A voice for newcomers in Sweden

Why this Russian developer is committed to helping refugees - with tech

Vitali wants to help newcomers integrate in Sweden.

Published: 21.Sep.2016 15:17 hrs

The driving force behind 25-year-old Vitali Poluzhnikov's work is simple: “I am a newcomer myself, so I'm trying to help other newcomers," he says.

Now living in Sweden, the trained marketer has also spent time living in Canada and the US. He knows what it's like to have to start out somewhere new, and how stereotypes or false perceptions about your background or nationality can hold you back. 

“Having a Russian surname in Sweden can be awkward,” Poluzhnikov admits.

He's experienced embarrassing situations both socializing and applying for jobs – and sometimes when meeting girls.

When he meets new people, he says he has identified a clear change in tone once he reveals his surname.

"Some people sort of freak out slightly, and the tone of the discussion changes at once. To me, that's crazy and also funny – but I understand that perhaps it's related to the historical Sweden-Russia stereotypes.”

'Identify people for what they do, not where they're from'

To help people get to know newcomers beyond their name and nationality, the brand strategist and developer has worked on two initiatives: 'I'm not a refugee' and 'Newcomers'.

The former project aims to raise awareness and change negative attitudes towards refugees by sharing their stories - in their own words - and photographs, allowing people to meet, connect and understand each other.

The people featured discuss everything from their experiences of war and perilous boat crossings to their everyday lives and ambitions in their new country

“People should be seen as professionals; identified for what they do, not where they come from," says Poluzhnikov.

"If you are a refugee doctor, you should be identified as a doctor first, rather than as a refugee. I like to see people succeeding, and being treated equally."

Within 24 hours of the website's launch, 20 people had signed up and created profiles. Now, almost a year after he launched the project, 46 people have created profiles and the project has spread to Luxembourg and Brazil.

'No-one should feel shame about their background'

“Newcomers”, Poluzhnikov's second initiative, is a networking and recruitment platform for new arrivals. 

“We really believe that integration starts with business and work. In Sweden especially, people pay a great attention to what you do, your skills and achievements. All this is how you get your position within the society," explains the 25-year-old.

Although he believes integration is key to success in Sweden, Poluzhnikov says he is saddened by the trend of newcomers attempting to erase their previous identity in order to conform.

“Once you've decided to live the rest of your life in Sweden, it's natural to learn the language, traditions, and local mores. That’s essential; it’s a sign of healthy adaptation," he says.

"Nonetheless, becoming a 'copycat Swede', changing your persona, the way you dress, eat, talk, behave and gesture, in order to be perceived as 'Swedish' – that sounds delusional to me.

"I think many people who try to do that would end up losing their personality, confidence - even their identity. No-one should feel ashamed of their backgrounds or surnames. It’s better for people to feel comfortable about who they are."

Poluzhnikov himself has begun to learn Swedish and is optimistic that it will only be a matter of time before he feels settled here -  but he says he could never reject his Russian background. “I'm not going to be ashamed of having a Russian name. I embrace it, and it will always be my utmost identifier."

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