says Leif Carøe

This statement is confirmed by Birger Mortensen, Chief Consultant in the Integration Department at Local Government Denmark - the national advocacy organisation of Danish municipalities.

“Studies show that the population decrease we have seen so far in the smaller, Danish communities is moving in another direction with the receiving of refugees. This increase of citizens in villages saves local institutions for example schools, groceries or carpenters from closing. Furthermore, the arriving of refugees ensures a more balanced age composition in the area,” he says.

The youngest of the newly arrived refugees in Vemb is 16 years old, and the oldest, 40 years old. The Vemb-villagers hope that family reunifications will result in the arrival of smaller children as well.

Rural areas request refugees

In Denmark, it is the Danish Immigration Service that every year divides the refugees between the municipalities. According to themselves, they do take the municipalities’ individual wishes into consideration when doing this. And so the rural areas have begun to voice their requests.

“I have for sure seen examples on municipalities outside the urban areas who announce that they wish to receive refugees,” Birger Mortensen from Local Government Denmark says.

Out of the approximately 1.2 million refugees arriving in Europe in 2015, the Municipality of Holstebro received 170 of these and 16 were placed in Vemb. Afterwards, a handful more moved to the city and by the 1st of June this year the citizens of Vemb have welcomed 25 new neighbours in total.

Numbers are from 2015 and given by the UNHCR
In Denmark the refugees are divided over the municipalities by The Danish Immigration service.
Each municipality has the responsibility to find housing for the new citizens inside their region.

During that same period Denmark accepted the fourth largest number of asylum seekers per inhabitants only outnumbered by Sweden, Malta and Switzerland.

The social democratic mayor of Holstebro Municipality Hans Christian Østerby has previously said that he wants to welcome refugees and that six out of seven local villages in the municipality were willing to do the same. The tendency is also seen in other villages in Jutland; from Flauenskjold in the North to the islands Samsø and Ærø in the sea of Kattegat.

Unnecessary concerns about new neighbours

Nevertheless, 26 percent of Danes still consider refugees as being a threat to their local communities according to a study made by the Danish analysis company Megafon. And even though everyone seemed happy at the town meeting in the fall, some citizens of Vemb were also in two minds about what the new residents would mean to the community.

Bodil Bundgaard was one of those. Last year two men and one family with a refugee status moved into her apartment building just across from the railway station.

Bodil Bundgaard

“My first reaction was not very good. I was so sceptical. We have such a nice building here, and we take care of each other. No one told us that the refugees were going to move in. One day they just arrived,” Bodil Bundgaard tells.

Rumours run fast in a village and as soon as Leif Carøe heard about Bodil Bundgaards concerns, he called her and encouraged her to ask her new neighbours over. One cup of coffee led to another and today Bodil Bundgaard can’t do without her weekly visits from the new residents.

“They turned out to be some fine, young men. We have become really good friends,” she says.

Interaction equals integration

Bodil Bundgaard helps her new friends with practical matters like learning Danish and adapting to their new lives.

This interaction is extremely important when integrating refugees, says Anne Lejbech Jørgensen, development consultant within integration at Red Cross Denmark. It is therefore not only beneficial for the socioeconomic relations in the Danish villages to take in refugees. It also adds great value to the everyday lives of the newly arrived citizens.

“It can be beneficial in many cases to place refugees in smaller communities. Many studies show that small cities and local communities are good at taking refugees in on many parameters. They include them in the community, in association activities, at the schools and so on,” Anne Lejbech Jørgensen says.

Eritrean refugee Kiros Tesfay nods in agreement when the above-mentioned statement is presented to him. He is one of the aforementioned neighbours to Bodil Bundgaard and has in honour of the occasion been invited over to coffee and home-baked goods at her apartment. He has some difficulties putting his thoughts into Danish words but makes it clear that he is grateful for living in a city, where he is surrounded by a helpful community.

Preventing the refugees from moving away

But is a helpful community enough to make the refugees stay in the area? It is proven fact that Vemb hasn’t got as many cultural and social hotspots to offer as bigger cities. This can potentially become a challenge for the villages, Birger Mortensen predicts.

“It is a problem that refugees move to the bigger cities as soon as they get the possibility to do so. The likelihood of refugee families staying in the rural areas are bigger than with the young refugees. With them we see the same pattern as with young Danes: when being young, you seek towards the cities. But if the refugees have children who attends kindergarten or school it is more likely that they stay in the area they were placed in. And then it, of course, depends on the welcoming in the area - if there is a great network of volunteers, if the municipality makes an effort and so on,” he says.

The public schools are crucial for villages to survive.

According to the Danish Integration law refugees are obliged to stay in the municipality, The Immigration Service placed them in, for three years. Statistics made by the Ministry of Foreigners, Integration and Housing show that only 19 percent of the refugees move away from the municipality they were placed in.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that the refugees won’t move from Vemb to Holstebro, which is the main city of the municipality. To make Vemb more attractive, every new citizen gets a free membership for the local sports club for one year. But the most important factor is the connection to the labour market.

“We make sure they get a job in the area. Then they will stay,” Leif Carøe states.

When the refugees began arriving in Vemb, Leif Carøe partnered up with local companies in order to find internships for the new citizens. Kiros Tesfay, the neighbour of Bodil Bundgaard, used to work at the graveyard in Vemb and is now a groundsman in the village. Others are working at a restaurant or at a mink farm nearby while attending language school in Holstebro.

Vemb Citizen and Business Association is planning on convincing the city council to hire a Danish teacher in the town so the refugees in Vemb and surrounding villages don’t need to go to Holstebro several times a week. All measures are taken in order to make the refugees stay in the area.

Whenever language problems occur in Vemb, everyone goes to the Lebanese owners of the Havanna Pizza Bar who speak both Arabic and Danish.

"We always make things work"

The European Commission expects 3 million refugees to arrive in Europe by the end of this year. It is not yet to say how many of these people will find their way to the village of Vemb in Western Jutland. But the citizens are ready to greet them. Here they don’t care much about countries fighting over how many refugees to take in or parliamentary parties angling for votes, says Leif Carøe:

“Politics is irrelevant out here. We talk about things. Maybe we agree, maybe we disagree. But we always make things work.”

Meanwhile, the pennants on the main street of Vemb continue to sway in the Western wind. The train still arrives at an almost empty railway station. The fishmonger is closing for today. But there are no longer any unfamiliar faces walking around in the middle of the road. And the senior citizens don’t fear their new neighbours anymore. Because in this town they have found a way to make the best out of the situation they are facing. This is their answer to the global refugee crisis.


All photos, videos and text by Anne Fonss Bach and Jesse Marijn Vonk

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