Visiting South Sweden – building bridges between EU civil society and the grassroots level

Social Platform members meeting participants of a migrant inclusion programme run by Merit in Helsingborg, Sweden.

“Building bridges – engaging with EU civil society, linking to the grassroots level” is one out of our strategic aims for the next four years. We launched our work in the area at end of last year, when I had the pleasure to organise a mission for our European members to South Sweden to learn about successful inclusion projects. This was particularly exciting for me, as it is in the area where I grew up with my migrant parents. I believe I speak on behalf of the delegation when I say that while each individual project we visited was interesting, it was the overall experience of being close to local practitioners and migrants alike that made the strongest impression on us.

Our first visit was to the Rosengård area of the city of Malmö, a multi-ethnic neighbourhood often subject to negative headlines. On the ground floor of a residential building, among the tower blocks, is Yalla Trappan, and its surprisingly warm and welcoming lunch restaurant. Christina Merker-Siesjö, President of Yalla Trappan told the story of how migrant women with no or little education get traineeships and offers of employment through Yalla Trappan’s restaurant and catering service, building on the women’s experiences from years of caring and cooking for their families and children. What really inspired me was that, not only do some get a job for the first time in years and sometimes decades of living in Sweden, they also end up voting in political elections for the first time because now they have a voice, are being heard and believe they too can make a difference.

A short walk away from Yalla Trappan, inside Rosengård Centre Mall, we visited Merit. Merit is a private company that delivers services on behalf of the municipality. The company designs individual needs assessments and portfolios for each participant, as they believe that is the most effective way of helping them to enter the labour market. Their staff are ‘Swedish for immigrants’ language teachers and coaches who have work experience across a range of different sectors. Sara Belin at Merit told the story of a migrant who was unable to explain his skills verbally, but with the aid of one of their coaches who understood his mechanical drawings – his chosen method of communicating! – they were able to find him a suitable job.

The day after we visited the Good Morning Hotel in the city of Helsingborg, which initiated a partnership with Merit to offer traineeships and host participants in their facilities for their language studies. Merit gave the example of Zahidah Rashid from Kurdistan, a mother of seven children, with only four years of educational background. While she had no prior work experience she had extensive experience of working on the family’s farm. Zahidah was selected for a traineeship within the breakfast and housekeeping services at a hotel, and she was the first of all of Merit’s trainees to be offered formal employment. Together with Merit, the hotel brings together a qualified workforce that they otherwise would have missed out on.

We ended our mission in Sweden at Ester Foundation, a small creative studio in a residential area of the city of Helsingborg. Ester Foundation was founded by a group of women that learned about micro-financing for women entrepreneurs in India, and who brought the model to Sweden. Lena Andersson, Project Manager explained that one of the challenges is that labour market support usually only last three months and once you have registered a company you are considered self-employed and are no longer eligible for any EU-funded support. Ester Foundation offers in total an 18-month long programme for migrant women to start up their own business, as they need the time not only to build up their business but also their self-confidence after experience of marginalisation and discrimination in the labour market.

I was particularly happy that we went to South Sweden, not because it is where I am from but because it is not in the capital, where visits by European and international delegations usually take place. While Malmö is Sweden’s third largest city, it has a fairly small population of 340,000 inhabitants, and Helsingborg has only 124,000 inhabitants. The local umbrella organisations for non-governmental organisations in Malmö kindly hosted an evening reception giving us the opportunity to learn about their work and to connect. Last week, one of the participants we met called me and asked if our members could help her find partners in other countries to join together for an EU application to a project supporting low-skilled migrant women in finding work. “Before we met I wouldn’t know where to turn, and now Brussels feels so much closer”, she said to me. I smiled and thought, this is how bridges are built.