By Anne-Kirstin Berger, photos by Guki Giunashvili
“I want to welcome you in Aarhus and invite you to a special welcome night.” It is with this sentence that the Mayor of Aarhus greets new citizens. This year, his letter was sent to all those who moved to the town, no matter if they are Danish or foreigners, staying for a limited period or longer.
Those who follow the invitation arrive at Vanebrudspalæet, a building which looks like a treasure box both from in and outside. The wine red and golden wall paper, partly covered with antiquities, makes visitors feel like part of a Sherlock Holmes scene. A pendulum clock hangs above an illuminated globe. Chairs are arranged in rows, none of which looks like the other. The bowl of popcorn which is standing on a table gives the room the smell of cinema. Each little detail materializes the word “welcome” – a word which one of the founders of The Warm Welcome Society, Lea Wulff Lütken keeps repeating uncountable times while she greets every newcomer with a handshake. “The Warm Welcome Society wants to give you a gift tonight”, she says when the chairs are occupied and then she adds: “We wish that you feel welcome in Aarhus and a bit more at home when you leave tonight.”
The Warm Welcome Society is a citizens’ initiative started by the non-profit organization GIVISME in fall 2016, that aims at making it easier for new citizens to arrive, settle in and feel at home in Aarhus. Twice a year, around 30 volunteers host welcome nights to which all new residents are invited. Each night has a special focus, ranging from singing and dancing and urban gardening to cultural diversity or sports. Lea explains: “The idea is that people can get to know volunteer organizations to take part in, they can expand their social network and create ties in Aarhus.”
This night’s topic is voluntary care. Around 15 people are sitting in Vanebrudspalæet. The reasons that brought them to Aarhus are manifold: Sophie from France came to work, Bohan from China as an exchange student and Irina from Ukraine as an au pair. After watching short presentation videos of local organizations that are looking for volunteers, they split up in groups to research together about the projects that interest them most. Lea puts some tea and cookies on the table, and the atmosphere becomes warmer as the room fills with laughter. “This is why we came here”, says one of the participants: “To meet others, especially from Denmark.”
The Warm Welcome Society’s unique feature is that it addresses both Danish and non-Danish citizens and brings them together through shared interests. “Usually the ratio between Danes and foreigners is 50/50,” Lea says. “We prioritize being a project for everybody and getting people to interact” she emphasises.
Gustav Christiansen has been attracted by this idea. Originally from Silkeborg, the 28-year-old moved to Aarhus two months ago. “I want to do some voluntary work and get to know the possibilities”, he says. For him, it is a nice bonus to meet new people: “I know that it is not always easy to settle in. Danes can be a bit shy with people they don’t know, although this is sad. The welcome night helps to break the ice.”
Aarhus is a booming city. Every year, people from Denmark and other countries relocate to the town. While many of them are students who only stay for a short period of time, ensuring that they feel integrated is beneficial for the city. Every sixth student in Denmark often feels lonely, and one third does so sometimes, according to a recent study by the Danish Association of Masters and PhDs. Loneliness is a major reason for dropping out from university. Researchers from Aarhus have found a serious relationship between loneliness and physical illness among mid-aged people. This should be reason enough to tackle the problem from the beginning on and help newcomers to find their place in the city.
However, the existence of The Warm Welcome Society is unique in Denmark, according to Lea Wulff Lütken. Many cities distribute information booklets among new citizens, but they do not focus on the social part of the city, as the project in Aarhus does. Yet, The Warm Welcome Society is still in its set up phase. A major challenge is to become self-sustained once the public funding ends in April 2018. “We depend 100 percent on volunteers”, Lea comments. And then she says it again, the w-word: “Everybody is welcome to join.”
More information can be found on the webpage of the project.