Somalian refugee Fuad Mohamed had been travelling illegally for over a year when he finally arrived in Sweden in 2005 at the age of 19.
On his harrowing journey to the Nordic country – mostly arranged by people smugglers – he crossed a total of ten countries. But it was his first day on Swedish soil that finally gave him hope for the future.
“The only thing I'd heard about Sweden before coming was the name Henrik Larsson [the Swedish football player],” Mohamed, now 30, told The Local. “And the unknown is always scary.”
But when the teenager was stopped by the police, he was pleasantly surprised.
“The first thing they asked me was: ‘Do you want to stay in Sweden and apply for asylum?’ I said 'yes,' and then they took me to a nearby McDonald's for lunch.”
“It was the opposite of every other experience I'd had so far,” he reflects. “I'd been treated badly in almost every country I'd crossed illegally before coming to Sweden: I'd been arrested and maltreated – mostly by law enforcement agencies.”
The process of applying for asylum, however, wasn't easy. For 15 months, Mohamed was held in a refugee camp in the tiny mining community of Boliden in the northern Swedish city of Skellefteå.
“The residents were extremely friendly and gave us clothes, bikes and furniture.”
But inside the camp, he and the 200 others had to abide by strict rules, meaning the experience was more like living in an “open-air prison”, he says.
“The immigration process per se was very constraining considering that we could not study (except for ten hours of language courses a week), work, or have the right to healthcare (except for emergencies).”
If they failed to report to the immigration board every day then they risked losing their tiny monthly allowance and bed.
“In essence, we felt like we were an unutilized resource and it made us feel depressed.”
It was only when he was finally granted asylum that doors began to open.
“A whole new world opened up. It’s the first time you feel officially welcome in Sweden,” he recalls.
“Prior to that, you’re not actually here. You’re here physically, of course, but not in any other sense because you’re not in the system.”
His first step was to complete his education. Frustratingly, his qualifications from Somalia were not recognized in Sweden, so he spent two years completing his Swedish high school diploma and Swedish language course, before going on to study International Relations at Malmö University and then completing a Masters degree in Lund.
Since graduation, Mohamed has made it his mission to help people like him who are considering making the perilous journey across the Mediterranean into Europe.
“Since I came to Sweden, I’ve mostly been working with things either indirectly or directly related to refugees and integration,” he says.
“Having been a refugee myself, I have some understanding of their mind-set and what is driving them out of their homes. It’s an issue that is very dear to me. I don’t actually consider it as a job – it’s a passion.”
Now based in Stockholm, he is working as a consultant on a project for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which involves working with refugees thinking of first crossing the desert in Sudan and Libya and then the Mediterranean.
“It involves reaching them before they cross the Mediterranean and providing them with information so they know exactly what is ahead, as well as telling them about possible alternatives out there. We don't judge them or tell them not to try.”
“We've created a unique platform through which people who've already made this journey and survived can share their experiences with those who are thinking of doing it.”
The problem is, he says, that those thinking of making the journey often don’t have realistic expectations of what lies ahead.
“Once in a while, they hear of a boat sinking, but they mostly rely on information from people smugglers. So it’s about countering this information.”
In September, Mohamed will be starting a new job for the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA), based at the Swedish Embassy in Kenya.
“I will be working with private sector development, helping poor people to establish businesses with the help of the private sector,” he says.
“So we’ll be combining the private sector with people's know-how and creating something that’s good for the poor.”
The approach, he says, is about creating an economy based on helping people out of poverty.
“There’s nothing more sustainable than that. It’s much better than helping people with handouts. It will give them a sense of ownership that doesn’t exist in the traditional aid sector.”
Although he is excited about returning to East Africa, the father-of-one says that he now considers Sweden his home.
“I’m too deeply rooted here now – I have family and friends here, so of course I will come back when my mission ends.”