Every day we hear stories about the overwhelming number of refugees arriving in Europe from Syria (and elsewhere) seeking to start a new life away from the disarray of their homelands. Much of what we hear is bad news. In the midst of all the negativity, I thought it’d be fun to hear some of the good news coming out of Europe…
I spoke to Beatrice Eriksson, a social worker, activist and musician based in Malmö, in the south of Sweden. She’s passionate about social justice, and together with some friends has started the Malmö branch of Invitationsdepartmentet (The Invitation Department), a project to encourage better integration in the city.
Tell us a little about yourself and your city.
I moved to Malmö when I was 18 and have now been living here for more than ten years. Malmö is a multicultural city with over 300,000 residents from 177 different countries. At least 150 different languages are spoken here. I have watched the city develop over time and seen the many ways it has improved for the people living here, but also how segregation has increased.
How’s Malmö coping with all the refugees that it’s receiving?
Malmö is a municipality located close to the border to Europe, so many refugees have been arriving here lately. Since the police started to work with border control a few weeks ago, almost 100% of those wanting to seek asylum in Sweden arrive in Malmö and are being registered here. It presents a big challenge for the authorities and NGOs in Malmö who work with refugees. Though I must say I feel very proud about how people have mobilized to cope with this challenge and are trying their best to make the new arrivals to Sweden as feel as welcome as possible.
We live in a segregated society where people do not meet or talk with each other.
What inspired you to start Invitationsdepartementet in Malmö?
More than 30% of Malmö’s population are foreign-born. Many of them live in parts of the city where people born in Sweden almost never visit. Other parts of Malmö have areas where almost everyone is born in Sweden. We live in a segregated society where people do not meet or talk with each other. The best way to learn a new language is by speaking it, but many SFI (Swedish For Immigrants, the state-funded language school) students don’t know any Swedes. At the same time, many Swedes don’t know anyone who moved here later in life. Invitationsdepartementet steps into that gap, and provides an opportunity for these two groups to meet over dinner.
How does it work?
The concept is very simple. We match up the people from each group who sign up to participate. Then it is just like any dinner evening. A person knocks on the door, they sit down together and eat food. The guests can be really funny or boring, timid or confident, similar to or very different from you. We try to prepare people not to have any major expectations but to take it as it comes, with an open mind. The idea behind Invitationsdepartementet is to create an inclusive and trusting society. We bring together people who want to get better at Swedish with people who are fluent, over a home-cooked dinner. Everyone involved in the project is doing it because they’ve chosen to get involved. That’s what makes it so fun.
Can anyone host a meal?
Definitely. Anybody can register their interest in inviting or being invited for dinner. When you sign up, you tell us if: 1) you want to get better at Swedish or, 2) you are fluent in Swedish. Everyone who signs up tells us who they are and why they want to have dinner with someone new. The dinner is always free, at someone’s home and the evening is just a one time commitment. If both parties enjoy it, they can decide to meet again.
What do you hope will come out of it?
By saying, “welcome, dinner is served!” You can provide the opportunity for someone who has already been invited into our country to enter our society as well. We believe in a society where we meet people, talk, and build relationships. A society where exclusion and xenophobia are prevented by being welcoming and inclusive. I think meetings between people are the most beautiful thing in the world. I also think meetings between people are absolutely necessary for integration to take place. Invitationsdepartementet is one way we’ve found to make it happen.
How’s it going so far?
Since Invitationsdepartementet started in Stockholm, Sweden, in 2014 there have been hundreds of dinners and meetings between people. Many of the participants tell of one dinner leading to another, and another, and friendship that is starting to grow. Others talk about one good evening that was the first opportunity they got to sit down and practice the new language they are trying so hard to learn in school. These are really amazing stories!
How can those of us reading this get involved?
Invitationsdepartementet / United Invitations is already spreading around the world. Google it to see if there is an organization where you live, and if not, please feel free to start your own department. The concept already exists, someone just has to organize it in each locality.
And, if you live in Malmö and want to host a dinner, sign up here.
“Building trust is what we need in society. Sharing a meal is food culture at it’s finest. And having fun is never a bad idea.”