The yellow pages used to be a key source of information for Swedish households. For many families it has become a thing of the past. But there is one great exception. Rahnama, the yellow pages of the Iranian-Swedish community, has 30,000 copies distributed in Sweden, as well as in Oslo and Copenhagen. Those who are interested in understanding how successful integration can happen in Sweden should glance over this 300-page booklet, where advertisers reach out in a mix of Persian and Swedish.
Close to one percent of Sweden’s population has either emigrated from Iran or has both parents born in there. But although the Iranians who came to Sweden were somewhat more educated than even the Swedes themselves, they have faced considerable challenges entering the labour market. The majority of Iranians migrated during the 1980s. But as late as 1999, a study showed that a third of Iranian families was still dependent on welfare. Another third had some work income, but was mainly supported by the state. Only one third was chiefly supported by their own, often low, salaries.
This is of course hardly a good outcome for a group composed to a large degree of an ambitious and well-educated middle class, which had arrived with high hopes for the future and plenty of labour market experience. And it is far from the prosperous outcomes that similar groups of Iranian immigrants have achieved relatively quickly in Canada.
For many Iranian families, the journey to Sweden meant going from dictatorship to democracy. But also falling down the class ladder. Nearly all young Iranians in Sweden have grown up in families supported by either welfare or by low incomes from work – often a combination of both. This is the definition of “child poverty” used by the Swedish Save the Children organization. Many young Iranian-Swedes have grown up in social exclusion, in low income neighbourhoods with failing schools. Some have become trapped in social and economic poverty. But remarkably, most are on their way to the top of society.
If you look through the Iranian-Swedish community’s yellow pages you might get a sense of why such a remarkable feat has been achieved. Some of the ads are about private tutoring.
Their market is parents who are willing to pay extra so that their children can better their scores in maths or learn to improve their handwriting. This reflects a culture which, even in families struggling to become accepted members of Swedish society, puts much emphasis on attaining a higher education as a route to success. If we look at the statistics, we can see that young Iranians are indeed succeeding academically. Out of those aged 25 years in Sweden, merely 37 percent with immigrant origin have begun studying at higher education. The corresponding figure for native Swedes is 45 percent. Young Iranians, however, top the list, as 60 percent of them have begun academic studies at the age of 25.
When you read through the Iranian-Swedish yellow pages it also becomes evident that the group as a whole must have considerable purchasing power. How else would printing the booklet even pay off? Even many among the first generation of Iranians have finally been able to shake free from welfare dependency.
To understand how, we can again look through the yellow pages. Most of the ads seem to have been placed there by Iranian business owners in Sweden. Many are targeting various services to other business owners. Realizing how difficult it is to enter the rigid Swedish labour market – characterized by high effective minimum wages, labour regulations and high taxes – many Iranians have over time turned to their bazaari culture. Starting own businesses, and working hard to expand them, has been the path to self-reliance for many in the group. Today, many of the young high-achieving entrepreneurs in Sweden are of Iranian origin.
The story of how successful integration can occur in even Sweden is out there to read. Just open the Iranian-Swedish yellow pages.
Nima Sanandaji, a Swedish writer of Kurdish origin with a PhD in polymer technology. He has written numerous books and reports about subjects such as integration, entrepreneurship, and women’s career opportunities. He is a regular contributor to The Local. One of his books, Från fattigdom till framgång (“From Poverty to Success”) deals with the success story of Iranian integration in Sweden.