Ive been off the grid for the past two weeks. Trying to make more of a routine in my daily life here in Denmark and dealing with some medical tribulations. This past Sunday I spent the day volunteering at a Red Cross run Danish Asylum center. I found the project after weeks of searching for a place that would accept an international english speaking volunteer on a short term basis. In my cultural immersion process here in Denmark I forgot to realize that the volunteer and charity culture is also quite different. In Denmark volunteering is less of a lifestyle than in the US. Which is not necessarily a bad thing, they are just not indoctrinated with the same expectation of “giving back.” Maybe its because they pay their dues to their society in other ways such as high taxes, so there are less glaring social issues.
Either way after a preliminary meeting on Saturday evening, I found myself standing in a grocery store parking lot at 845 am on a Sunday with a group of strangers. It sounds like the start of a bad joke, but a canadian, an indian, a swede, and myself all piled into a small car. The swede, who was driving, had clearly not operated a vehicle in a while and I am still unclear on whether his license was valid in Denmark. Regardless I decided by best bet for surviving the turbulent ride was sleep. Forty minutes and a quick nap later I found myself at the gates of the Sandholm refugee center. It is a large gated complex adjacent to a military complex, as a result the refugees are subjected to listening to military practices.
Around three hundred people stay at the center while they are waiting for their case to be processed or deported. The facility used to house close to seven hundred, but the numbers have plummeted since Denmarks recent immigration reform. The people who live at this facility are either waiting to hear if their asylum case has been approved or their case has been rejected, but they cannot return home because they would be persecuted in their country of origin. On average asylum seekers are supposed to stay at these venters for three months at most. I met a man from Iran who had been living there for seven years.
We had our IDs checked as we entered the facility, since the asylum seekers can come and go freely, but the complex is gated to monitor not who leaves, but who enters. This is an additional precaution for any refugees who’s safety is still at risk.
We were there to run a clothing shop for the refugees. In this space donated, clothes toys, and household items are sorted and then groups of refugees can come in, ten at a time, and take whatever they need. The majority of donations come from Danish citizens.
I spent the first two hours with a group of volunteers sorting through dozens of black garbage bags that were stuffed with donations. There was a particularly high volume since it is after the holidays. Then at noon we opened the doors and suddenly there was a rush of people.
It took me a few minutes, surrounded by the chaos to figure out what I needed to be doing. There are two men who are asylum seekers who also help distribute the clothes, since they speak arabic. The men however, had little understanding of women clothes, so I started working with one of the men and to speak with women. They would explain what they wanted (we were separated by a counter and I was with all the clothes) and I would pull a bunch of options from the shelves.
Very few of the women spoke English and I did not speak their native languages. I found myself once again, speaking that beautifully hilarious language of hand signals. I would hold up a skirt or pants, a woman would point to a skirt, then she would point to her leg to show how long she wanted it, I would pick up a number of different colors and she would point to the one she liked, then I would search through the piles for items that matched her description. At one point I had an entire conversation with a woman about how unattractive she found most of the clothes, and we laughed about their dowdy appearances. This was all done in over exaggerated hand gestures. It reminded me how much I enjoyed basic unfiltered human connection that is completely borderless.
After two more hours at the center I took the hour long train ride back to the city with some of the other volunteers. We all came from dramatically different backgrounds a teacher, a graduate student, someone who works in sales, and multiple embassy employees. We were dramatically different but were united in this one interest in volunteering. It was fascinating to hear everyones different motivations and desires for being there.
It took me two months to finally volunteer here in Denmark, but it was totally worth it. It makes me feel connected to new cultures and communities in ways I don’t quite understand. I am going to try to go back to the center at least once a week and I feel I am going to learn a great deal about Denmark from people who are trying to join this country.