A voice for newcomers in Sweden

Integrating at the dinner table: The Department of Invitations

Published: 24.Mar.2016 12:30 hrs

Have you heard about the Department of Invitations? Find out how a Swede and a Syrian are working together to help new arrivals integrate - with the help of delcious food.

Two years ago a Swedish language teacher came up with a creative idea. Ebba Åkerman, who was then working as a substitute teacher for the Swedish language programme for immigrants (SFI), decided to bring immigrants and Swedes together through ‘Invitationsdepartementet’ or "Department of Invitations".

“I realized that Stockholm is a much more segregated city than I was aware of,” Ebba Åkerman tells The Local. “And in my role as a teacher I wondered, how on earth are you going to learn Swedish if you don’t use it outside the class?”

The Department of Invitations is a creative programme where Swedes and new arrivals are “matched” and get to have dinner together at home. The programme is free and dinners can take place any day of the week.

It started in Stockholm but has grown quickly and spread to other cities as well.

Last year there were over 600 dinners with more than 3,100 guests. In January alone 134 dinners were hosted.

In other words, it has obviously been a success. But not just for the dinner guests, who get to practice their Swedish and gradually become more integrated. It’s also about making friends.

And thanks to The Invitation Department, Ebba has met Lina – a Syrian woman who has now become an essential part of the programme.

“I was studying SFI in Tumba in 2014, when the project started,” Lina says. Ebba was working as a substitute teacher there, and Lina and her husband registered to participate. The couple had dinner with a Swedish family and it was a huge success.

“I liked the idea so much that I wanted to help out,” she says.

After being interviewed about the initiative last year on Swedish TV, Lina received a very special invitation indeed: the invitation to help Ebba spread the word and promote the programme.

“I talked to language teachers and described the project, and then got to enter the classes and tell the participants about the initiative, she says. “It’s a great chance to practice the language, and we need to integrate.”

Lina left Syria in 2013 with her husband and two sons. She’s happy in Sweden, and says Invitationsdepartementet has helped her settle in.

Lina, a civil engineer by trade, had worked as a professor at Aleppo University for 25 years. She specializes in water studies, building dams and canals.

But Aleppo is now in ruins. Here in Sweden Lina’s career has been put on hold as she settles in and tries to learn the language and integrate – but she’s making significant progress. She studies at Folkuniversitetet while also working with the Invitation Department – a concept she truly loves.

“It’s such a great concept and Ebba and I are good friends,” she says. “I am happy with it – I see myself serving both the swedes and newcomers – I am helping people to sit together at tables and have great dinner.”

Ebba agrees and says Lina has become essential to the operation.

“Lina is a great asset. She’s brilliant,” Ebba remarks. “And she’s in charge of keeping track of results, basically the performance of the programme. We’re like family.”

Want to participate by hosting a dinner or visiting a Swedish family for dinner? See the website and application form online.

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