Sweden as a society has grappled for years with the conundrum of how to stop people leaving its small towns and countryside. The gravitational pull exerted by cities, with their promise of more jobs and better services, has led to serious depopulation in some parts of the country – especially in the north.
And the same logic applies to refugees, many of whom have made their way to Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmö in the hope of finding employment and the social warmth offered by members of their own communities.
Martin Söderström, 40, and Mattias Sjölund, 45, are trying to stem that flow in Åre, one of Sweden’s biggest but most sparsely populated municipalities.
Mattias Sjölund (l) and Martin Söderström (r)
Nestled against the Norwegian border, the municipality is home to almost 10,900 people, including some 300 asylum seekers.
As Åre's integration managers, their job is to help newcomers carve out a new life for themselves in the town and surrounding area.
The Local Voices spoke to Martin Söderström about integration, inspiration, and what happens when 180 refugees move into a village of 80 people.
When did you start working on integration, and what does your job entail?
I started working as an integration manager in 2011, when I was mainly focused on securing accommodation for newcomers. My task was to make people stay in Åre, and integration wasn’t much of a burden, since there weren’t so many people to integrate.
It was clear to me from the beginning: to make people stay in Åre, there had to be a plan, a collective one, that involved all levels of society.
Governmental agencies, including the municipality and the employment agency, provided services for refugees, but those services were mostly un-synchronized. This made refugees feel as if their lives weren’t under control, or as if their future seemed fuzzy.
So a decision was made to sit down at a table and discuss the whole thing with governmental agency representatives. I sat with people from the municipality, the employment agency, schools and other parties, and planned how to best include newcomers, to make each of us understand each other.
Since then Mattias and I, who joined me in 2013, have worked on making integration happen; we work with the government, but we also work autonomously. We take care of any newcomers who have decided to move here at almost all levels: helping to find accommodation, mentorship, finding a job, and so on.
The government pays us 120,000 kronor for each refugee on a two-year expenditure plan. We help when needed. Ideally we guide people, but don’t tell them how or what to become. That is: we provide them with the tools to blossom on their own, to shape their own lives the way they want.
Kall: Dealing with a village in shock
We have this one village that was inhabited by just 80 people. In November last year, in a matter of two days, 180 refugees were moved to Kall, and some of the locals weren’t pleased. They seemed bewildered and afraid.
We met with the families in a church and we talked. They asked how this was going to work out, and we told them: “You want to give your village new life, to make it grow, and now you have the opportunity: take it.”
People are living in harmony there now.
The Somali family – and the once racist neighbour
Whenever a new family is re-settled in an apartment in Åre, we make sure to knock on their neighbours’ doors and tell them they have new people living close by; new friends. We try to encourage people to socialize with each other.
Once, in 2014, a Somali family moved here, we went to their neighbour and told him that newcomers were going to live in the next building to him. He thought it was a bad idea and said: “This is a tourist venue and it’s not fit for refugees. I am racist and I don’t like this.” He seemed upset. Mattias and I then gave him, as usual, our business cards and told him to contact us if anything ‘wrong’ happened. He replied: “I am not going to call you.”
A few days after, we heard that the angry neighbour was getting along well with the Somali family, and that he had brought them a gift. They became more than neighbours, because they communicated and broke their ignorance about each other.
Is Åre Sweden’s most integrated community?
I think we are a good example. We do the ‘thing’ our way, and other small municipalities could do the same. However, every municipality has its own plan.
I can promise everyone thinking of moving to Åre that they will be welcomed as an individual with full potential. Everyone is going to be themselves, and be a proud member of our community.
What makes your experience different, a blueprint to be followed?
The most important thing is that politicians from all political parties were positive and told me: “Martin, if we want to take care of immigrants, let’s make it good, and look at the task as a chance to grow our community.”
That’s our belief, and we keep emphasizing it. If we had been scared this wouldn’t have succeeded. Working on integration needs courage, having the right mindset, and good intentions.
How do you view the contribution made by refugees to Åre?
Since we are a tourist municipality, we usually don’t require many [financial] resources. Nonetheless, there is a shortage in manual workers and in highly-educated expertise. We need a lot of people in elderly care, and in preschools – we desperately need people in order to grow. We are grateful to have new people living among us, we don’t see that as a problem at all. Refugees for us are a gift.
Now 58-75 percent of the newcomers to Åre find jobs directly after completing their two-year-integration programme. We also follow up on those who couldn’t find work and ended up with the social services. We’re doing well, but we’re still not fully satisfied.
We want everyone to get jobs. We want to see the 75 percent hopefully becoming 100 percent.
Åre is growing
Our task at the beginning was to make people want to stay here, because many refugees refused initially to Live in Åre, and wanted to move to larger and more crowded cities. After implementing our integration plan, and providing refugees an easy access to services and jobs, many people came back and wanted to settle down here, after we made newcomers feel safe and secured.
People coming to Åre and wanting to live in northern Sweden is a positive sign. We’ve already grown, and now there are plans for building more housing and schools. The community is growing, and this is good for everyone, for the whole community.
Åre is a fantastic community now.