‘Health, for parents or kids, makes you happy’

Nargis Rahimi from Tajikistan tells The Local how her family's Stockholm-based startup is using data and tech to boost children's health in developing nations.

'Health, for parents or kids, makes you happy'
Nargis Rahimi from Shifo. Photo: Private

Rahimi, 30, was only seven years old when civil war broke out in her birth country of Tajikistan. She and her family were forced to flee from the capital to the rural north. And in the midst of the chaos and uncertainty, her younger brother was born and her father developed fatal brain cancer.

“I understood for the first time that health, for kids or parents, is the thing that makes you happy,” she tells The Local – 23 years, two children and several university degrees and career successes later.

The daughter of an emergency doctor and a gynaecologist, it is not difficult to understand Rahimi's motivation behind starting up Stockholm-based Shifo – a non-profit NGO with a global mission to boost child health – together with her brother and sister-in-law.

“Even when my own children are sick, it could be a simple flu but I still can't focus 100 percent on anything else. Health is happiness. How could you not want others to feel happiness?”

Perhaps more than any other vocation, medicine tends to run in the family, so in many ways her and her brother Rustam Nabiev's paths were staked out from the beginning.

“In Tajikistan we don't have 'fritids' (Swedish after-school daycare), so we spent all our time in the hospital as children. And they talked about it a lot – my father would be thankful after successful emergency operations and my mother would talk about when she had delivered a healthy baby,” she smiles.

Nargis Rahimi and her brother Rustam Nabiev. Photo: Emma Löfgren/The Local

Rahimi first arrived in Sweden in 2008, partly after being recruited by the prestigious Karolinska University Hospital, partly following in the footsteps of her brother – who already lived here – and partly driven by a need for a change of scenery after her father passed away.

“I gave birth to one of my children in Tajikistan and the other in Sweden, and it was such different experiences. In Tajikistan I had to read up a lot myself to get the evidence for my questions and ask my mother. In Stockholm, the first thing my 'barnmorska' ('midwife') did was give me a book to read and it had everything: from breastfeeding to what temperature you should bathe your child in,” she says.

The Local meets her in Shifo's bright offices in Stockholm as she's busy packing supplies for her husband – who has also joined the organization and is set to fly to Uganda to oversee their programs. He will return in February, when Rahimi will travel to the African country herself to continue the work.

“Our vision is simple: it is a day when no child dies or suffers from preventable diseases. This could be children missing vaccines, not receiving adequate nutrition, the transmission of HIV,” she says.

Currently operating in Uganda and Afghanistan but hoping to expand in other countries, Shifo was set up in 2013 on the back of research Rahimi had been doing on behalf of the Karolinska to identify some of the root causes of high child mortality from preventable causes and coming up with a way of combining tech and reliable data to provide health solutions.

While Swedes get their 'personnummer' ('personal number') when they are born and mums get automatically called to their midwife for regular check-ups, half of the world's children are never registered at birth and as a result often fall off the map of the health system, explains Rahimi.

“We have developed a system called 'MyChild' which is used by nurses. It makes all the information about the child's vaccinations and medical history available to the nurse,” she says.

Rahimi on her last visit to Uganda. Photo: Shuhrat Yusuf

The system reduces the amount of time medical staff spend on administration tasks – which allows them to spend more time with parents – and also provides data reports to the local government.

“Decision-makers in many countries, like Uganda, often lack reliable and accurate information. They can allocate resources properly when they know where the problems exactly are. We identify the gaps, whether it's that there's no nurse in specific health centre or that the outreaches to the rural areas are not being done and all that is done automatically by using the MyChild system.”

Shifo relies on funding and support from investors within the private and corporate sectors, as well as funding institutions such as Swedish Postkodlotteriet and the Ikea Foundation, and private individuals, who can track the progress of their donation online and see exactly what it is used for.

