‘I find comfort in Swedish culture because I know it so well’

'I find comfort in Swedish culture because I know it so well'
Safete Binaku moved to Sweden aged 13 and now runs a non-profit organization alongside her day job. Photo: Private
MY SWEDISH CAREER: "Wherever I go, I always come back to Sweden," says IT consultant and non-profit co-founder Safete Binaku.

Her first journey here wasn't an easy one. Binaku's family were among roughly one million Kosovo Albanians who fled or were driven out of the country during the Kosovo War in the late 1990s. 

“A few days after we left, in the spring of 1998, the entire area where I lived was burned down,” Binaku says. They headed to Sweden, but the only thing the 13-year-old knew about the Scandinavian country was that her uncle lived there, having left their homeland already.

“I grew up in a very homogeneous country and didn't know much about the world and other countries. Coming to Sweden, I had to learn Swedish and about the culture, and I was put in an international class, so there were people from all over the world,” she remembers.

Without knowing the language or much about the history or culture of her new country, one thing that helped the teenager was reading, and she is full of praise for the teachers who offered her support.

“The Swedes who took care of us were very warm and open-minded. I got so much attention as a child and even in a big class, teachers see you as a person and encourage you,” she explains. “One of the teachers took me to the library, and even though I had never really read an entire book and didn't speak Swedish, she said 'it doesn't matter, just pick a book and try'. That's when I started reading and I haven't stopped since then.”

The family spent one year in Falkenberg on Sweden's west coast before moving to Borås, where Binaku attended high school and where her family still lives today. Having been reserved during her first years at school, she says it was during her final year that she began to break out of her role as an observer and began approaching Swedish classmates.

“Kids at that age tend to stick to what they know so if you are a bit different, it's hard for them to approach you. I didn't have a common Swedish teenage life, it wasn't that easy to get into social groups and that was hard,” she explains.

Bringing children's books to Kosovo with friend and teacher Suzana Aliu. Photo: Private

Based on this experience, her advice to others moving to Sweden – whatever their age – is: “Don't get discouraged if it seems like things aren't working, don't give up, just approach Swedes and share your ideas. People are really open-minded.”

She describes finding her place in Swedish social circles as a “gradual process”, and adds that once she took the first step in approaching her classmates at school, they were warm and welcoming. 

So much so in fact that she says she feels both Kosovo and Sweden are homes. The first time she realized just how Swedish she had become was after embarking on another overseas move, this time to New York, where she spent almost five years studying International Business and then working in the IT industry.

“My first connections were with Swedish internationals; there were lots of Swedes at my school. We'd discuss cultural differences, so I realized I related more to the Swedish culture and could somehow find comfort in it because I knew it so well. I actually ended up meeting my best friend in New York, she's Swedish and lives in Stockholm now,” she explains.

After around five years in New York at the start of her career, Binaku wanted to return to Europe to be closer to her family. There was no question as to which city she would pick: Stockholm offered a wide range of jobs in her industry, and her sister and several Swedish friends from her US studies had already relocated there.

In the Swedish capital, she has worked with three different companies (in pharmaceuticals, construction, and telecoms) as an IT consultant, which she describes as a job revolving around problem-solving: “I'm really driven by that. The more complex an issue is, the more encouraged I am to try to solve it.”

This is also the motivation behind the non-profit organization she co-founded one and a half years ago.

The Library Project Kosova promotes reading and literacy in her home country, where she says international figures show the average 15-year-old has a reading level equivalent to a nine-year-old in most other countries. 

Reading has been a big part of Binaku's life since her school days in Sweden, and her own favourite book as a student was the Swedish classic Kejsarn av Portugallien (The Emperor of Portugallia), which introduced Binaku to the concept of literary analysis.

“It's all about a father who adored his daughter but he's avoiding the dark side of the truth when it comes to his daughter. I had sympathy for him, I felt very sad because she changed everything in his life. From then, every time I read books, I always wanted to find the underlying meaning,” she explains.

She is convinced that books bring benefits well beyond feeding the imagination. 

“Literature benefits you in so many ways as a human being, it helps you see different perspectives and leads to increased empathy for other people,” she says. “We want them to learn about other people, history, geography – fiction books have so much information so they can learn about these things in a creative way. Reading is a democratic right.”

Photo: Private

She adds that reading comprehension and analysis go hand in hand with the skill of source criticism, which enables children and adults to better identify fake news or misleading information. The first step, though, is getting children curious about reading and helping them make connections between stories and their own lives.

The goal for the coming year is to build a library at Binaku's old school, which will also serve others in the community, as well as carrying out regular trips to donate books and work with children and teachers on reading comprehension.

“After I first had the idea for the project, I started talking to a friend who was a teacher in Sweden and works with reading strategies based on research that help get children reading. She said she could use her experience to help,” Binaku recalls. 

After researching children's books which were available in Albanian, she realized that many international classics were published in translated versions. The next time she was on holiday in Kosovo, visiting her grandfather, Binaku walked past her old school – which she hadn't seen since she was a student and it was evacuated by police during the war.

“I walked in and met a teacher at the school. She really liked the idea and we started talking about it,” says Binaku.

After that, preparations began for the Library Project's first trip, which saw Binaku travel to Kosovo alone, before being joined the second time by teacher Suzana Aliu. They introduced the children to two books, The Little Prince and the Diary of Anne Frank.

“The younger kids loved The Little Prince, and with the ones who read Anne Frank, we were scared they might find it hard but we could see that the book awakened so many feelings for them, which was a good sign. They were wondering about the Second World War and about keeping diaries,” she explains. 

The room where the library will be built. Photo: Private

On the second trip, in September this year, a local politician arranged for representatives from the project to hold a seminar with around 20 teachers. Of those, four schools invited the group to read with their children. 

“The teachers were amazed. Suzana really has this way of gaining children's trust so that it's OK for them to talk about their feelings around the book. And they couldn't stop talking!” says Binaku.

Her own motivation comes from the feeling she gets when she sees the children affected by what they read, as she remembers her own experiences as a child who loved reading but didn't have access to a library.

“The school is very empty, and books were always a comfort to me,” she says. “Seeing the look in their eyes gives me a good feeling and a hope. Maybe they don't have so many different tools to feed their imagination but I think these books can take them to different places.”

The project has grown quickly, and Binaku says she has been humbled by the amount of support she has received both from the Albanian community in Sweden and from her employer. Co-workers have donated money and attended fundraising events, and bosses at her company even chose to donate their Christmas bonuses to the project.

“I think this is the true Swedish humanitarian spirit; it's been so overwhelming,” she says.

But she adds that the venture has also had a positive impact on her consultancy work.

“I usually work on the non-profit on my evenings and weekends and then travel to Kosovo as part of my vacation. It's very time consuming but it doesn't stress me out; I think that's because I see the direct impact on the children and that gives me energy and makes me more productive at my job,” she reflects.

“I'm goal-oriented, so I come to work and somehow the two connect in my brain. I learn so much from my job – its all about fixing problems and finding information. It's complicated to talk with teachers in the other country because you don't always understand each other, but my job has helped prepare me for this. I know you have ups and downs and it's all about waiting it out and knowing you will find the solution.”

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