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Originally published Saturday, August 2, 2014 at 6:03 AM

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Over dinner, Swedish teacher brings immigrants and natives together

As more immigrants move to Sweden, one teacher noticed the newcomers were socially isolated. So she’s been inviting them to meet fellow Swedes over dinner and working to inspire others to do the same.


The New York Times

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STOCKHOLM — Last year, when Ebba Akerman, 31, was teaching Swedish to immigrants in the Stockholm suburbs, she ran into one of her students on the train and asked him whether he enjoyed living in her country.

She found the answer disturbing. The man shrugged, saying his life was not much different from the one he had left behind in Afghanistan.

It became clear to her that most of her students, living in neighborhoods packed with immigrants, had virtually no contact with native Swedes.

In the months that followed, Akerman decided to try to change that, calling herself the minister of dinners in charge of the Department of Invitations and using Facebook and Instagram to try to bring individual Swedes and immigrants together for a meal, something like a dating service.

“We let people into our country but not into our society,” Akerman said on a recent Friday night.

She was chopping vegetables, two picnic tables already set up end to end in the backyard of her leafy apartment complex, a stretch of Indian fabric serving as a giant tablecloth.

“I finally decided that I had to do something. I could be the connector.”

At first, her idea did not get much traction. A lot of Swedish people clicked the “like” button on Facebook, but few stepped up to welcome anyone into their homes. But after several television appearances and news articles about her efforts, the project seemed to take off. Akerman is juggling a backlog of about 800 people who want to participate in a dinner.

The immigrants are mostly eager and flexible, she said. The Swedish are more inclined to pick a date two months down the road.

Although the project has brought Akerman a measure of fame in this small country, she said she was still just one young woman with a paper calendar trying to get people together in her spare time. With an easy laugh and a relaxed manner, she waves away any notion that she should worry about common interests or ages. She just asks people whether they have any food allergies and when they are available.

“It’s just a dinner,” she said. “Any two people should be able to find something to talk about for one dinner.”

Most of the encounters have been a success, she said, although there have been some bumps along the way, including no-shows, cancellations and some extreme shyness. One immigrant guest arrived hours late, bringing a collection of groceries, including yogurt and milk, as an apology. Others got lost and had to be rescued.

“About 8 p.m. on the night of one of these dinners, if my phone has not rung, I say, ‘Phew,’ ” she said.

Like many European countries, Sweden has seen support for anti-immigrant parties grow in recent years as it has struggled to integrate a record number of arrivals. Many of the newcomers have been steered to large apartment complexes on the outskirts of the cities which have few, if any, Swedes living in them.

About 20 percent of Sweden’s population was born abroad or from two immigrant parents, up from about 11 percent in 2000. The new arrivals come mostly from areas that have experienced conflict, including Afghanistan, the Balkans, Ivory Coast, Somalia and Syria.

Polls indicate that many Swedes support immigrants and asylum seekers. But a growing minority blames them for crime and worries about the costs associated with getting them settled. The immigrants, too, have vented frustration at being marginalized. In one Stockholm suburb last year, riots broke out after allegations of police brutality.

Akerman, who has a master’s degree in sustainable utilization and, like many young Swedes, has often interrupted her studies to travel the world, hardly thinks that her project will solve Sweden’s problems, although she hopes that many more dinners will take place before the next elections in September.

But the get-togethers are perhaps a start, she said, an opening that has the potential to enlighten everyone.

“The encounters that my students have had with Swedes were not really between equals,” Akerman said. “But when you sit down to eat at the same table, that goes away. It’s very basic.”

On a recent evening, Akerman was feeding about a dozen people, including a middle-aged couple from Bangladesh who had brought a chicken dish, a recent arrival from Cameroon with her two children, a Swedish marketing expert, the mother of one of Akerman’s friends, and a young Swedish doctor in training, all of whom had been early participants in her project. All told stories of good times and miscues.

The marketing expert, Henrik Evrell, said he had hosted a dinner guest from Ivory Coast who spoke French, as he did, and loved the same Ivory Coast musicians he did.They spent the evening in front of a computer, taking turns pulling up music that each thought the other would like.

“It was really easy in the end,” said Evrell, who believes Akerman should start a foundation and continue her matchmaking full time.

Becky Faith, who moved from Cameroon to Stockholm 18 months ago, said she had invited a Swedish couple, Jenny and Olaf, to her house, making fish, potatoes and salad for them. The young couple — he is a nurse, and she works in a store — brought some children they were baby-sitting.

“It was great,” said Faith, who said she had discovered that some Swedes are shy but that once they get over that, they “are very nice.”



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