Whether you think of integration as an equation, a process, or an aspiration, there's one thing we can all agree on: it has to happen.
There are probably few people in Sweden who haven't had a discussion about integration. Since the refugee influx in 2015, the word has cropped up repeatedly and much has been made of the need for newcomers to make the effort to assimilate to their new society.
Refugees try to approach Swedes by joining fika breaks, dinner tables and apps specifically created to match up newcomers with locals. This has become just as much a part of the process of adapting to Sweden as mastering the language and learning the social mores.
But for Kinan Alfahel, a Syrian HR specialist, the assimilation process is more complex than merely reading books, comprehending customs or just turning up to a fika chat aimed at Swedes and refugees.
He believes newcomers must first understand critical behavioural traits in Swedes; that they’re shy and can be skeptical toward strangers at first glance.
Swedes may need to integrate too, he explains.
“If you join an integration programme, you’ll hear teachers telling newcomers to cope with this, by approaching Swedes and talking to them. Otherwise, Swedes won’t approach you on their own. They’re likely to be shy,” says Alfahel.
The 34-year-old moved to Sweden in 2013 and started to observe these traits of shyness and skepticism a year after moving to Gävle, where he was looking for work.
“I applied for many jobs in HR, IT, and others at cafés and restaurants. It didn’t work. Eventually, I realized that the Swedish shyness and over-sensitivity may exist in the job market too,” he explains.
“Employers don't trust their decision to employ a newcomer; they ask for recommendations.”
“If they’re not aware of who you are, they try to search for any proof that you have something from or related to Sweden, even if it's just a driving license,” Alfahel believes.
So what's the solution? After all, integration isn't possible without participation from Swedes.
Initially, their role might be more passive and receptive in the assimilation process compared to that of newcomers, who are required to do much more in order to fit into the new community.
Nonetheless, Alfahel believes that for this amalgamation to succeed - and fast - it has to go both ways. Swedes need to turn active and learn about newcomers too.
“We’re asked to understand all about Sweden in order to become part of it, and that makes sense.”
“However, there’s a question in my mind that I often asked my integration teachers: why aren’t you running similar culture-oriented courses to Swedes? Are you informing Swedes about newcomers, their background and culture too?” wonders Alfahel.
“I think the community, and especially employers, need to know more about us.”
“When a Middle-Eastern newcomer is invited to a job interview, Swedish recruiters might perceive that interviewee as a burden. I think most employers may not know a lot about the refugee job-seeker, other than being a ‘refugee’.”
“But that refugee may well be a very competent employee,” he adds.
Back in Syria, and Kuwait where he worked in HR administration, Alfahel had built up seven years of experience, which he hopes to use in Sweden as soon as he gets the chance.
Since moving here, Alfahel has taken part in several integration programmes and internships, and has been applying for jobs at the same time, though he hasn't found one yet.
“I think finding jobs is a matter of luck," he says. "But I’ll keep trying to approach Swedes, my new community, until I find my place in work and among people.”
“I hope my new community is going to accept me too!”