“The transparency is something we've taken from Sweden. Corruption is widespread in Tajikistan and you see it everywhere, at school, at some workplace, in healthcare. It jeopardizes your life and you hate it. You just hate it.”

“You don't know as an ordinary person how to tackle it, but when I first came to Sweden with all that baggage I saw so many things that could be improved back in Tajikistan. There, you're taught to rely on yourself and your family if you got an illness. Here in Sweden, you trust the health system.”

Rahimi with her husband and two children. Photo: Private

In her spare time, Rahimi spends most of her time with her family, taking her son and daughter to Skansen (Stockholm's outdoor museum), taking them mushroom picking, berry picking, reading and making sure that they value the things that are available to them in Sweden but not to children in poorer parts of the world.

She says the most difficult thing for her and her husband is to be away from each other and their children when they travel the world to fulfil their vision of making sure that health, too, does not have to be a luxury object exclusive to Scandinavia and developed nations.

“You can't separate your private life from your work. It's all part of who we are. And I feel so blessed that so many people share our vision. The closer we get to it, the closer we get to our own dreams,” she says.

“But also our team is just too good, if there's such a thing. Shifo's vision is no joke, but it's great to come to work every day. When you've got a diverse team with so many different people all supporting each other through the tough times – you're not afraid of anything.”

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Reader question: When am I eligible for a Swedish pension?

A reader got in touch to ask how long he had to work in Sweden before he was eligible for a pension. Here are Sweden's pension rules, and how you can get your pension when the time comes.

Reader question: When am I eligible for a Swedish pension?

The Swedish pension is part of the country’s social insurance system, and it can seem like a confusing beast at times. The good news is that if you’re living and working here, you’ll almost certainly be earning towards a pension, and you’ll be able to get that money even if you move elsewhere before retirement.

You will start earning your Swedish general pension, or allmän pension, once you’ve earned over 20,431 kronor in a single year, and – for almost all kinds of pension in Sweden – there is no time limit on how long you must have lived in Sweden before you are eligible.

The exception is the minimum guarantee pension, or garantipension, which you can receive whether you’ve worked or not. To be eligible at all for this, you need to have lived in Sweden for a period of at least three years before you are 65 years old. 

“There’s a limit, but it’s a money limit,” Johan Andersson, press secretary at the Swedish Pension Agency told The Local about the general pension. “When you reach the point that you start paying tax, you start paying into your pension.”

“But you have to apply for your pension, make sure you get in touch with us when you want to start receiving it,” he said.

Here’s our in-depth guide on how you can maximise your Swedish pension, even if you’re only planning on staying in Sweden short-term.

Those who spend only a few years working in Sweden will earn a much smaller pension than people who work here for their whole lives, but they are still entitled to something – people who have worked in Sweden will keep their income pension, premium pension, supplementary pension and occupational pension that they have earned in Sweden, even if they move to another country. The pension is paid no matter where in the world you live, but must be applied for – it is not automatically paid out at retirement age.

If you retire in the EU/EEA, or another country with which Sweden has a pension agreement, you just need to apply to the pension authority in your country of residence in order to start drawing your Swedish pension. If you live in a different country, you should contact the Swedish Pensions Agency for advice on accessing your pension, which is done by filling out a form (look for the form called Ansök om allmän pension – om du är bosatt utanför Sverige).

The agency recommends beginning the application process at least three months before you plan to take the pension, and ideally six months beforehand if you live abroad. It’s possible to have the pension paid into either a Swedish bank account or an account outside Sweden.

A guarantee pension – for those who live on a low income or no income while in Sweden – can be paid to those living in Sweden, an EU/EEA country, Switzerland or, in some cases, Canada. This is the only Swedish pension which is affected by how long you’ve lived in Sweden – you can only receive it if you’ve lived in the country for at least three years before the age of 65.

“The guarantee pension is residence based,” Andersson said. “But it’s lower if you haven’t lived in Sweden for at least 40 years. You are eligible for it after living in Sweden for only three years, but it won’t be that much.”