• Sweden's news in English
 

How I got immigrants and Swedes dining together

Published: 19 Jun 2014 08:05 GMT+02:00

A few months ago, a Swedish language teacher asked her Afghan student if he liked living in the southern Stockholm suburb of Norsborg, which is home to a 40 percent immigrant population.

“Norsborg… Afghanistan, it’s the same thing,” he replied.

Ebba Åkerman, then working as a substitute teacher for the Swedish teaching program for immigrants, SFI, was dismayed by this response – which got her thinking about how difficult it was for most of her students to integrate into Swedish society.

“I realized that Stockholm was a much more segregated city than I thought, and was filled with amazing people who didn't meet simply because they didn't know each other,” says Åkerman, who is Swedish herself.

Indeed, one fifth of Sweden’s population is either from abroad or born to two foreign parents.

“But what is the point of learning a language if you have no one to speak it with?”

Disheartened, she began trying to think of ways her students could socialize with Swedes. And eventually she hit on the idea of putting people together round a dinner table – especially as sharing food plays an important part in Swedish society.

“So I asked my class one day, ‘Do you like food?’ and they answered ‘yes’. Then I asked them: ‘Do you know any Swedish people?’ and most of them didn’t.

“I then told them that there was a bunch of Swedes who wanted to have them over for dinner. It’s free of charge, I said, and they could bring a friend, and it could happen any day they liked.”

Having appointed herself "Minister of Dinners" at the so-called ‘Invitationsdepartementet’ or "Department of Invitations", Åkerman started recruiting hosts among her Swedish friends for her first "Dinner with a Stranger".

Her students jumped at the opportunity to bond with Swedes – but the hosts were trickier to pin down.

“In beginning, there were some Swedes saying: ‘I can have someone over on the 17th in two months from now’”, recalls Åkerman with a laugh.

Åkerman then sent the guests the address, name, and number of the host – and the host would receive the guest’s name, number and details of any dietary requirements or allergies.

Before long, however, interest waned and she began to lose hope that the project would ever take off.

An interview on national Swedish Radio briefly raised her spirits. But after being broadcast across the nation, her appeal produced a grand total of four responses – with an additional three from journalists who simply wanted to “tag along”.

“Was it fear of not having the language skills to communicate properly – of having someone that didn’t speak Swedish at the dinner table?” she wondered.

In the end, she concluded that although the hearts of Swedes were in the right place, “many people were lazy, insecure and under the impression that they didn’t have time to cook extra meals for someone”.

Then, just as Åkerman was about to give up hope, the tide suddenly turned.

Whether it was social media or a report on national TV she says: “All of a sudden, I had an avalanche of hundreds of people wanting to invite people over for dinner. It was chaos.”

She was soon busily matching hosts and guests. That turned out to be the easy part. What she hadn’t foreseen were the various problems that ensued.

“Some guests were very shy, some arrived late, some couldn’t find follow directions, some didn’t even know that street numbers go up and down,” she recalls. This, as well as some no-shows and cancellations.

Photo: Private

On one occasion, a student arrived thinking that he was going to a restaurant with his whole SFI class. Another man showed up for a dinner two hours late, bringing with him a variety of groceries, including milk, as an apology for his tardiness.

And yet, despite such teething problems, the dinners soon became largely successful.

The hosts and guests, she says, certainly don’t have to become best friends. But she believes that the dinners really are promoting genuine understanding between cultures.

“They dine together, and if they want to, they stay in touch – they’re under no obligation to meet each other again.”

That’s not the point of her matchmaking, she says. “The point is to eat, meet and speak.”

Photo: Private

On Sunday, Åkerman organized her 42nd ‘Dinner with a Stranger’ – and she hopes a total of 10,000 will have taken place by the Swedish national elections in September.

“We all need a reminder that there are so many more things we can do than vote to create a society that we all want to live in,” she says.

“Sharing a meal is food culture at its finest – and building trust is what you need in society.”

Plus, she adds, “Having fun is never a bad thing.”

