This article is part of Changing the Narrative. Articles in this series are written by student or early career journalists who took part in The Local’s training course on solutions-focused migration reporting. Find out more about the project here.
Almost every year, more than 20,000 international students arrive in Sweden to pursue their higher education studies – many from non-EU countries in Asia and Africa.
To manage learning the language is often an uphill task for foreign students whose full-time studies take up most of their time. Additionally, the harsh Nordic weather and cultural clashes create problems for many students such as loneliness, depression and economic hard times, which have been amplified by the Covid-19 pandemic, as most of the Swedish universities shifted to distance education.
But where there’s a will, there’s a way. At Linnaeus University in southern Sweden, international students are helping their fellow newcomers navigate Swedish society, by using resources provided by NBV, a study organisation that helps volunteers start their own study circles.
Wazhma, an Afghan-Pakistani student who arrived in Sweden in 2015 as a refugee, has been working to help refugee children in Växjö since 2016, and is now running a study circle in the town for other international students, with the help of NBV and Linnaeus University.
She herself suffered severe mental illness when she came to Sweden, because of insufficient integration opportunities for international students, and her study circle focuses on solving language and integration problems faced by many new international students in Växjö.
Wazhma runs the study circle with the help of NBV and Linneaus University. Photo: NBV
“My motivation was to share insights on Swedish society and systems with the fellow international students as there is no clear-cut information available about different institutions where the international students are required to go when they move to Sweden. This all information goes word of mouth from one student to another in an informal way which makes it challenging to students and it also lowers the reputation of Sweden as a host country,” says Wazhma.
She argues that any integration programmes are designed according to the understanding and needs of Swedish universities, not according to what international students need to know when they land in Sweden.
“There is no special programme or course that can provide information to international students if they want to know more about Swedish society, for example, norms, rules, customs, how Swedish people think and act and how an international student can get help if they have problems like any security situation,” she adds.
The 15 participants of the study circle are predominantly female international students belonging to the non-EU regions of South Asia and Africa who have the same challenges. Coming from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh in Asia, and Nigeria, Tanzania and Cameroon in Africa, their goal is to learn Swedish to better integrate in Sweden.
They meet twice a week on Saturdays and Sundays, so that it is easier for participants to join without disrupting their weekday schedule. Former international students are invited to the circle every month to share their experiences and have Q&A sessions with the participants, providing them with useful tips about Swedish society.
The students meet twice a week. Photo: NBV
Morvarid, a student from Asia, says she prefers the study circle to Sweden’s official initiative for language learning, Swedish for Immigrants (SFI). She says the study circle is “helpful and fun”, whereas she found SFI was not adapted to her basic language needs.
“They just put you in course C because you have 12 years’ education and know English. I didn’t even know how to pronounce Swedish and my classmates knew how to talk. I was suffering a lot in SFI and there are still a lot of basics that I do not know,” she says.
Makaveli, a student from Africa, says the circle helps him cope with the language challenge.
“Living in a country where you do not speak the official language at all alienates you, and can make you feel bad sometimes, but it’s been fun learning Swedish in a formal way by joining this class. Finding out the local slang and the kind of humour that Swedes enjoy, and also being able to eavesdrop on daily conversations happening around me, because I want to really discover Swedish culture and hobbies. It’s been amazing so far and I’m grateful,” he says.
Facts and figures: NBV study circles last for six months. For this initiative, Linnaeus University provides premises and resources for participants, whereas the NBV supports them with Swedish language text books. Other than this, the study leader, or participants have to bear all other expenditures including travel, study materials and entertainment. The study circle does not have any formal liaison with the university, NGOs or labour market to help participants find jobs or housing, but it is helping them in developing informal networks in society.
Muhammad Imran Malik is a masters student of international affairs at Linnaeus University in Sweden. He is also a correspondent for DW Germany and volunteers as deputy editor-in-chief of Stockholm Journal of International Affairs.