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COVID-19

Foreigners in Sweden share their stories of family reunions after pandemic separation

The pandemic has kept cross-border families apart, meaning loved ones have not only gone without usual visits but also missed out on occasions like births and deaths. Foreign residents of Sweden told The Local what it's been like to be reunited.

Foreigners in Sweden share their stories of family reunions after pandemic separation
Corinne and her grandmother. Photo: Private

‘I saw my 94-year-old grandmother after two years’

Corinne, a French-English-American project manager, says one of the motivations for moving back to Europe from the US was to see her grandmother in southern France more often, but the pandemic put that on hold.

“We haven’t lived in the same place for my whole life but I usually managed a visit a year, especially as she has got older. This was the first time since I was very little that I hadn’t seen her at least once a year. It was strange. At 94 it feels like we lost almost two years of contact or at least two if not three visits. She got vaccinated in early 2021 but we waited until we had also received at least one shot and the numbers [of newly reported infections in Sweden and France] had gone down. Making the rules more clear about what you needed (at the time a PCR test) made it much easier.”

‘Reunited with my Swedish wife-to-be’

Ryan, a professional YouTuber in the US, met his fiancée online and they have been engaged for two years but spent 17 months and one day apart due to the pandemic.

“I flew to Sweden to meet her for the first time in May 2018 and we spent five magical days in Stockholm together. From that day on, whenever we were apart, we would be on an iPad call. If not the iPad, then a phone call.

“We then began flying back and forth to each other, her visiting me in America, and me staying with her and her family in Sweden. We were used to the separation after a while because I could only stay in Sweden for three months at a time, twice a year, but nothing could have prepared us for Covid.

“At first, it was just like any other time being away from one another. But the restrictions just kept getting extended. Again and again, our hopes of reunification were dashed. While away from one another, we fell asleep with each other on our iPads, watched shows together by counting down to zero so we would be in sync, and spent all the time outside of work with each other on a FaceTime call for the entire time we were apart. When America was added to the exemption list [from Sweden’s entry ban], it felt amazing! Like a weight had been lifted off both our shoulders. Needless to say, it has been an extremely rough time on the both of us, but she is worth every second, minute, hour of my life.”

‘My daughter met my parents for the first time’

Software engineer Srivani, 34, has not been able to see her parents in India since her daughter was born two years ago but finally made the trip this summer.

“There was no change in the travel requirement as India was still a red list country at the time of our travel, however we did travel since both my husband and I have been vaccinated. We have been in constant touch via video calls. My toddler hadn’t met my family in person due to the pandemic, so that was an emotional moment. My daughter had a good time with my parents and in-laws . The pandemic changed our lives in a unusual way. I have never been away from my family so long. I hope and wish things get better soon.”

‘Separation from family is harder since we had our son’

Anna Ramboldt is originally from Minnesota and lives in Linköping with wife Emilia and son Walter. She and Walter were able to travel to the US and see family over summer, though Emilia could not join them due to her employer’s rules about travel and quarantine.

“My son and I were reunited with my parents and sister – and even extended family after a bit of self-quarantine. We have always FaceTimed multiple times a week, but it’s just not the same as being able to see one another in person. I’m thankful for being vaccinated and for the opportunity to be ‘home’ again! It’s been tough. We haven’t been to Minnesota since Christmas 2019 when Walter was barely two years old. Surprisingly, he remembers things about being in Minnesota. The reunion was fantastic! My parents picked up me and my son and he ran into my moms arm’s. Not a dry eye between the four of us. It’s an amazing feeling to see your child reunited with their grandparents after one and a half years!”


Photo: Private

‘I got to see my best friend, but am still separated from my mum as she goes through cancer treatment’

An Coppens, 50, is from Belgium and commuted weekly between Stockholm and London before the pandemic. She is currently planning a trip to meet up with her Belgian parents elsewhere in Europe, and recently saw a close friend in London.

“My best friend and I met for the first time in 18 months this past weekend. We had been to her wedding in Spain 24 months ago and then I had met her a few times since in London when I travelled for work. It was great to be able to talk about the ‘shitshow’ pandemic time.

“She lost her mum to cancer and her husband lost his dad to a stroke [during the pandemic], both had to do things like quarantines on both sides because both are expats living in the UK but with parents in different countries. Because a large part of the conversation was dominated by Covid and what we missed, it felt so different to a normal catch-up. We talked about the big important things like death, disease, goals and motivations. It was beautiful to see her and her husband and have real human contact outside of my partner’s family. They are lovely, but it isn’t the same of having your own people around. I do feel as if I have become more introverted as a result of the pandemic.

