Department of Invitations 2 Favorite 



Jul 31 2014



Filling Stomachs to Open Minds on Immigration
In Sweden, Dinners Melt Cultural Barriers

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

She found the answer deeply disturbing. The man shrugged, saying his life here 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, Ms. 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,” Ms. 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.”


Hundreds of people have signed up for Ms. Akerman’s dinners, which gather immigrants and native Swedes to socialize in a nation where tensions have risen. At first, her idea did not get much traction, she said. 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. Ms. Akerman is now 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.

Her Department of Invitations is hardly the stuff of or eHarmony. Though the project has brought Ms. 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, though 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, not understanding that house numbers are consecutive.

“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 them have been steered to large apartment complexes on the outskirts of the cities, which have few, if any, Swedes living in them. About one-fifth of Sweden’s population was born either 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 suburb of Stockholm last year, riots broke out after allegations of police brutality.


Ms. Akerman in her kitchen with Henrik Evrell. She began hosting dinners after realizing that immigrants and Swedes had little contact. Credit Casper Hedberg for The New York Times
Ms. 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, though 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 involved. “I was traveling to these neighborhoods to teach, and I realized that at the end of these commuter lines, it was so interesting — a treasure box in Stockholm,” she said. “But most Swedes never see that.”

Bringing people together for a meal also offered a way to eliminate any differences between them in social or economic status. “The encounters that my students have had with Swedes were not really between equals,” Ms. Akerman said. “But when you sit down to eat at the same table, that goes away. It’s very basic.”

On a recent evening, Ms. 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 Ms. 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 served spaghetti Bolognese, the most Swedish dish he knew, to his guest from Ivory Coast. At first they had trouble communicating because his guest’s Swedish was so poor. But soon they discovered that they both spoke French and loved the same Ivory Coast musicians. After eating, they spent the rest of the evening in front of a computer, taking turns pulling up music on Spotify that each thought the other would like.

“It was really easy in the end,” said Mr. Evrell, who believes Ms. 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, over 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 babysitting. “It was great,” said Ms. Faith, who said she had discovered that some Swedes are shy, but that once they get over that, they “are very nice.”

At Ms. Akerman’s house, however, some cultural strains were visible immediately. One of the Swedish guests brought her large dog to the event, which prompted Ms. Faith’s children and two young Pakistani women to cower in a corner.

Fatima Haroon, one of the women, tried to be brave, saying such large dogs were often used by the police in her country.

JULY 30, 2014
New York Times

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