Thousands of Swedes gather each year on Gotland for Almedalen, a massive week-long political event. But how would a newcomer to Sweden interpret the events? The Local joined Mohsen, 24, to find out.
“It's like all of Sweden has gathered in one town,” says Mohsen El Sabeh.
To a large extent, that’s true. Each year Almedalen Week in Visby, Gotland lures some 35,000 visitors from across the country. The event's origins are political, but the regulars now include lobbyists, NGOs, media agencies, and about any company – large or small – with an agenda.
But that's not the point.
Mohsen is not Swedish. The 24-year-old left Lebanon in late 2014 to study nursing in Sweden, and decided he wanted to stay. And this is his first time at Almedalen.
He's only here for one day of the week-long event, but he's determined to experience as much as possible. It doesn't take long for things to get rolling. Almost the moment we step out of Wisby Hotel we are greeted by a duo carrying an oversized cardboard Instagram frame.
Finding a job isn't easy
“Let's take a picture!” one of the girls exclaims. “If you share it on Instagram then Ryskaposten will donate 100 kronor to Just Arrived, which helps new arrivals in Sweden to settle in and find jobs.”
It's a common theme. There are more than 3,500 different seminars and events at Almedalen this week, and 900 of them are somehow related to diversity or integration.
After finishing my studies at Sophiahemmet in Stockholm I realized I wanted to stay,” Mohsen explains. “There are far more opportunities to develop here, and to find a good job. And the situation in Lebanon is complicated.”
But just because there are plenty of jobs available in his field – Mohsen is a nursing assistant – doesn't mean it's easy to get them.
“I sent countless job applications without a response,” he recalls as we walk down the cobblestoned streets of Visby. The pavement is still glistening from the morning's rainstorm, though most of the visitors are dressed for summer. “There's no point.”
Mohsen spent several months working with refugees at Stockholm's Stadsmission while he applied for other jobs, and at one point one of his colleagues there brought up YrkesDörren ('The Career Door') – a programme run by the not-for-profit Axfoundation in Sweden.
“I registered with the programme and two days later I was contacted by what they call a 'door opener', a Swede who could help me,” Mohsen says.
And Mohsen’s ‘door opener’ wasn’t assigned at random, but rather through a rigorous matching process carried out by YrkesDörren designed to put participants in touch with people who can help them. In Mohsen’s case, the match brought results almost instantly.
“A week later I had a job at Söder Hospital,” he explains.
Today, strolling past the tents and talks that keep Almedalen buzzing, finding work doesn't seem to be an issue. When we stop at a tent promoting the new Karolinska University Hospital, to be completed in 2018, it's not long before Mohsen is asked to apply.
“You're a nursing assistant from Lebanon? We really need you!” Beata Bergius Axelsson, project leader for the new hospital.
She admits that Mohsen's more or less flawless Swedish is a critical factor – it's still hard to work in Swedish healthcare without being able to speak the language.
“But Arabic would also be hugely beneficial,” she adds. “Go online and apply – I bet you'll get a job straight away.”
Learning the language
He doesn't have his nursing license yet, but it's only a matter of time.
“I'm almost finished with my Swedish studies, and then I can take the certification test in September,” he says.
Mohsen only started learning Swedish a year ago, but he's almost fluent.
“You feel very left out if you don't speak the language,” he explains. “I haven't received my person number yet, but I wanted to learn, so I've been taking private classes at Folkuniversitetet.”
The classes aren't cheap – but for Mohsen it's worth it.
“I think all newcomers should start learning Swedish right away,” he says.
“Of course people come from very different cultures, and many people have to learn Swedish culture and values – but learning the language is the first step and a great beginning.”
Making our way through the streets of Visby, Mohsen marvels at the throngs of people and the range of organizations and issues being discussed. Members of parliament and government ministers mingle in the crowds just like everyone else. Indeed, one of the main attractions of Almedalen is the easy access one has to many of Sweden’s most influential decision makers.
