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Danish Communities Integrate Refugees As Politicians Debate Limits


Here's another dimension to a story that we've been covering. Denmark has made little secret of its desire to stop asylum-seekers from arriving in that country. But for the thousands already there as refugees, it's a very different story. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports from Copenhagen of the lengths to which many Danes go to integrate refugees, even in their wealthiest communities.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: The municipality of Frederiksberg, with its villas and gardens, is one of the most desirable places to live in Denmark. But many residents worried whether their idyllic enclave in the middle of Copenhagen would stay that way if refugees moved in, says resident Steen Kallestrup.

STEEN KALLESTRUP: And that's exactly why, initially, people responded with surprise - hey, what is happening in my neighborhood?

NELSON: Last March, local officials moved about 40 refugees - most of them Syrian and Eritrean - into Sunny Mountain. It's a historic mansion in Frederiksberg designed by the same architect who did the city hall in Copenhagen. Kallestrup says Frederiksberg residents sprang into action.

KALLESTRUP: Most of the people here quickly realized - yes, this is going to happen - so now it's a matter of making the best out of this. We need to get these people properly integrated into the Dane society.

NELSON: He says they greeted the first arrivals with Danish flags, flowers and home-baked bread. These days, weekly coffees are held at the mansion, during which the refugees catch up with their Danish neighbors. Many do so in Danish, including Khaldoun Freha, a Syrian house painter who also dabbles in poetry. He's had 8 months of language lessons paid for by the government and talks to me about his new life in Danish.

KHALDOUN FREHA: (Speaking Danish).

NELSON: The neighbor, Kallestrup, praises Freha.

KALLESTRUP: Your Danish is good, you know? And we can have a conversation in Danish without any problems.

NELSON: Refugees like Freha can spend up to 3 years at the government's expense integrating into Danish society. But the efforts of the volunteers here at Sunny Mountain have some residents, like Rashid Rishou, ready in a matter of months.

RASHID RISHOU: (Speaking Danish).

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Danish).

NELSON: The Aleppo native, who has found full-time work as a carpenter, chats with family and friends about his new apartment, which he is planning to furnish with used items he's found for sale online. Haifaa Awad says the sort of interactions seen at Sunny Mountain is vital to the successful integration of refugees. The Danish-Syrian anesthesiologist was born in Damascus and came to Denmark with her family as a refugee when she was 6. She says one of the brighter moments for her was joining her Danish youth soccer team.

HAIFAA AWAD: So it's like all these small things that we often don't think about. These are what makes us feel connected or less alienated as kids. And if we can try to build on that instead of building on what's so different between us, I think we could move the debate to a whole new scale, especially now that it's become - the debate has become so polarized.

NELSON: Opposition MP Pernille Skipper agrees, but says new laws to deter migrants threaten to scuttle Danish integration efforts. She's especially critical of the measure that requires refugees to wait at least 3 years before applying to bring their families over.

PERNILLE SKIPPER: Because - you can imagine, you come to a new country and you sit for years and years and wait for your family to come, maybe they will die in the time passing. And what do you do? Do you concentrate on learning a new language and get a job, get an education - for integration to work, that's going to be very, very difficult.

NELSON: Back at Sunny Mountain, Freha says he worries about the new law, too. He's waiting for the government to grant his mother permission to come to Denmark, which even under the old law will take at least a year. He tells me in English, I miss my mom. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Copenhagen. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at NPR.org. From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.
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