Volunteering for English speakers hits Sweden

Volunteering in Sweden has never been easy for non-Swedish speaking foreigners, but the founders of a new project in Stockholm are hoping to change that by creating a volunteer hub for expats who speak English, The Local's Oliver Gee discovers.

Volunteering for English speakers hits Sweden

UK-native Claire Thomas, who recently launched The English Volunteering Project in Stockholm, has volunteering in her blood.

Coming from an English family which has been involved with volunteering “for generations”, she claims that helping people is part of her life.

When she found herself in Sweden in 2010, thanks to her husband’s new job, it wasn’t long before she started scouting for volunteer opportunities on Swedish shores, but the initial searching proved fruitless.

“I realized fairly quickly that while Sweden does already have a great volunteer recruitment agency, the “Volontärbyrån”, there was no real opportunity to sign up and help if you were an English speaker,” she tells The Local.

At least not then.

After noting the interest and potential for English-speaking help around Sweden, Thomas proposed a collaboration with the Volontärbyrån – to add an English recruitment section to their website, and has since got the go-ahead for the project, dubbed The English Volunteering Project.

Thomas claims the concept will be a great way to help ease some of the initial challenges associated with moving to a foreign country.

“It can be hard to find any kind of work here when you don’t speak Swedish, and it’s often tough to meet people. When you can tick off these kinds of boxes, while at the same time giving much needed help, the experience can be really rewarding,” she explains.

However, many foreigners miss this opportunity due to not speaking enough Swedish to learn about or meaningfully engage in existing volunteer opportunities.

And while while some expats have gotten the impression that this means Sweden is simply not interested in getting help, that is not the case at all, according to Thomas.

“It’s just a matter of accepting that Sweden is different, in a good way. Many people don’t talk or brag about their contributions to non-profit organizations like they might in other countries,” she says.

“Volunteering in Sweden can seem invisible, but it really isn’t. There is a whole different culture behind the volunteer sector, but this is not a worry – it just means things need to be negotiated differently”.

And this is where Thomas steps in.

The English Volunteering Project is now well on the way to becoming a reality, and already has Prince Charles’s seal of approval, which he personally gave Thomas during his recent visit to Stockholm.

“He told me thought it was a brilliant idea – which was really encouraging,” Thomas says.

Vanja Höglund, spokesperson for Volontärbyrån, has big expectations too, claiming that the possibility of engaging English speakers with Swedish society is an opportunity that’s too good to miss.

“It’s incredibly nice when you hear of someone who wants to contribute their time commitment, and of course we want to be able to take advantage of that commitment,” Höglund tells The Local.

“Our vision at Volontärbyrån is that everyone who wants to be able to find a volunteer assignment that fits them will be able to, and if we can reach even more people with an English translation of the service, then we’ve succeeded with our mission.”

But it has been a long road, which started in November last year, and has occupied Thomas while juggling her first pregnancy.

However, Thomas is keen to get the project through the final stages so that it’s up and running before her baby is.

“We hope to be able to work on the English web section on Volontärbyrån in June, with the Project coming into full swing in September or October,” she says.

Now all that’s missing is the funding that will allow the creating of the English sub-section.

While interest in the project may be sky high, more donations are still needed before it can be created and officially launched online.

To achieve this, the Project is setting up an account with “Funded by Me”, an online crowd-funding programme, in which people can donate to the project through a web-based social media platform.

The account will be launched in a matter of weeks, according to Thomas.

In the meantime, Thomas is still working hard on the project and volunteering in her spare time, but is keen to point out that volunteering is a two-way street where everybody can gain something positive.

“I love volunteering, but it’s not just about giving. In fact, volunteering has actually given me quite a lot. It’s been a way for me to take the focus off myself when things haven’t been easy,” she explains, adding that her work on this project is completely voluntary as well.

“Volunteering enriches your life, and helps others at the same time. Hopefully English speakers in Sweden can jump on board and help get this project going.”

UPDATE: Click here for the The English Volunteering Project donation website

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Reader’s view: Why is it so hard for Sweden to accept English in public life?

A reader of The Local shares her story of trying to enter the Swedish job market after completing her doctoral studies.

Reader's view: Why is it so hard for Sweden to accept English in public life?
File photo of two women, not related to the article, having a conversation. Photo: mentatdgt/Pexels

Under the Swedish public eye, those put into the category of “undesirable” or “wrong-typed” migrants such as asylum seekers, refugees, and unskilled workers from poorer countries in the global South have often become the target of heated debates on governmental spending, neoliberalised administration, and moral public sentiments.