Ebba Åkerman was speaking at the’What’s Cooking’ event organized by TEDxStockholm. You can find out more here. To find out more about 'Dinner with a Stranger' visit Åkerman's website or Facebook page.  

Sophie Inge (sophie.inge@thelocal.com)

Your comments about this article

Today's headlines
'The perfect workout': Gym clears snow for free
Aerobic snow-shovelling on Saturday morning: Crossfit Holistics webpage

'The perfect workout': Gym clears snow for free

A gym in northern Sweden has turned this week’s monster snowfall into “the perfect workout”, sending its members out for an hour on Saturday to shovel snow around the city for free. READ  

Pirate Bay back online seven weeks after raid
The Pirate Bay's homepage on Saturday. Photo: Screen grab

Pirate Bay back online seven weeks after raid

Sweden’s seeming unquashable file-sharing site The Pirate Bay is back online, seven weeks after police seized servers hosted at a data centre in a nuclear-proof bunker deep in a mountain outside Stockholm. READ  

Roma denied sleep complain of 'torture'
The banner erected by the Roma at Sorgenfri Folketshus. Photo: Solidarity with EU migrants

Roma denied sleep complain of 'torture'

A group of Roma immigrants have complained of “torture” and “terrorism” after security guards at a Malmö night café for homeless people refused to let them sleep on the premises. READ  

Israel 'not happy' at Abbas invite to Sweden
US Secretary of State meets Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Amman, Jordan, in November 2014. Photo: Nicholas Kamm/TT

Israel 'not happy' at Abbas invite to Sweden

Israel’s ambassador has sharply criticised Sweden for inviting President Mahmoud Abbas to Stockholm next month, citing it as further evidence of the “energetic pro-Palestinian line” the country’s government has taken since coming to power after September's election. READ  

Beggars 'objectified' at Malmö exhibition
Roma migrants who have swapped the streets for an art gallery. Photo: Albin Balthasar

Beggars 'objectified' at Malmö exhibition

Two Roma beggars have been paid to take part in a controversial art installation that has seen them sitting and standing in silence with a paper cup in front of them in a Malmö art gallery. READ  

More open borders for Swedish nationals
An SAS plane taking off from Sweden. Photo: TT

More open borders for Swedish nationals

From this summer, Swedes may be be able to leave their passports at home when travelling to the UK and other non-Schengen countries within the EU. READ  

Thick snow set to cause further travel chaos
A sign warns about falling snow and ice in Stockholm. Photo: TT

Thick snow set to cause further travel chaos

UPDATED: Heavy snowfall has caused major traffic problems in parts of western and southern Sweden, with further bad weather set to sweep across the country this weekend. READ  

Presented by Verksamt.se
'Immigration is critical' for Stockholm’s future
The city of Stockholm. Photo: Björn Olin/Folio/imagebank.sweden.se

'Immigration is critical' for Stockholm’s future

Stockholm’s business community gathered on Friday to discuss the future of the city’s labour market. While housing and education were mentioned, it was another theme that reigned supreme. READ  

Jay-Z seeks Swedish music service takeover
Rapper Jay-Z at an NBA basketball game in Los Angeles on January 16th 2015. Photo: TT

Jay-Z seeks Swedish music service takeover

Project Panther, an enterprise linked to American hip hop artist Shawn Carter - better known as Jay-Z- is expected to take over Scandinavian-based digital music firm Aspiro, one of Spotify's biggest rivals. READ  

Spotify mute about fresh funding rumours
Spotify is the world's largest online music streaming service. Photo: TT

Spotify mute about fresh funding rumours

Swedish music streaming giant Spotify has declined to comment on reports that it is raising new funds that could delay a public listing. READ  

RECEIVE OUR NEWSLETTER AND ALERTS
Lifestyle
What’s on in Sweden this week
Sponsored Article
Stockholm job fair helps immigrant entrepreneurs
Gallery
IN PICTURES: European Figure Skating Championships in Stockholm
National
The return of the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Lifestyle
Top five trends from Stockholm Fashion Week
Blog updates

