Class has just ended at a community center in the southern Swedish town of Ronneby. This is the first stop for refugees in the area, once they’ve been granted asylum. They receive 60 hours of instruction on how to live in Sweden. The courses cover such things as how to rent an apartment, get a job and grow old here.
“It’s basically how to live and survive in Sweden,” says Henrik Lovgren, who runs the government-funded program. “Rules, culture, regulations. And also what obligations you have towards society, towards your neighbors, and responsibility as a person, as a parent, as a fellow citizen.”
The classes are taught in the refugees’ native languages by Swedes who originally came from the same countries, such as Mohammad Abdualamir, who Iraq and has been in Sweden for eight years.
“They’re really trying hard to live and be part of this community and be effective,” Abdualamir says.
Sweden has long been a haven for those fleeing war and persecution. It took in 160,000 refugees last year, the most per capita of any European country. And it is working hard to integrate its newest residents.
Many aspects of Swedish life are a surprise for the refugees, such as the way the elderly are cared for by the state, not their families, and how much freedom women have.
Abdualamir says the refugees here were shocked by reports of sexual assaults in Germany over New Year’s Eve, which were blamed on gangs of migrants.
“They’re not interested in these problems,” he says. “They’re interested in how to avoid them, how to be positive in this community and thankful for all the services they’re getting.”
In Stockholm, the Swedish labor ministry is stepping up its efforts to integrate refugees into the job market. With Sweden’s population aging and in decline, the government wants to turn the refugees into taxpayers as quickly as possible, says Erik Nilsson, the state secretary for employment.
“In a way, it’s good for Sweden,” he says, “because we do need to have a workforce, and the ones that are coming are mostly in productive ages. I mean, most of them are 20 to 40 years old, which means that they have a long professional life ahead of them.”
Nilsson says many of the refugees are also well-educated, though historically, it’s taken too long for migrants to break into the workforce. But changes are underway to speed things up. Doctors, for example, can now take tests in Arabic, so they can practice medicine, not drive taxis.
But not everyone sees things in such a positive light. Some polls from late last year showed the anti-immigration Sweden Democratic Party gaining support.
Ivar Arpi, a columnist with the newspaper Svenska Dagbladet, says more people are listening to the party because they see their country changing.
“The thing to understand with the migration crisis, when it comes to Sweden, is it’s much, much larger here than in Germany. In Sweden, you can’t go to a small town in Sweden. Every town in Sweden has their own migration problem. I mean the apartments – there are no more apartments.”
Back in Ronneby, the Knut Hahn high school now counts 150 refugees among its student body. The refugees are put in special classes taught in Arabic until their Swedish gets good enough, and then they are integrated into regular Swedish classes. Salam Hamdan, 17, arrived in Sweden Damascus, Syria, last September and began teaching himself Swedish as soon as he arrived to get ahead. He thinks he’ll soon be placed in classes with native Swedes.
“The first time here, it’s a little hard,” he says. “Everything is different [from] what we [are] used to. But we must learn from them, and yes, it’s easy to learn and it’s easy to get it.”
Hamdan says the Swedish students are very welcoming. But in the cafeteria, the Swedish and refugee kids don’t seem to be mixing. Swedish senior Victor Mignot says there is goodwill, but some of the cultural differences make it difficult.
“I really want to meet them,” he says, “but it’s hard with the language difficulties. It’s also hard because they are acting different in the society than the Swedish people. And that can scare some people — like they talk really loud, and I know that people get bothered by that.”
Mignot says Swedes are quiet and reserved, and it might take awhile before the two groups get used to each other.