Copenhagen, Denmark – At the Central Station in Denmark’s capital, 26-year-old Erkan Sari effortlessly lists the trains from the arrival board that are likely to be carrying refugees. He has been looking at this board almost daily for the past four months and knows well that those arriving from Germany, in particular, tend to be full.
During the autumn, hundreds of refugees had passed through Copenhagen daily.
Sari has been coordinating a network of 80 volunteers at the station. There are at least two present at any time, 24 hours a day, waiting on the platform for the train doors to slide open. As they do, they look for arriving refugees who might need their assistance – help with heavy bags, travel advice and food, water or medicine.
Since the beginning of January, he has added a new category of trains to his list: those arriving from Sweden.
Sweden’s new border controls
Over the past five months, many refugees bound for Sweden have passed through Denmark, whose liberal minority government has been criticised for its anti-refugee campaigns, and for imposing laws designed to curb immigration.
Rather than stay and hope for asylum in Denmark, many head for Sweden, which has embraced larger numbers than most other European Union countries.
For many, Copenhagen’s century-old Central Station was the last stop before reaching the country of their choice.
But on January 4, Sweden imposed new identity checks for travellers entering the country from neighbouring Denmark, announcing that those who fail to produce proper documentation will be turned back.
Now, the volunteers wait for those who have been rejected by Sweden and left with no choice but to return.
Volunteering for refugees
Sari, a student of social education who grew up in Copenhagen, has been working to turn the loosely structured community of volunteers into a more organised group. It is not a formal organisation, and the volunteers have no affiliation with one.
They rotate through day and night shifts while a coordinator keeps track of the train schedule so that they know where to go. They are mostly young students; many are bilingual and can help to interpret and translate for the refugees.
Sari’s involvement began on an August morning last summer, when he decided that he could not just sit by as the refugee crisis worsened. He brought 40 home-made sandwiches to the train station at Copenhagen’s airport. The sandwiches soon found takers, but the one thing Sari remembers most clearly is helping reunite an elderly woman, who had got lost in the crowd, with her family.
He pulls out his mobile phone and scrolls through photographs looking for one taken that day. He finds one; it is of the family members embracing Sari in gratitude.
“It’s that joy they exhibited. That’s what matters,” he says.
He started visiting the Central Station regularly to lend a hand to the refugees.
Aya El Abbassi, a 22-year-old social worker, started going to the Central Station in early September with two or three girlfriends to see if they could offer any help.
There was not much of a need until Germany reopened its border with Denmark, which had been briefly shut. Refugees started arriving in Copenhagen in their hundreds. As their numbers multiplied, so, too, did the number of volunteers showing up at the station wanting to help. They began recognising each other, and swapping telephone numbers, El Abbassi explains.
Volunteer organisations created a base at the centre of the station from where they distributed donated goods, and offered refugees a place to rest.
“People came in and donated money, food, blankets, all kinds of things,” El Abbassi recalls.
But after two weeks, on September 24, the Danish State Railways, the corporation in charge of Central Station, announced that the volunteer work was an inconvenience to travellers and ordered all the organisations to leave.
The volunteers negotiated and requested permission to set up a permanent base at the station, but the Danish State Railways refused and cleared out the temporary volunteer base.
But not all the volunteers left. Sari, El Abbassi and others continued their work, without a base. They kept their unofficial network intact and managed to maintain a permanent presence in a place where no aid organisations were operating for almost three months.
Sari sees it as an advantage that the volunteer network is free of institutional ties.
“If I want to help someone, I will help them. I’m not going to ask anyone’s permission,” he says.
This informal approach to volunteer work, circumventing traditional institutions, reflects a sentiment that has been growing in Europe. The refugee crisis has sparked various bottom-up initiatives, says Thomas P Boje, a professor of sociology at Roskilde University.
“There’s a growing scepticism, to put it mildly, towards public institutions, the political system, the public sector, but also institutions such as [the] Red Cross because they essentially help administer the government’s policy in this area [towards refugees],” Boje explains.
“There is much regularity in that [institutional] way of helping that doesn’t sit right with people when it comes to other human beings in need.”
Within Denmark, another informal community has become hugely popular: The so-called “Venligboerne” or “Friendly citizens” – a network of Danes, refugees and immigrants – connect with each other through groups on social media to arrange social events.
Boje calls this a “people’s movement”. He believes these kinds of communities will become more common, although he cautions that in the long term, “such groups may need to establish an institutional framework or create ties with an institution rather than working on enthusiasm alone”.
Among the volunteers at the Copenhagen Central Station, there is a sense of having been let down by the system and institutions that should have been taking care of the often traumatised incoming refugees.
“It’s not right that this task is left up to young students,” Sari says.
“We’ve needed recognition from the government. The government has shown no interest in our work,” adds El Abbassi.
The Red Cross
Since December 12, the Danish Red Cross has also started operating out of the Central Station, and Sari’s informal network of volunteers is now no longer alone in greeting refugees. The organisation managed to set up a “safe zone” for refugees in an old post office room. The rectangular space, plainly decorated with sofas, desks and a serving table for food and drinks, is located below the Danish railway system’s first-class lounge.
All the volunteers have been working out of the room.
From behind a desk, a coordinator checks the train schedule and sends three volunteers to the platform where a train from Sweden is due to arrive.
Only one person steps on to the freezing platform and approaches the volunteers for help – a young man carrying a large backpack.
He speaks no English, but explains to Arabic-speaking volunteers that he is a Syrian refugee. The three volunteers escort him back to the base, where he can rest and try to work out what to do next.
The volunteers insist that, whatever the time of day, they will be here for any others who arrive in the days and weeks to come.