Refugee project in Hallingelille: New Roots

At Hallingelille ecovillage the community is being used as a fertile soil for helping refugees in Denmark. Through gardening, cooking and working together, the community members make the refugees feel welcome, give them meaningful activities to do and at the same time provide them with job-oriented skill sets and some practical training in the Danish language. The project is called Nye Rodder (meaning new roots) and is aiming to help vulnerable refugees who are currently unable to get a job. The idea is based on Nature Based Therapy, which uses nature to help traumatized people regain their mental and physical health. I talked with co-founder Sasja to discover more about this heart-warming project and why a community is the perfect place for this type of project.

Community member Sasja (in the centre) having lunch with some participants of the project. Source of image: http://www.nyerodder.dk


Realizing dreams
The idea came when community member Sasja was giving a refugee course for the red cross in Copenhagen. Somewhere in a boring building in the city she was teaching asylum seeking refugees about sustainability. Some of the participants came from an asylum centre not far from Hallingelille. Living in this beautifully green and warm community, Sasja realized that it would be so much nicer to hold the refugee courses out here, wouldn’t that be possible? Around that time, community member Lotta moved to Hallingelille and over diner Sasja was discussing her thoughts to have the courses here at Hallingelille where they could feel welcome in a community and have hands-on activities in nature. Lotta, having a background of working with refugees and gardening, jumped to the idea and together they started Nye Rodder. A by now registered social economy company in Denmark.

Starting with organizing short courses of two days a week at the ecovillage, the project was instantly a success. The refugees responded that for them this was the first time they meet civil, welcoming Danish people. Up until then they had only come in contact with Danish people in offices behind desks, signing forms and deciding on their future. In Hallingelille community they are made to feel welcome no matter who they are or where they are from. At the same time they are given a sense of purpose as they can contribute to relevant activities in the gardens and construction. Also, to some participants the ecovillage feels more like home as they grew up in small villages or communities in their native countries of which the ecovillage reminds them. Through this, they feel more comfortable and at home than in a big city between high apartment buildings.

At first, they held courses for the refugees of the asylum close to Hallingelille, but this is a group that changes very often as people move away frequently from there. Sasja and Lotta decided they wanted to take it a step further. While looking around for similar projects using what is called Nature Based Therapy, they stumbled upon a researcher who studied this type of therapy with war veterans. Long story short: they managed to start a research project together to be able to do this work with refugees at Hallingelille. They found sponsoring for a two year research project which is called GROW.

Some participants of the project working with a community member. With one of the dome houses of the ecovillage in the background. Source of the image: http://www.nyerodder.dk

Green rehabilitation for traumatized refugees (GROW)
Sasja works professionally as a psychotherapist and Lotta has a background in natural therapy, so they decide to focus on so-called vulnerable refugees. Rehabilitation of traumatized refugees with a permit becomes the focus of the research project. The refugees are dealing with a variety of mental and physical difficulties like PTSD, depression and anxiety. Nye Rodder offers them a course which lasts 30 weeks, from April to November. The project starts out very slowly and carefully with simple workshops and activities. These are meant to make the participants feel safe and welcome in the ecovillage, slowly getting to know everyone. After a while the project can take up more hours per day and more days per week. Having the participants choose specific workshops they like, such as cooking or gardening. Over time, more and more other ecovillage inhabitants are invited to join activities like a shared lunch prepared by the refugees or a gardening workshop.


Nature helps to open-up
One day a man picked-up a pinecone from the forest and came over. “This is how my family used to be”, he says. “Strongly connected and centred around a core of family”. He then started looking around on the forest bed, searching. Nothing seemed to be quite right and he keeps looking. Then he comes back with a dandelion seed crown. He blows the seeds from the stem. “This is what my family is like now”. Everyone around him becomes quiet and understands. Fleeing his home country has meant for him that all his family members are spread over different countries and cities, unable to move to each other or visit.

