Rami Alkenayeh, 24, has found on an unlikely way to use his hands to engage with Swedes while waiting for a decision about his asylum application.
Syria, Småland, and sign language. It’s a unique combination.
And the 24-year-old ‘Amigo’ awaiting a decision on his residence permit never expected he’d be in this situation. But he doesn’t mind so much.
Rami Alkenayeh, or ‘Amigo’, as he likes to be called, is an ambitious young man learning Swedish and teaching sign language as a volunteer in Nätverket SIP, an umbrella civil society organization based in Växjö the Swedish province of Småland.
"I really love it," he says.
"I was attracted to how it offers the opportunity to communicate and be fully understood without opening your mouth."
While the 24-year-old Syrian is always looking for ways to help those around him, in this instance his motivation for volunteering is purely personal: finding a way to fight the boredom of waiting for his asylum decision from the Swedish Migration Board (Migrationsverket).
Rami used to take Swedish lessons at the local Red Cross building, and when he saw a poster advertising various activities available at Näterket SIP, he jumped at the chance.
But his story begins long before that. Rami fled with his family to Egypt in October 2012 – after their life in Syria became unbearable.
“Our life in Syria was very normal and simple, and we were very happy until my dad’s death,” Rami says. “Then my siblings and I had to work for a living, and then the war came and life turned into hell.”
It affected every aspect of their lives, he says.
“The stress, the fear of bombing, witnessing horrors and confronting death – that’s why we left for Egypt.”
However, Rami’s hardships didn’t end in Egypt. Maybe things even were worse.
“I used to work ten hour shifts and spend two and a half hours in transport, just to cover the living expenses for my family,” he recalls.
Rami eventually made his way to Sweden, arriving in July 2015, although he doesn’t like to talk much about his hazardous road to Europe. The memories are a heavy burden to carry, he says, and retelling the traumatic events again and again doesn’t help the pain to fade.
“I accompanied my youngest brother, and we just wanted to reunite with our older brother [who had arrived in Sweden separately in 2014] – just to be together in one country,” he says.
Here in Sweden, the best parts of Rami’s days are all the social activities he’s discovered which help him learn and build relationships while interacting with Swedes.
Otherwise, he would simply be stuck in limbo while he waits for the lengthy permit decision process to run its course.
“Right now I really have nothing to do,” he remarks. “I wake up. I eat. I sleep. That’s it. So, I’ve decided to concentrate on sign language and Swedish, to build relationships and actually be alive – rather than dying of boredom.”
The idea of learning sign language came while Rami was participating in activities at ‘Funkibator’, a Nätverket SIP’s partner organization that focuses on the needs of disabled people.
A member of the organization told volunteers they were going to receive a visit from a group of deaf people. Rami suggested learning the basics of sign language and teaching a few words to each of Funkibator’s volunteers so they could welcome the visitors properly.
“I liked it. And I wanted to learn sign language to communicate with people who don’t have the privilege to speak. It would have been a shame not to be able to welcome the visitors adequately,” he says.
And Rami's optimism and passion -- not to mention his language skills -- doesn't go unnoticed by those around him, adds Amalia Sjindjapkin, a project leader with Nätverket SIP.
“I was amazed by his Swedish skills, especially in relation to the little time he has spent in Sweden,” she exclaims. “He’s so cool. And he has a place here now, and has started teaching sign language.”
In addition, Rami has taken part in various other activities, including translating brochures and other documents to Arabic, in order to make the organization’s activities more acceptable to refugees.
He’s also organized family nights, where he invites people to watch movies and get together. He also has joined a ‘hundkafe’ (dog café), where people bring their dogs to hang out and chat.
Rami’s constant activity is driven primarily by the fear of being inactive and ignorant of the society around him; he can’t understand how it’s possible for some people to live in Sweden for years without learning the language.
“I met people who have been here for five to six years, and still don’t speak the language very well,” he says. “The language is the key to understanding the community. It is not possible to live in a society for such a period without knowing the language.”
Moreover, he thinks the local community’s culture should be understood and respected.
“They [the Swedes] may not get along with others that fast, but we need to understand their ways. We need to adapt. We are being welcomed to their country we should respect it,” he explains.
So far, Rami’s experience in Sweden has been largely positive.
“What I really admire about Sweden is that no one is allowed to intervene in the others' religion or beliefs,” he says.
Rami hopes to return to university to complete his higher education, but with his asylum application still pending, it may be awhile before he can take that step. But rather than fretting about the outcome of a decision he can’t control, Rami is committed to making the most of his current situation in Sweden by remaining active and optimistic – just like the Swedes themselves.
After all: “The more they feel my will to engage, the more they want to help.”