Swedes try dinner diplomacy to befriend immigrants

Swedes try dinner diplomacy to befriend immigrants

SOLLENTUNA, Sweden - In war-torn Syria where Mikhail Zuhir comes from, a nighttime knock on the door can mean death, but when he rings the bell at a Swedish home on a dark night he comes bearing flowers.

Instead of fear, a warm dinner and welcome await the 29-year-old refugee who fled the violence that has claimed more than 195,000 lives since Syria's war began more than three years ago.

"As I see it, if you're invited to dinner and you arrive without flowers, you're sure not to get invited again," he said, handing a bouquet to his hosts, Urban Soederman and Jenny Sigurs.

Soon the three are seated at a table over traditional Swedish fare: salmon, potatoes, apple pie with whipped cream.

What seems a casual social event is proving to be a successful initiative at better integration, as Sweden faces a rise in the anti-immigration far right.

The project is the brainchild of Ebba Aakerman, a teacher of Swedish as a second language, who was moved by a simple idea - nothing breaks the ice better than sharing a meal.

This dinner diplomacy, she hopes, will facilitate dialogue in a nation long known for its openness but shocked by September's general election when the far-right doubled its support to almost 13 per cent.

For Sweden, mass immigration is a recent and growing phenomenon, with a 2013 survey showing 20.1 per cent of the population has roots outside the country.

'I got curious'

Akerman got the idea early this year when she started as a substitute teacher for foreigners making new lives in Sweden.

"I got curious about my students and wanted to know more about them," she said.

"Very soon, I realised I was the only Swedish person they ever talked to. I told myself that this has to change - for example over dinner." The idea, which she first tried out in March, is simple.

Immigrants who study Swedish as a foreign language meet with Swedes over dinner.

The point is twofold. To make the immigrants feel more at home in Sweden and with the Swedish language, and help accustom Swedes to their new compatriots.

Since the first dinner, more than 100 have taken place in the Stockholm area, and the initiative has rapidly spread to other cities in Sweden.

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