Yet, another group of migrants, those seen as a more “right” type of migrants that Sweden wants to attract – the high-skilled international researchers – remains invisible and overlooked while this group continues facing everyday exclusionary barriers and bureaucratic administrative obstacles.

In addition to the Swedish linguistic barrier that excludes foreign academics in their everyday workplace at Swedish universities, it appears as though the whole Swedish administrative system is not welcoming any foreigner, including high-skilled foreign academics, despite the government's avowed promises of hospitality.

My recent experience could be seen as an example of this bureaucratic and xenophobic logic of the New Public Management in Sweden – in which I believe that many other international researchers could have shared a similar experience.

My employment contract as a doctoral candidate at a Swedish university ended in June 2020. I was told by my union that it was imperative to register my unemployment at the Swedish Employment Agency, Arbetsförmedlingen, which I did. Yet, the whole registration process has alienated me, a non-Swedish speaker, because all the instructions were written in Swedish only.

I navigated by using Google Translate from Swedish to English, though I was not certain whether the translation was accurate. Towards the end of the online registration process at Arbetsförmedlingen, I was asked to book a mandatory interview by phone with Arbetsförmedlingen, which I complied with.

Yet, my first meeting with Arbetsförmedlingen turned out to be a failure, which irritated both me and the Arbetsförmedlingen officers.

The phone meeting abruptly ended just after a few minutes instead of a 30-minute interview as proposed. The first officer I met on phone only spoke Swedish. When I told him that I could not speak Swedish, he passed the phone to another officer who spoke English but demanded that I must speak Swedish to him. It was obvious that he could speak English but he refused to continue speaking English to me, putting me at a disadvantage.

He asked me (in English): “How long have you been living in Sweden?” I tried to explain to him that I was very keen on learning Swedish but I had not had any sufficient time and resources due to the nature of my over-stressful PhD work, which was conducted entirely in English. But the Arbetsförmedlingen officer did not seem to understand or did not want to understand, and he blamed me personally:

“It's your responsibility to learn Swedish!” he said.

I proposed that we could hold our conversation in English since he was capable of speaking English. To my surprise, he said (in English), “No, I don't understand your English. I don't speak English. You must speak Swedish. Because you don't speak Swedish, we need an authorised translator of your mother tongue.”

Then he insisted (in English) that he would book another meeting with an authorised translator of my mother tongue. I was required to speak either Swedish or my mother tongue despite the fact that my mother tongue has not been a part of my work life, daily life, and family life for over ten years – since I have been living in English-speaking countries, working in Sweden, and am married to an English-speaking partner.

This bureaucracy, this inflexibility, and insufficiency of public administration, together with its hostility against non-Swedish speakers, shocks me. In a country like Sweden where English is widely spoken, why is it so difficult to accept English as a second working language?

Seen from the cost-and-effect calculation, it is obvious that it would be more costly for the government to hire authorised translators for some far-away mother tongue languages of those who already live in English-speaking countries, obtain a Swedish PhD degree, and speak English.

If language is simply a means of communication between the government and its citizens, could it be wiser to accept English as a second official means of communication and administration so that administrative tasks could run smoothly? In terms of administrative efficiency, could it be more reasonable to accept English when the country at the current moment cannot even provide enough resources for Swedish learning?

At my workplace, for instance, there are also very limited resources and incentives for international researchers to learn Swedish (for instance, we do not get employment prolongation to learn Swedish while all the tasks carried out in English already occupy more than our full-time working hours).

Is the systematic demand on Swedish speaking while not providing enough support and resources an administrative strategy to drive out high-skilled foreigners who do not speak Swedish for some reason?

The conservative, neoliberal, nationalist and xenophobic mindset “In Sweden, we speak Swedish” and threatening proposals from opposition politicians to cut funding and restrict the rights to interpreters do not solve the Swedish problems at their root. The only thing they succeed in is creating a public fear of attack from foreigners and foreign languages, including English.

This reader's story was written by a former PhD researcher in Uppsala currently a permanent resident of Sweden, whose identity is known to The Local but who wished to remain anonymous. Do you have a story you would like to share with The Local about the highs and lows of life in Sweden? Email [email protected]