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The Danish ‘Mother’ Who Helps Refugees Feel at Home

As refugees began arriving in Hanne Olsen’s small town in the Danish countryside, she realized they often had nowhere to turn for help. So she decided to dedicate her retirement to helping them resettle, find jobs and start a new life.

Written by Sonia Narang Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Hanne Olsen (right) gives advice to Sameer Mahmood, a refugee from Afghanistan who settled in Hvalso, a town in the Danish countryside. Courtesy of Hanne Olsen

Every Wednesday evening, volunteers from the Danish Refugee Council gather in a meeting hall in Hvalso, a small town an hour from Copenhagen, Denmark. Hanne Olsen, a charismatic, 61-year-old retired IT professional, sets up her laptop to prepare for questions from the local refugees who drop by for the evening help session.

Soon, the room is full of laughter and friendly chitchat as refugees from the area gather. Olsen and the other volunteers help them with everything from translating rent and utility bills to filling out job applications online. For many refugees, Olsen has become a mother figure – someone they can depend on for help navigating life in Denmark. She has also used her connections to find jobs for some of the refugees.

Last year, Denmark received about 20,000 asylum seekers and plans to take in a smaller number this year. Olsen’s municipality has a population of about 27,000 people, a few hundred of them refugees. As refugees in Denmark face greater difficulties – including decreased monthly stipends and more stringent family reunification requirements, forcing many to wait three years for their families to join them – it’s up to volunteers like Olsen to step in and offer support.

She spoke with Women & Girls Hub about trying to break down stereotypes in a town that has dramatically changed in the past two years as refugees settle there.

Women & Girls Hub: What kind of help do you provide to the refugees who come here on Wednesday evenings?

Hanne Olsen: For example, one of the guys who has worked since the beginning of January didn’t understand all the notes he gets about his salary. Today, he brought all the notes, and we looked at them together so I could explain the tax. We’re trying to explain all the practical things about life in Denmark. We also help them with online bank accounts and other digital things.

Another guy bought a used car and signed up for car insurance. But they gave him the wrong insurance, for drivers under 25 years old, which is much more expensive, so he got a huge bill. Now I have the bill in my bag, so I’m going to call the insurance company tomorrow and tell them this is a mistake.

You can see, it’s a little bit like a family. We get new refugees here all the time, and we always invite them to come here in the beginning to help solve their problems. Then, we get to know them and visit them where they live.

Women & Girls Hub: What motivated you to help refugees who were settling in your area?

Olsen: About two years ago, more refugees started coming to Denmark. If we want them to integrate, we have to help them. If refugees only associate with other refugees, they’ll never learn how Danish society works. That was my purpose to go into this work, that I wanted to teach them how it is to live in Denmark. If we help them adapt to life here, we’ll have good people around us. It’s a give and take, I think.

We have people here who came 10 or 20 years ago, and they don’t speak Danish yet, because at the time when they came, there was no integration at all. You just came here and you got your stipend from the municipality and you got a house, and nothing happened. That’s not the way it is today.

Women & Girls Hub: How is your community reacting to the increase in refugees and their families coming here? What is the dynamic?

Olsen: In some of the small communities, we had problems in the beginning. It was because the municipality didn’t have the muscles to take care of all this. Afterwards, they had some meetings in these small communities calling all the citizens to come and get information about who has moved in. What does it mean to have a refugee as a neighbor? Maybe you could knock on the door and tell him a little bit about how take the garbage out and things like that.

It’s much better now because the official opinion from the municipality is we want to inform, inform, inform. Two years ago, it was a disaster. In some of the small communities, there were maybe 10 houses, and if you moved a refugee family into one of those houses, that didn’t go over well with the locals.

A lot of things have changed. Now, there are more volunteers, so we can participate in these information meetings. We tell the townspeople, these refugees are not dangerous, they are like you and me. They may have another religion and another way of living, but we can easily interact with each other.

Olsen with Syrian refugees after an evening volunteer session. (Sonia Narang)
Olsen with Syrian refugees after an evening volunteer session. (Sonia Narang)

Women & Girls Hub: Why is it important to find jobs for the refugees, and how are you helping connect them to work opportunities?

Olsen: It’s important for refugees to have jobs because it’s in the job they learn to speak Danish. No doubt about that. You can learn something in the school, of course, but you must be together with Danes, and that’s what you are doing when you’re working.

Secondly, because they can earn their own money. In their countries, some of them were academic people, some of them were dentists, carpenters, painters and they want to work. They don’t care, they will do everything. The season for strawberries has just ended now, and some of them have helped picking strawberries and it’s really hard work.

Also, the Danish government has decided to cut the stipend refugees receive. They get such little money that they can only pay their rent, food, transport and nothing else. It’s not so nice to be a refugee anymore if you don’t earn your own money. It’s so difficult.

Since I have a lot of friends, I’m asking everywhere for jobs. I ask them if they have the possibility to take in a refugee for an apprenticeship. Maybe I have found 10 jobs, but we have 300 refugees. I’m a member on several groups on Facebook and I look there for jobs too and see if anybody needs people for work.

Women & Girls Hub: It seems like your work in the community has started to change the attitudes of the Danish people here. Is that happening?

Olsen: Yes, it’s happening very slowly, but we are trying to push them. When I walk around here in this small city, and see some of the refugees, I always say hello. Everybody can see that I know a lot of these people. I’ve lived here for many years, so a lot of people know me, and they see me meeting with refugees, smiling, laughing. That’s the way I try to convince all these Danish people that there’s nothing to be scared of.

Very often when I am at the local restaurant, somebody wants to talk to me about the refugees. I could talk about it all evening, because it’s so important to tell others that these are just people like you and me.

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