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

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

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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