30 January

Editor’s blog, January 30th (The Local Sweden) »

"Greetings from Sweden where much of the country is heading for what could be the coldest..." READ »

 

26 January

The mysterious -s, part 1 (The Swedish Teacher) »

"Hej! How is your Swedish coming along? A while ago I read on a forum on The..." READ »

 
 
 
Gallery
People-watching: January 28th
Business & Money
FATCA: 'The age of financial privacy is over'
National
Does Sweden help returning Isis fighters more than Swedish veterans?
Gallery
IN PICTURES: January snow snaps
Society
Is Sweden's healthcare system a national embarassment?
Gallery
Property of the week: Skanör, Vellinge
Lifestyle
'Life as a Swedish candy-maker is sweet'
National
Why Sweden's Left party wants a European 'Red Spring'
Gallery
IN PICTURES: Sweden's hottest new fashion designers for 2015
Gallery
IN PICTURES: Who travels on Stockholm's different subway lines?
Lifestyle
Why this Swedish baby is a US hit
Lifestyle
'Limousine' snowplough for sale
People-watching: January 24th - 25th
Gallery
People-watching: January 24th - 25th
Society
Meet the 'beggars' buttoning up immigration critics
Gallery
IN PICTURES: Princess Madeleine through the years
Features
Learn Sweden's bizarre dating lingo
People-watching: January 21st - 22nd
Gallery
People-watching: January 21st - 22nd
Society
Why Sweden's viral 'genital' video is getting an English remake
National
Why does Sweden's Luleå have a giant ice beaver?
Gallery
IN PICTURES: Who are Sweden's richest one percent?
Business & Money
How a classic Swedish snack got a revamp for 'busy' Stockholmers
Lifestyle
The Local's top Swedish acts for 2015
Gallery
IN PICTURES: Sweden's Årets Bild photography prize winners
Business & Money
'I met my Swedish man in Tokyo's first Ikea store'
Gallery
Property of the week: A cozy apartment in Bromma, Stockholm
Gallery
People-watching: January 17th - 18th
Lifestyle
How to make Swedish gravad lax
Lifestyle
Four hot Swedish home design trends
National
How The Local's video on a strange Swedish sound went viral
Gallery
People-watching: January 14th
National
The Local's guide to Europe in statistics - from Spain to Sweden
Politics
Paris attacks: Knock-on effects in Sweden and across Europe
National
Swedish Muslims react to new Charlie Hebdo magazine
National
The Local talks to Sweden's Home Affairs Minister about Paris attacks
Business & Money
Will Spotify launch on stock market after users rocket?
Accelerated
Texans and Swedes to play ice instruments
Gallery
Property of the week: An 18th century mansion in Stockholm
Business & Money
'Snowboarding drew me to work in chilly Sweden'
National
Are Sweden's royals moving to London?
Sponsored Article
Everything you need to know about moving to Stockholm
Latest news from The Local in Austria

More news from Austria at thelocal.at

Latest news from The Local in Switzerland

More news from Switzerland at thelocal.ch

Latest news from The Local in Germany

More news from Germany at thelocal.de

Latest news from The Local in Denmark

More news from Denmark at thelocal.dk

Latest news from The Local in Spain

More news from Spain at thelocal.es

Latest news from The Local in France

More news from France at thelocal.fr

Latest news from The Local in Italy

More news from Italy at thelocal.it

Latest news from The Local in Norway

More news from Norway at thelocal.no

1,028
jobs available
PSD Media
PSD Media is marketing company that offers innovative solutions for online retailers. We provide modern solutions that help increase traffic and raise conversion. Visit our site at:
psdmedia.se
Counselling and Psychotherapy in English
Sometimes living in another culture can cause stress, confusion and feelings of sadness and loneliness. Talking to a professional psychotherapist/counsellor might help you. I am a UKCP Reg. psychotherapist. My practice is in Södermalm, Stockholm.
Contact me to discuss your options