Hasan Ali Deeb from Damascus has embraced the new language and culture after two years in Sweden. Now he's fully used to all the hugs, but still has some reservations about Swedes' loose attachment to their underpants.
“I think I am more than integrated in this country,” says Hasan of his new home. “I have friends and a family here; whenever I need help with something I ask and they happily help out – and vice versa.”
He particularly relishes the openness of Swedish society, which allows him to have frank discussions with his friends. “There are no taboos. We talk about some very controversial topics," he says. "Through that we get to learn about the differences in each other's cultures."
“For example, once my friends asked why men from the Middle East don’t take off their underpants while in public bathrooms in gyms, or school bathrooms, or in swimming pools. I told them that we are not used to it; it’s about the culture and it’s influenced by religion. I said that we are just as surprised at how readily you take off your pants in public!"
"When I explained, they were understanding. Discussions open up the space for mutual understanding and respect."
One way he has been deeply influenced by Swedish culture is the hug.
"When I first arrived in Sweden, people I met would hug me as a greeting. At the beginning, I didn’t understand - it felt weird! But now if I meet a Swedish friend and they shake hands instead of hugging, I wonder ‘where’s the hug? Is something wrong?’" laughs Hasan.
When he first arrived in Långviksmon, northern Sweden, in November, 2013, it was a shock to move from Damascus, a bustling city of two million, to a small village of just 200 people. But its size did have its upside. “In about a week you’d get to know everyone there. Coming to this village was the best thing that happened to me in Sweden."
There was a small Syrian community in the village, but Hasan and his friends were eager to integrate with locals, which he was able to do quickly. "People are so kind and from the very second day after arriving here I started building friendships with Swedes. On the second day I was invited to play volleyball with Swedes and other Syrians, and I still have a great relationship with these people – they are like my family.”
An internship at a secondhand shop, Ankaret, helped him learn about Swedish culture and language by chatting to the villagers who came in to browse and have some coffee and cake. “Many people got to know me and wanted to help with the language, some even brought me books to read," Hasan remembers.
He studied hard, learning from a friend Annete, and practising whenever he could. “I used to talk to people in Swedish – I wasn’t shy about making mistakes.” As his own skills improved, he was able to help Annette teach other refugees by making PowerPoint presentations or helping to explain Swedish grammar.
Hasan later moved to Örnsköldsvik to study SFI (Swedish for Immigrants), before moving onto the Korta vägen programme. “This helped me upgrade my Swedish very quickly, and learn medical terminology. It helped me understand how to apply for and get a job in the Swedish job market.”
And after a lot of research and phonecalls, in March this year the 28-year-old began work as a dental assistant, where he assists dentists as well as translating for any patients who can’t describe their symptoms in Swedish.
"I hope to get my Swedish dentist licence soon so I can practice my profession."
But he hasn't forgotten the village that first welcomed him. “I stayed in contact with my friends in the village, and there’s a Swedish family that used to welcome me into their home – whenever they come to the city they visit me and whenever I go to village I sleep at their place.”
"I actually advise newcomers to go and live in small towns and villages, people in these places are very kind, sociable and accepting of others. At the end of the day it’s important for the Swedes to socialize with refugees too – including and not isolating the newcomers is good for the Swedes and for Sweden."
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