Baby groups help immigrant mums integrate in Sweden

Baby groups help immigrant mums integrate in Sweden

SOLLENTUNA, Sweden - Children's laughter and nursery rhymes resonate through the library as young mums play with their babies: in a suburb outside Stockholm, a group of immigrants is trying to learn Swedish and integrate into society.

Sitting in a circle on the floor, nine mothers and their children launch into another song. Some are unsure of the words and the pronunciation, but that's why they've come, after all - to learn.

The "Swedish with Baby" programme is aimed at both immigrants and Swedes on parental leave, offering them a chance to get together once a week to learn from each other and break the isolation that Sweden's generous parental leave - of up to 16 months - can sometimes bring.

"I've come almost every week since September. I'm at home alone with my daughter Maggie, who is 14 months," said Bobbie, a 28-year-old mother who came to Sweden from China a year ago with her engineer husband.

"It's perfect for the babies, and for me too. We sing a lot, and there's nothing better than nursery rhymes to learn the language."

Immigration to Sweden has skyrocketed in recent years, due mainly to the country's open-door refugee policy welcoming those fleeing conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Somalia, to name just a few.

Once a homogeneous country, Sweden only began welcoming immigrants some 50 years ago. Now, around 20 per cent of the population of 10 million have roots outside the country.

The Scandinavian nation has numerous state-run programmes in place to help immigrants settle in, such as free language classes, employment agency assistance, and housing and living subsidies.

Yet many doors in society remain closed to immigrants, including those of their neighbours - many say they never get to know any Swedes even after living here for years.

After the birth of a child, foreign parents can often find themselves even more isolated, with no one to talk to.

While the anti-immigration far-right gains ground - the Sweden Democrats became the third biggest party in legislative elections in September - some Swedes are starting up private initiatives to help break the ice with immigrants.

'Break down barriers'

"Swedish with Baby" was started in 2012 by two mothers on parental leave who wanted to help break young parents' isolation in the home.

When an immigrant taking Swedish-language classes has a baby, "she disappears, loses all contact with Swedish and the society she wants to integrate into.

"'Swedish with Baby' allows her to create this link," said one of the members of the group, Tove Roander, who teaches Swedish to new immigrants.

"People get to meet each other as parents. Everyone's at the same level, we talk about kids in a language adapted to kids. It helps break down barriers," said the head of the programme, Anna Libietis.

She organises 13 meetings a week, held in Swedish and free of charge, in suburbs and towns outside Stockholm.

"That's where the people who are most distanced from Swedish society live," she explained.

"In the city centre, the immigrants are usually quite integrated." After a welcome song where "hello" is repeated in the seven languages represented, the mothers start chatting as their children play with the colourful toys spread out on the floor.

On the agenda for today's meeting is a subject all young parents obsess about: sleep. Each mum shares her experiences, and they give each other friendly and sometimes much-needed advice.

Akiko, a 38-year-old pharmacologist from Japan, has lived in Sweden for five years and doesn't work. She comes to the meetings almost every week with her one-year-old Toshi.

"It's better than (language) classes because of the sharing," she said.

Meanwhile, the Swedish mums in attendance say they come to meet new people but also because they want to do their bit for integration.

"I want to be part of a more open society. We need that, especially with what is going on in Sweden and the world with the rise of the far-right, which I find frightening and sad," explained Sofia, a 30-year-old dressed in jeans.

Lars Svedberg, a sociology professor at the Ersta Skoendal University in Stockholm, said Swedes have a long tradition of wanting to help those in need.

"Swedes have comfortable lives, they want to give back. That's why they volunteer," he said.

Standing back from the group, Leo's mum, a native of Uganda, watches the chit-chat with a look of amusement. It's her first meeting, but in elementary Swedish she said she'll come back - she wants to learn Swedish to keep up with her son.

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