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How an Iranian newcomer danced her way to a job in Sweden

When 24-year-old Atoosa Farahmand first came to Malmö she was lost and confused, but her passion for dancing helped her find a way into Swedish society — and get a job even before she was granted asylum.

How an Iranian newcomer danced her way to a job in Sweden
Atoosa Farahmand. Photo: David Thibel

Growing up in Iran, Farahmand quickly learned that she had two things going against her: she was a girl, and she loved dancing. As she grew older, she started to attend illegal dance classes, but she soon ran into trouble and eventually decided she had no future in her homeland. 

“Women have no rights there. I had to follow the rules and mask myself – I just wasn’t me at all.” 

She left, on her own, and made her way to Malmö. She remembers arriving at the southern city’s central station in September 2014. All she had in the world was a cup of coffee and her diary. All around her the city bustled, and she had never been as lost in her life. 

“I felt so lonely and homesick. Lots of pressure and fear filled my heart,” she tells The Local. 

Her first weeks in Sweden were filled with self-doubt and lack of direction. What was she even doing here? An Iranian woman gave her a room, and for that she was grateful, as it kept her away from the migration centres she dreaded. 

But how was her life any better? She locked herself in her room and waves of depression washed over her. In the end, she found strength, from within — and from Sweden. 

She looked in the mirror and tried to remember what had brought her here in the first place.

“The implied answers urged me to do something. I found confidence and belief in how much power women have here – as much as men.” 

She boxed up her fears and ventured out into the city. She attended meetings with other newcomers and soon her inhibitions fell away. 

“I ended up giving my opinions and views to people without any filtering. It’s the total opposite of my home country.”

The meetings were held at the Folkets Hus community centre in Sofielund. There she came in contact with a theatre and performance workshop. Soon she was acting in a play about undocumented migrants in Malmö. She no longer needed to remind herself why she was in Sweden. 

In the first year after her arrival she honed her talents with Malmö Community Theatre, before getting in touch with Skåne Dansteater in the autumn of 2015. 

She had heard about the dance group and admired what they were doing, so she wrote them an email asking to join. 

“I said: I’m a refugee with an endless passion for dancing – a passion to dance without fear.”

The reply, from project manager Tanja Mangalanayagam, was swift and favourable. It was time to for her to put on her dancing shoes. 

Photo: David Thibel

“I felt like I had come to my dream house — a great building comprising all the dancing equipment, staff, and studios.” 

A choreographer welcomed her to a dance workshop and within months she had a solo in a production called All About Us. 

“My friends ask me: how could you do all these things? Well, I need to keep doing things to have hope – it’s hope that drives me to do things, not to be useless.”

When the performance run ended, Farahmand shared an idea with Tanja Mangalanayagam: not much happened near the theatre, so wouldn’t it be a good idea to bring in more asylum seekers to give them hope and to bring new life to the area? Mangalanayagam said she would think about it. 

“In January, she contacted me and offered me a job to lead the project.”

It meant the world to her that the theatre trusted her enough to give her a job before she even knew if she would be granted asylum. (She later was, in April). 

“The company faced a difficulty, because at the time when they employed me I wasn’t able to have a bank account because I had no residence permit yet.”

The theatre had to jump through bureaucratic hoops and ended up paying her in cash, but the gamble paid off. Lots of people came, and next week the Dance Across Borders group will give their first performance. Audience member shouldn't be surprised to hear the characters speak a made-up language. 

“We want the audience to experience what the refugees might feel, crossing borders to places where you hear people speaking, unable to understand them. You are in an environment where you feel alien, insecure and unable to understand.”

Dance Across Borders will resume its activities in the autumn, and Atoosa Farahmand will lead the way. 

Photo: David Thibel

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SHOOTINGS

US criminologist lauds Malmö for anti-gang success

The US criminologist behind the anti-gang strategy designed to reduce the number of shootings and explosions in Malmö has credited the city and its police for the "utterly pragmatic, very professional, very focused" way they have put his ideas into practice.