Meatballs and Swedish fish
The overwhelming number of people in Visby this week becomes apparent when we stop for lunch. The first two restaurants we try are fully booked and we're turned away. There's a popular panini kiosk along the waterway but we pass by – Mohsen is set on something special.
“I'm not a fan of meatballs, but I love Swedish fish,” he laughs.
We settle on Kalli's, a beach bar and restaurant right on the water. During the evenings it's where half of Visby parties – and where politicians have been known to engage in rap battles – but this afternoon we manage to snag a table. Mohsen orders the classic shrimp sandwich.
“I do miss Lebanese food, and that's what I usually make at home,” he confesses. “But I enjoy eating Swedish food, too.”
Home is a relative term, of course. Mohsen rents a single room in Stockholm, and like many others in the city is desperately searching for a place of his own. He hasn't been back to Lebanon since he came to Sweden.
“Since I don't have my person number yet I can't really leave,” he explains. “There's no guarantee I'd get back in. So I miss my family.”
But he seems confident things will work out, and he's not one to complain.
“The Migration Board has a lot to do right now,” he shrugs. “I'll wait.”
The importance of networks
After lunch we decide to head to a panel event hosted by ÖppnaDörren, an initiative by Axfoundation – the group which enabled Mohsen's Almedalen experience.
The event, “The importance of networks for integration,” puts the spotlight on several of Mohsen's newfound friends, also in Almedalen today.
The panelists, from backgrounds as diverse as Cameroon, Syria, and Australia, all have two things in common: They are newcomers to Sweden, and (just like Mohsen) they have had doors opened for them, literally and metaphorically, thanks to the various initiatives under the ÖppnaDörren umbrella.
“It really is all about contacts and networks,” Mohsen muses after the event. That's what ÖppnaDörren (Open the Door) and YrkesDörren are all about: matching newcomers with “established” Swedes, so they can benefit from each other's networks.
The rest of the day gradually evaporates into seminars, exhibitions, and exploring the city. Mohsen even has time to peek at a few traditional Gotland tourist shops before meeting for coffee with US Ambassador Azita Raji. The two passionately exchange theories about integration and identity, and Mohsen is left feeling inspired by the strong Iranian-American woman.
Click here to learn more about ÖppnaDörren
“I was kind of nervous,” he confesses. “But it was incredible to hear about how not just Sweden, but also the US Embassy is working with these issues.”
According to the Axfoundation, 7 out of 10 jobs are filled through networking – which can make it remarkably hard for newcomers in a country to find the right fit. That's where the ÖppnaDörren programmes come in.
Talking about integration isn't enough
It's also one of the main benefits of Almedalen, Mohsen concludes.
“It feels like all of Sweden is here, and it's a summary of the year – everything that has happened and everything that has been planned,” he says. “It's an amazing place to mingle and network, not just for work opportunities, but to get to know people. Swedes and others.”
Of course, mingling and talking about integration isn't enough. There needs to be action, too.
“Everyone talks about integration, and yet, when Prime Minister Löfven chose his cabinet [in 2014], he removed the post of integration minister,” Mohsen remarks, adding that the Social Democrat prime minister instead added another minister position within the Ministry of Environment.
“The climate is important of course. But I think integration is more important. I don't agree with his choice.”
After a quick tour of the inner city and a classic Swedish fika break with the founders of The Local, Mohsen's day has come to an end and it's time to walk down to the harbour for his boat trip home to Stockholm.
'Politicians are people like us'
Reflecting on his whirlwind visit to Almedalen, Mohsen finds himself amazed by the entire spectacle.
“What surprised me most is how people and politicians interact with each other,” he says. “They think politicians are people like us and we have the right to know about their plans.”
In addition to politicians’ accessibility, Mohsen is struck by how engaged everyday Swedes are in discussing and shaping the country.
“People are really interested in issues related to Swedish society and also interested in giving their opinions and participating in decision making,” he explains.
“I would love to come back next year.”
Click here to become a participant or volunteer with ÖppnaDörren
This article was produced by The Local in partnership with the Axfoundation.