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.

Now the idea is even catching on abroad. A dinner has already taken place in Athens, and others are scheduled in places as far apart as Vilnius, Singapore and New Mexico.

'I need to speak with Swedes'

"We've always wondered what can be done to help those who come here and open our door," said Sigurs, who hosted Zuhir to dinner in her home in Sollentuna, northwest of Stockholm. "It's simple and practical and makes a difference." Zuhir said he heard other students from his Swedish class talk about the dinners.

"They had had conversations and had fun. And then I thought to myself, what am I waiting for? I want to try that too. And that's how I ended up here," he said.

"I've been in Sweden for 10 months now, and I have to talk with local Swedes if I want to improve and become better integrated." "With my friends, we try to speak Swedish, and it works for about one minute before we shift to Arabic!" This evening he tells his story to an eager audience. As a Christian, he no longer felt welcome in his small town near the Turkish border.

"Besides, I'm an electrician and we only had three hours of electricity a day. I had to leave," he said.

"My father told me to leave the country. I chose Sweden because my grandfather moved there 23 years ago and I knew that the government would help us." "Now," he said, "I finally feel safe." 

'A seed has been planted'

But prejudices die hard. Nearly one in five Swedes has no contact with a person from a country outside of Europe and in September the far right became the third-largest party, with 12.9 per cent of votes.

Even so, Zuhir is convinced that the future is in Sweden, and he has everything planned.

"First, I really need to speak Swedish well, then I have to certify my skills as an electrician, and then I can find a job." For now, he has abandoned football, a sport he had practised daily. "Anyway, I can't run when it's cold. It's totally impossible!" His other dinner host, Soederman, who remembers his own days as a teenager when he learned English in a full-immersion programme, hopes to be able to keep in touch and offer support.

Many other Swedes feel the same way, and since the election have approached Akerman with requests to become hosts for her now increasingly famous dinners.

"People want to get involved," said Akerman. "With my project, I've established a first contact, a seed has been planted. Integration happens primarily at the individual level."