Living in Denmark's 'ghettos' immigrants feel stigmatized and shut out

COPENHAGEN, May 29 (Reuters) - In urban areas of Denmark officially designated as "ghettos," some residents feel stigmatized and excluded from mainstream society.

Denmark is the only country to formally classify certain residential zones as ghettos. An area fits into the category if more than half of its inhabitants originate from non-Western countries and it also matches certain other criteria, such as unemployment exceeding 40 percent.

"When journalists come here I want to talk about the good things, but they're not interested. They are interested in gangs, conflict and ghettos. It saddens me," said Salim El-Chahabi, a Palestinian who came to Denmark in 1999 and works as a youth job coordinator in the Copenhagen ghetto of Mjolnerparken.

"Only a few people create chaos, the rest of the inhabitants are good, polite family people. Unfortunately, a few people have ruined things for us."

Denmark has struggled for decades with how to integrate immigrants into its welfare state. The public debate intensified in 2015 with the arrival of large groups of refugees from conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa. The anti-immigrant Danish People's Party became the second-largest party in parliament in an election that year.

In March this year, Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen of the Liberal Party announced a plan aimed at boosting the integration of immigrants and eliminating ghettos - a word that is the same in Danish - by 2030.

Measures include banning criminals from moving into the areas, giving double punishment for crimes committed in ghettos, and demolishing then rebuilding parts of the zones.

The plan has met with a mixed response in Mjolnerparken in central Copenhagen, one of the country's 25 ghettos - a term that originated in 16th-century Venice and was used to describe certain areas of the city to which Jews were restricted.

Some Mjolnerparken residents say the government drive could improve their communities by reducing crime and boosting job prospects, but others fear it will simply entrench divisions by creating a parallel society where different rules apply.

"It will help, yes, but I believe it will also harm," said 50-year-old El-Chahabi.

Denmark formally named areas ghettos in 2010 to target specific places which they deemed needed increased attention to integrate the residents.

"The official description makes the kids associate themselves with a life of crime and fast money," said Iranian-born Khosrow Bayet, 55, who came to Denmark more than 30 years ago and is the leader of Sjakket, an after-school club in Copenhagen for children from the ghetto areas.

In Mjolnerparken, which gets its name from Norse god Thor's famed hammer Mjolnir, more than four out of five inhabitants have a non-Western background and almost half have no job.

"I went to a doctor when I was younger with a backache and the doctor asked me if my husband beat me, and I was like 'no!'" said Umm-Meyounah, 37, a mother-of-two who was born to Danish parents and married an immigrant from the Middle East.

"This is what you're dealing with all the time. You're spending all your time explaining that you're not getting beaten up at home or that you're not a terrorist." (Reporting by Emil Gjerding Nielson; Editing by Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen and Pravin Char)