The former refugee working with asylum seekers

After a family history of forced migration, Haneen Abdel Khaleq is now dedicated to helping others in similar situations.

The former refugee working with asylum seekers
Haneen is now working as a Protection Officer in Lebanon. Photo: Malmö University

Haneen and her family were living in Kuwait when the Gulf War erupted in 1990, forcing them to flee along with an exodus of other Palestinians. By the time she was ten, she had already moved from Syria to Jordan to Qatar, before finally settling in Australia.

As an adult, Haneen began working with Palestinian refugees in Jordan and knew straight away she’d found her calling.

Then, at the height of the ‘refugee crisis’ in Europe, she was offered a scholarship to study International Migration and Ethnic Relations at Malmö University.

“At that point there were lots of people arriving in Sweden from places like Syria, and a lot of conversations going on around refugees and asylum seekers,” she says.

Find out more about the International Migration and Ethnic Relations programme at Malmö University

“Being in Malmö, I could see the effects of war on displacement and the movement of people firsthand, and could then go to class where we learned about it and discussed it in an academic way.”

She adds that learning alongside other international students from places like Africa, Asia, and the Middle East enriched her experience as a master’s student in Malmö.

“We could share our different experiences and opinions on the kind of things that were going on. That diversity was really valuable.”

Photo: Malmö University

Haneen is currently finishing her thesis while working as a Protection Officer in Lebanon, where she describes the situation for Syrian refugees as bleak.

“There are so many issues that refugees face in Lebanon; a lot to do with practical things, like their legal papers. It’s devastating to see the situation going from bad to worse, and people even considering going back to Syria,” she says.

Dealing with such heavy issues on a day-to-day basis might take its toll emotionally but, as Haneen points out, learning to cope is a process.

“When I started working with refugees five years ago it was often really difficult. People would tell me that living in limbo was making them feel suicidal. For me, receiving a lot of support from the places I’ve worked has helped, and over time it’s become easier and I’ve learned to deal with it.”

Her goal for the future is to bring about changes to migration policies, but for now Haneen says she is most comfortable on the ground, interacting with people.

“It might be a bit cliché, but the most important thing to me is to make some sort of difference, even if it’s in a small way. These people are going through what may be the worst period of their lives, and I want to support them in all the ways I can.”

Haneen’s interest in migration has understandably stemmed, in part, from her personal experience as a Palestinian Australian.

Reflecting on her outlook, she says learning about things like the economy, migration flows, and integration while at Malmö University has allowed her to think more practically about ongoing injustices and how she can make a change.

“I think I see things less emotionally these days and more pragmatically. Having seen firsthand how terribly asylum seekers are treated in Australia, I know that improving the situation for them is something I’ll always advocate.”

Studying at Malmö University was an important part of Haneen’s journey towards supporting others, as well as helping her to come to terms with certain parts of her own life and identity.

“My studies helped me to understand that my identity doesn’t have to be so rigid,” she explains.

“Who I am doesn’t have to be based on being either Australian or Palestinian. I’ve lived in so many countries up until now and the more I learn and experience, the freer I feel to live and identify the way that I want.”

This article has been produced by The Local Client Studio and is sponsored by Malmö University.


INTERVIEW: ‘It’s a way to jokingly show that Sweden is very segregated’

Michael Lindgren, the comedian and producer behind the new Swedish TV quiz show Invandrare för Svenskar, or "Immigrants for Swedes', tells The Local how the seemingly superficial game show is actually very serious indeed.

INTERVIEW: 'It's a way to jokingly show that Sweden is very segregated'

SVT’s new gameshow Invandrare för Svenskar (IFS) began with a simple image on a computer. 

“I wanted to do something to show the simple fact that the category of invandrare [immigrant] is a really stupid category,” says Michael Lindgren, the co-founder of the Swedish comedy group Grotesco, and creator of Invandare för Svenskar

“I was just playing around with pictures of people with different values and professions and personalities to like, show the multitude of humanity, and then I placed an ethnic Swede in the middle and I built a block of people with different backgrounds around that blonde person. and I was thinking it would be fun to put a Swede in the minority.” 