US criminologist lauds Malmö for anti-gang success
Johan Nilsson/TT

In an online seminar with Malmö mayor Katrin Stjernfeldt Jammeh, David Kennedy, a professor at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said implementing his Group Violence Intervention (GVI) strategy had gone extremely smoothly in the city.

“What really stands out about the Malmö experience is contrary to most of the places we work,” he said. “They made their own assessment of their situation on the ground, they looked at the intervention logic, they decided it made sense, and then, in a very rapid, focused and business-like fashion, they figured out how to do the work.”

He said that this contrasted with police and other authorities in most cities who attempt to implement the strategy, who tend to end up “dragging their feet”, “having huge amounts of political infighting”, and coming up with reasons why their city is too different from other cities where the strategy has been a success.

Malmö’s Sluta Skjut (Stop Shooting) pilot scheme was extended to a three-year programme this January, after its launch in 2018 coincided with a reduction in the number of shootings and explosions in the city.

“We think it’s a good medicine for Malmö for breaking the negative trend that we had,” Malmö police chief Stefan Sintéus said, pointing to the fall from 65 shootings in 2017 to 20 in 2020, and in explosions from 62 in 2017 to 17 in 2020.

A graph from Malmö police showing the reduction in the number of shootings from 2017 to 2020. Graph: Malmö Police
A graph from Malmö police showing the reduction in the number of explosions in the city between 2017 and 2020. Graph: Malmö Police

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In their second evaluation of the programme, published last month, Anna-Karin Ivert, Caroline Mellgren, and Karin Svanberg, three criminologists from Malmö University, reported that violent crime had declined significantly since the program came into force, and said that it was possible that the Sluta Skjut program was partly responsible, although it was difficult to judge exactly to what extent. 

The number of shootings had already started to decline before the scheme was launched, and in November 2019, Sweden’s national police launched Operation Rimfrost, a six-month crackdown on gang crime, which saw Malmö police reinforced by officers from across Sweden.

But Kennedy said he had “very little sympathy” for criminologists critical of the police’s decision to launch such a massive operation at the same time as Sluta Skjut, making it near impossible to evaluate the programme.

“Evaluation is there to improve public policy, public policy is not there to provide the basis for for sophisticated evaluation methodology,” he argued.

“When people with jobs to do, feel that they need to do things in the name of public safety, they should follow their professional, legal and moral judgement. Not doing something to save lives, because it’s going to create evaluation issues, I think, is simply privileging social science in a way that it doesn’t deserve.”

US criminologist David Kennedy partaking in the meeting. Photo: Richard Orange

Sluta Skjut has been based around so-called ‘call-ins’, in which known gang members on probation are asked to attend meetings, where law enforcement officials warn them that if shootings and explosions continue, they and the groups around them will be subject to intense focus from police.

At the same time, social workers and other actors in civil society offer help in leaving gang life.

Of the 250-300 young men who have been involved in the project, about 40 have been sent to prison, while 49 have joined Malmö’s ‘defector’ programme, which helps individuals leave gangs.

Kennedy warned not to focus too much on the number of those involved in the scheme who start to work with social services on leaving gang life.

“What we find in in practice is that most of the impact of this approach doesn’t come either because people go to prison or because they take services and leave gang life,” he said.

“Most of the impact comes from people simply putting their guns down and no longer being violent.”

“We think of the options as continuing to be extremely dangerous, or completely turning one’s life around. That’s not realistic in practice. Most of us don’t change that dramatically ever in our lives.”

He stressed the importance of informal social control in his method, reaching those who gang members love and respect, and encouraging them to put pressure on gang members to abstain from gun violence.

“We all care more about our mothers than we care about the police, and it turns out that if you can find the guy that this very high risk, very dangerous person respects – literally, you know, little old ladies will go up to him and get his attention and tell him to behave himself. And he will.”

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