While working together in the ecovillage, they try to teach some Danish in a hands-on practical manner. Simply learning words for things they are working on. As there is often no translator, most communication is done through sign language, over WhatsApp they mainly use emoticons. Sasja is suprised by how much they can still communicate about despite not being able to understand a single word from each other. A big help recently has been Mamut who was himself a refugee from Libanon 30 years ago and works as a social helper in Ringsted community. He assists Sasja and Lotta with translating, as well as explaining certain customs, norms and values that are different in the countries of origin. In the winter time he is now even giving weekly Arabic lessons in the ecovillage.

As this particular group of refugees is not able to work right now, one of the aims of the project is also to increase their job-skills. Next to growing their social confidence and the mental and physical health of the participants. This is of particular interest to the municipality as their main interest is that the refugees will get jobs again. Therefor, the municipalities also provide some funding for the project. At the end of the course year, Sasja and Lotta assist the participants in finding companies which can give them a job placement or internship.

Two participants at work in their vegetable garden. Source of the image: http://www.nyerodder.dk

Growth for the community itself
Sasja notices that the project has also been nice for Hallingelille itself. Before the project she often noticed that the community grounds and the communal buildings were quite empty during the day when most members were at their jobs or in school. She found it a shame that all the beauty and chances the community offers were unused, and saw it as a chance to bring more life to the community. And how it has! Not only has the project provided two full-time jobs for Hallingelille members and part-time jobs for more community members, it has also created more connection amongst members through working together. They feel they are giving back to the region with their community by supporting the refugees.

Nature helps to gain back confidence and pride
A man was not particularly fond of gardening or growing vegetables and in the beginning he did not really care for his small private vegetable bed. But as the vegetables started growing, he gained in interested and started planting more and more vegetables. As his home situation was tense, with four children and a wife all living in a very small two-room apartment and him not being able to get a job and provide income, he is often frustrated. One day he arrives and is particularly frustrated, Sasja askes him whether he has looked at his garden yet. “No. No, not interested”. “Well maybe you should have a look”, Sasja encourages him to go and he looks. On his vegetable bed has grown the largest zucchini they have ever seen, the size of a baby! Instantly the man’s mood turns around and his eyes sparkle. He is so proud, so happy. “This I am going to bring home to my family!”. Sasja can notice how this small thing finally makes him feel like a man and a father again: he is able to provide for his family. He later comes back and tells how his entire family helped in preparing the meal with the zucchini that night.

Plans for the future.
Sasja and Lotta are now in the process of starting a second association for former participants of the project. This is an idea much supported by Mamut and would aim to help the former participants stay connected with each other and the community. The idea is that the association will, after a while, mostly be run by the refugees themselves, organizing collective activities and sharing resources and experiences. Also, this connected group of former participants can help make feel new participants more welcome in Denmark and enjoy the project more. In mid-March they will have a celebration to launch the association.

Next to this, they are always looking for funding. The course takes up many hours to run, Lotta and Sasja are both making 50 hour workweeks for little pay. The reward is enormous, but these past years have also been an investment to demonstrate that this type of refugee work is very succesful in rehabilitating traumatized refugees. They hope that in the future they can be sponsored more for the work they do as the research project has now almost ended. However, Lotta and Sasja will not stop and are more exited than ever to start a new year of the course and show more refugees that Denmark can be very welcoming and warm to people in their situation. Using the warmth of community in Hallingelill ecovillage to slowly help the refugees to open-up and feel safe again.

Positive impact
The final data of the research project still has to come in by May, six months after the last course ended, but personally Sasja has seen immense effects on the participants. Through working in nature and getting the rewards of growing vegetables and tending gardens, they see participants regain trust in themselves. Also, through the various, nature-based activities and workshops, they regain social confidence and start feeling safe and welcome again. But, Sasja says, it is mostly through the way the participants are welcomingly approached in this community, that the refugees start opening up to each other and to their own feelings again. This human connection is in the end what really makes a difference to people. Being welcomed in a community helps them regain trust in themselves, feel useful and able to give back to this country that is housing them.


To me, Nye Rodder is also a beautiful example of how community life can support others in need and be of social value to the wider region surrounding the community.


Read more or find out how you can support the project here: http://www.nyerodder.dk

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