Foreigners to help plug Jokkmokk brain drain

Jokkmokk in Sweden's far north is hoping to entice foreigners to make their home on the Arctic Circle by offering cheap housing and a helping hand, all in a drive to help repopulate the area, The Local's Ann Törnkvist discovers.

Foreigners to help plug Jokkmokk brain drain

“If we can’t turn the tide around I really don’t see much of a future,” the municipality’s integration coordinator Gunilla Nyberg tells The Local.

The population of the town of Jokkmokk, located just north of the Arctic Circle, has steadily shrunk since its peak of around 4,000 in 1990 to less than 2,800 today.

The municipality at large has seen a similar decrease – half of its residents have left since the 1960s.

Nyberg is part of a team welcoming those who want to move to the village, which has played host to the eponymous Jokkmokk market for more than 400 years, in hopes of replenishing the town’s dwindling population.

A furnished flat at discounted rent stands at the ready for people who just want to visit and scope the place out, or as a temporary solution while they find work and a place to stay.

Nyberg’s team has even struck a deal with the local municipal tenancy organization so newcomers can get a roof over their head quickly.

“If they’ve lined up a job, they’re in the VIP lane for flats,” she says, also pointing to low property prices for anyone wants to buy.

“You could buy an entire block here for the same price as a flat in Stockholm.”

On hand to give advice are Englishman David Carpenter and his wife Kerstin, themselves relative newcomers.

Quarter-Swedish Kerstin took over her grandparents’ house in Jokkmokk eight years ago.

“We were here most summers and it just got harder and harder to go back,” David says about the decision to move here permanently.

“It’s so vast, there is such a huge sense of space up here. England is a great country but it’s become so crowded,” he tells The Local.

He and Kerstin have been roped into the Jokkmokk Future Project to offer practical advice on anything from getting a personal identity number (personnummer) to making sure children are registered for school.

“It’s quite confusing, people can get bounced around a bit,” he explains.

He himself had to wait about six months before getting the identity number, which opens the door to many administrative services in Sweden.

Finding jobs could be the least of the newcomers’ problems, says Carpenter, citing the local shortage of nurses, teachers, drivers in the nearby Gällivare mine, and plumbers.

The oddest question he was ever asked was where Father Christmas lives.

“I said he’s here but we don’t see him very often, but we see his foot prints in the snow,” Carpenter recalls.

The project has web sites in English, Dutch and German but Carpenter says there are Venezuelans and Bulgarians among the 30-odd families who have moved to Jokkmokk recently.

Multiculturalism comes naturally to Jokkmokk residents, he says, because they are a mix of ethnic Swedes and the Sami.

And being a small town works in favour of integration, adds integration coordinator Nyberg.

“You’re seen as a person rather than just another face in the crowd,” she says.

And long-term residents are positive to the initiative, she says.

“We need tax payers and resources to uphold the level of social security that we despite everything still offer,” she said.

Nyberg’s own two children have stayed in the north but many youngsters do not.

Some buck the trend, however.

The son of Patricia Cowern, an English transplant to Jokkmokk, decided to follow his mother’s lead and set up a life in Sweden’s expansive north.

“I came in 1996 on holiday with him, then I moved here and bought the Porjus station house,” Cowern tells The Local.

Her son and his family joined her in 2000.

“My grandchildren are more Swedish than they are English.”

Cowern does notice that many young people do head off once they graduate from high school.

“There is that gap of people between 18-30. The young girls leave to go to university and they don’t come back,” she says.

“They don’t come back until they get married and have children. They come back, I think, because bringing up a child in a city is quite a different experience.”

Like the Carpenters, she praises the vastness of the landscape, and its beauty.

The Sarek National Park, classified a world heritage site by Unesco, lies within the municipality’s borders.

Last winter, Cowern took part in the Jokkmokk market, and asked municipality officials how many foreign-born residents the community now had.

“I was astounded that there are 37 different nationalities here,” Corwen tells The Local.

“Well, I mean, with the Swedes there are 38.”

Ann Törnkvist

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Seven events to tick off your Sweden bucket list in 2017

Which are the don't-miss events for a real Swedish experience in 2017? We've listed seven of them.