It was only when a friend pointed out that the image he had made looked like the famous quiz game Hollywood Squares, a big 1980s hit in Sweden as Prat i kvadrat, that the idea to turn the image into a game show came about. 

Shortly afterwards, he contacted the show’s host, the comedian Ahmed Berhan, and began working with him and some of the other celebrities with immigrant backgrounds on the concept. 

The panelists on Invandrare för Svenskar.

Critics in Sweden are divided over the new gameshow, in which ordinary Swedes have to guess whether celebrity immigrants are lying or telling the truth about their home cultures. 

Karolina Fjellborg, at Aftonbladet, called it a “potential flop”, which was “forced and painfully shallow”. 

“And yet her paper, Aftonbladet, has written about it several times!” Lindgren exclaims when I mention this.  “Some people think it’s too stupid and glossy. It’s had rave reviews and very critical reviews, which I think is perfect.” 

He rejects the charge that the show treats a serious subject in too frivolous a way. 

“I’m an entertainer. I work in comedy. Of course, it’s superficial,” he says. “It’s a glossy game show on the surface, but underneath it’s a way to jokingly address the fact that we still think in these categories, that Sweden is a very segregated society, and we need to address that with more honesty.”

“The other point is that the idea of ‘immigrants’ as a group is absurd. It’s not a homogenous group. I think Swedes need to be faced with that, that the category is false. ‘Immigrants’ is useful as a statistical category, meaning people who actually migrated here. Most panelists in the show are born in Sweden, but Swedes tend to see them as immigrants anyway. For how many generations?”

He says his favourite moments in the show come when the contestants are nervous that they might give an answer that reveals them as prejudiced, and you can feel a slight tension, or the few moments when they do make an embarrassing mistake. 

Even though the atmosphere is deliberately kept as warm and light-hearted as possible, it’s these flashes of awkwardness, he feels, that reveal how uncomfortable many people in Sweden are about ethnic and cultural differences. 

It’s clearly something he thinks about a lot. Unlike immigration to countries like the UK or France, which are the result of long histories of empire, he argues, the immigration to Sweden, at least since the 1970s, has been driven by a sense of Lutheran guilt at the wealth the country amassed as a result of remaining neutral in the Second World War. 

Immigration, he argues, happened too quickly for the ordinary Swedish population to really understand the cultures of those arriving. 

Michael Lindgren, founder of ”IFS-invandrare för svenskar”. Photo: Anders Wiklund/TT
“I like to see Sweden as a little bit like The Shire in The Lord of the Rings,” he says. “It is located up in the corner of the map, peaceful and quite, with a very homogenous, old, peasant population. Historically shielded from the big world outside. Immigration is fairly new to Sweden, from outside Europe basically from the seventies onward, that is just fifty years ago. In what was in large part a political project from above.”
“And there is a discrepancy, because the majority population is still that old peasant population, and we didn’t learn a lot about the people coming here. We’re polite and friendly, but culturally very reserved, and I think that’s also about the climate, we don’t intermingle a lot. We don’t invite people into our homes easily.” 

According to Lindgren, the reception of the show has been great. Some of the show’s panel have a big following among Swedes with immigrant backgrounds, meaning it is drawing a demographic to Sweden’s public broadcaster that it normally struggles to reach. 

“The ambition is that the primary audience for this show is Swedes with mixed backgrounds, Swedes with a background in another country,” he says. “It’s a very tough demographic to reach. It’s a demographic that simply doesn’t watch public service, because it’s usually not made for them, and they seem to really enjoy it.” 

He has plans for the next series to include short factual segments. 

“I’m not saying I’m gonna make it serious. It’s supposed to be fun and jokey and entertaining and light, and I’m not going to change it in its core,” he says. “But I think it would add to the entertainment and variety to pause maybe twice in the show and say ‘this is actually true’, just stay at a point of discussion for 30 seconds, and maybe have a graphic to back it up.”