Madeleine Racutanu studied Arabic at the university of Jordan, where she also worked as an English teacher and with refugees. Now back in her native Sweden, the 27-year-old is continuing her work with refugees here. She tells The Local Voices that integration will also be of great benefit to Swedes - but that we're facing some big challenges.
In February this year, I started working with Jesuit Refugee Service, a project which matched up newcomers with established Swedes, as well as organizing activities such as visits to a park or museum. It went very well; we matched around 53 newcomers with Swedes - our target was 50 - and most of the pairs still meet regularly.
However, in general, we need to do more to achieve effective integration. We are seeing a kind of segregation between newcomers and Swedes, and it seems to be intensifying over time.
Many newcomers came here because of conflicts and disruptions in their home countries, so those disruptions - such as discrimination based on religious beliefs, sects or races - must not be repeated here again.
Both communities have a role to play in integration.
Swedes have done a lot to help refugees and they are still doing so; we can be proud of our approach. But I don’t think we were prepared to accommodate this number of people and, for that reason, we’ve faced issues regarding accommodation, finding jobs and so on.
Many people I meet through work are disappointed with the social life in Sweden too, and as a society we can be a bit closed. Some Swedes don’t really socialize with each other, and they may not do so with newcomers either.
Meanwhile, newcomers need to have the will and the intention to integrate in their new community. It might seem hard for middle-aged and older people to understand Swedish values and the way of life; for example if someone has lived 50 years of their life in Syria and has been in Sweden for two years, it might take time to adapt - but they must try.
There are some who are hoping to go back to their home countries once the conflicts are over, and may not feel motivated to learn the language or adapt to Sweden’s culture. But this kind of attitude will complicate their stay in Sweden and make it harder to live here and interact with others.
But no-one knows when these conflicts will end, so you can’t just live your life on standby; newcomers need to learn to live normal lives in their new country and to cope with its laws, values and culture.
One key issue is women’s rights and freedoms; this is sacred in Sweden and must be protected.
Women here are self-reliant, they build their own lives, for which they are 100 percent responsible. I believe it’s critical to encourage and empower female newcomers to be self-reliant; if they depend on men, they will struggle to get by in Sweden.
That’s why I am hoping that our next project, Hagar in Stockholm, will help raise female newcomers’ awareness and help them to understand the society and in time be able to live meaningful lives here. We will be focussing on female refugees who haven’t yet received their asylum decisions.
We start with teaching them the language, then move on to a more intense course with practical, business-oriented lessons in simple Swedish to help them find their own way in the Swedish job market within the care sector - for example, guides to writing CVs and cover letters, and the easiest ways to look for internships.
I think we need to view the newcomers as partners rather than treating them with pity or as vulnerable victims who need special help.
Change is inevitable, but the society can’t be completely altered for the newcomers. I think Swedes will always be flexible but this attitude must be reciprocal so we can all live together.