Seven events to tick off your Sweden bucket list in 2017
The reindeer race at Jokkmokk's winter market. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

1. Jokkmokk Winter Market

This small northern Swedish town has hosted the winter market of its indigenous Sami people every year since 1605. Try dog sledding, buy Sami handicrafts and check out the biggest attraction: the reindeer race. Finding accommodation is the main problem for visitors here, but its friendly residents often open their homes to strangers during the bustling market week. You may be too late to get a place to stay this year, but it is high time to start looking for one for 2018.

When: February 2nd-4th

Where: Jokkmokk

Sami representatives at Jokkmokk's winter market. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

2. Melodifestivalen

For most nations participating, the Eurovision Song Contest is something that crops up at some point in spring, but in Sweden it is pretty much a year-round event (well, almost). It takes Sweden six weeks and several competitions to select their Eurovision entry, a process known as Melodifestivalen. It is a touring event, meaning that fans from all over the country get to see the hopefuls strut their stuff, and also attracts international visitors travelling to Sweden specifically to witness the entire spectacle in the flesh. Join them at your peril.

This year it kicks off in Gothenburg and will then travel to Malmö, Växjö, Skellefteå and Linköping before the Melodifestivalen final at Friends Arena in Solna, Stockholm.

When/where: Gothenburg, February 4th; Malmö, February 11th; Växjö, February 18th; Skellefteå, February 25th; Linköping, March 4th: Solna, March 11th.

Sweden's Frans Jeppsson Wall at Eurovision Song Contest 2016. Photo: AP Photo/Martin Meissner

3. Swedish Classic Circuit

The Swedish Classic Circuit (en svensk klassiker) is a diploma awarded to those who complete a certain number of various kinds of races. To qualify you have to ski the iconic 90 kilometre Vasaloppet race (alternatively Engelbrektsloppet at 60 kilometres, but Vasaloppet is more famous), cycle the Vätternrundan bike race around Lake Vättern, swim three kilometres at the Vansbro swim, and run the 30 kilometre Lidingö cross-country race. You have to complete them within 12 months. Or you could just enjoy that cinnamon roll instead, that's fine too.

When: Vasaloppet, February 26th; Engelbrektsloppet, February 12th; Vätternrundan, June 16th-17th; Vansbro swim, July 7th/8th; Lidingö race, September 23rd.

The Vansbro swim. Photo: Ulf Palm/TT

4. Nordenskiöldsloppet

Inspired by a race organized by polar explorer Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld in 1884, Nordenskiöldsloppet (the Nordenskiöld race) is the world's longest, and probably toughest, classic ski race: 220 kilometres of gruelling cross-country exercise in northern Sweden, starting and finishing in Jokkmokk, north of the polar circle. Last year 335 contestants from more than 17 countries competed for the top spot, but a word of warning: this is not for first-time skiiers.

When: April 15th

Where: Jokkmokk

The Nordenskiöld race. Photo: Magnus Östh/Red Bull Content Pool

5. Symposium Stockholm

Symposium Stockholm was launched by Spotify founder Daniel Ek and Avicii's manager Ash Pournouri in 2015. Now in its third year running, the creative tech festival culminates in the Brilliant Minds conference, where tech gurus, music stars and entrepreneurs get on stage to share ideas. Its CEO Natalia Brzezinski told The Local ahead of the 2016 festival that she wants it to be the startup event of the year and as much of a Swedish trademark as the Nobel Awards.

When: June 7th-16th

Where: Stockholm

6. Håkan Hellström

Sweden's indie darling is touring this summer. Hellström's out-of-tune voice may be an acquired taste for many, but ask a Swede for their opinion and you're bound to get a strong response. His fans adore the Gothenburger's lyrics and his understanding of love and, aged 42, he keeps helping them relive their heart-wrenching teenage years. The tour kicks off in Stockholm and will see him visiting Gävle, Umeå, Örebro, Karlstad, Borgholm, Malmö and Gothenburg. Find out why your Swedish friends love (or hate) him so much.

When/where: Starts on June 9th at Stockholm Stadium

7. Stockholm Pride Festival

There are plenty of Pride festivals held across Sweden every year, but the biggest one in the Nordics is the one in the capital. Almost half a million spectators turn out on the streets of Stockholm for the festival's crowning glory, the Pride Parade, every year, on top of the people actually marching in the parade (this in a country with a population just shy of ten million). It takes over the city, with Pride flags flying from every single public bus, from the City Hall and from many foreign embassies – it's pretty amazing.

When: July 31st-August 6th

Where: Stockholm

Stockholm Pride in 2016. Photo: Erik Nylander/TT



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