“My mum was diagnosed with cancer and in a normal year, I would have gone over to stay with her and help out. All I could do was call frequently and I made a deal with a local florist to send her flowers every two weeks because she loves being out in her garden and she loves flower arranging and didn’t have the energy to do it. She has since come through her radiotherapy and operations as a cancer survivor. But for us it has been a scary time and the feeling of helplessness that you can’t do anything at all was the most frustrating. We will now finally get to see my parents after two years of meeting online only. We are planning a 10-day trip together in Portugal in September. Having booked the flights and with the arrangements being put together, it is starting to feel real.”

Thanks to all the readers who responded to our survey to share their stories. Some responses were edited for length or clarity.

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READER INSIGHTS

What schools do foreigners in Sweden send their children to and are they happy?

Most foreign parents in Sweden told The Local's survey they take advantage of the country's school choice system and send their children to international schools, or to private or non-profit free schools. Here's what they think of the quality of teaching.

What schools do foreigners in Sweden send their children to and are they happy?

Our survey was not scientific, but out of the 157 people who responded before we closed it, 65 (41 percent) sent their child or children to a standard municipally-run school which did not offer an international programme as part of their teaching. More than a third (34 percent) sent their child to an international school offering the International Baccalaureate diploma (which could be municipal, private, or non-profit).

Almost a quarter (39 respondents, 24.4 percent) sent their children to a profit-making free school. And almost a fifth (29 respondents, 18 percent) sent their child or children to a free school run by a non-profit organisation.

The survey was carried out as part of The Local’s investigation into schools in Sweden. We’ve previously published interviews with foreign teachers at the IES (Internationella Engelska Skolan, International English School) free school chain herehere, and here, and are now looking into other schools as well.

Since the “free school reform” in 1992, private and non-profit companies have been able to run schools in Sweden, with the state paying them for each pupil educated. 

The system has come under growing criticism over the past ten years.

This has partly been due to a decline in the performance of Swedish pupils compared to those of other countries in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). The system of school choice has been blamed for increasing segregation. 

In the run-up to September’s election, schools are likely to be one of the big issues. 

Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson looks set to campaign on a pledge to ban free schools – dismissed as marknadsskolan, “schools driven by market forces” – from siphoning off profits. 

“The school system we have in Sweden today, which is unique in the world and no other country has chosen to imitate, is a system which essentially drives increased segregation,” she said in an interview in the Svenska Dagbladet newspaper at the end of last month. 

“Researchers are pretty much unanimous about that. Pupils with the worst prospects are collected together in one school and those with better prospects in another.”  

Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson of the centre-left Social Democrat party. Photo: Jonas Ekströmer/TT

Swedish schools too slow 

The most common complaint from parents who answered the survey was that the pace of education at municipality-run schools was too slow, and the level of academic demands placed on their children too low. 

“[It’s] very slow-paced,” complained a US mother living in Uppsala. [The] education is several years behind grade level in the US.” 

Mangla Sekhri, an Indian mother and IT director based in Stockholm, said she had pulled her children out of the local municipality school after a year and moved them to a school run by the IES chain.

“[I] just couldn’t continue due to [the] slow pace there. It was very slow, but now at IES things are much better-paced.” 

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“The only thing which bothers me is lower expectations on the kids, compared to Poland where we come from,” said a Polish respondent. 

“She’s ahead of the other children because she’d already finished two years of school in Guernsey. They don’t give her learning materials of a high enough level without us asking them to,” complained a father from the British Isles. 

Better integration at municipal schools 

For those who had chosen to send their children to a standard, municipality-run school, the big attraction was better integration, both in Sweden and in their local neighbourhood. 

“Their peers and friends at the school are generally their neighbours as well, [so it’s] easy to hang out with school friends,” said an American living on Sweden’s northwest coast, whose four children all went through the local municipal school. 

“My now eight-year-old daughter learned Swedish within months. One year on, she’s completely fluent. She has also made many Swedish friends and has playdates several days a week,” said a British father living in Gävle. 

“If you are an immigrant and planning to settle down in Sweden then municipal schools are good options for your child to learn Swedish quickly,” agreed a dad from Bangladesh, living in Malmö. 

More flexibility and better discipline at private schools

Many of those who had chosen to send their children to a privately-run free school seemed to prize the additional flexibility and better discipline they offered. 

“My child was already three years ahead academically and was very bored in lessons (had already learned everything in maths and science in the UK), so IES let him attend higher years group classes in these subjects,” reported an English respondent living in the middle of Sweden. 

“Free schools have stricter discipline and they focus more on studies,” said a mother from Sri Lanka whose child went to a school run by the Kunskapskolan chain. 

“I like the discipline and all the support that teachers give to the students,” said a mother whose child goes to a school run by IES. 

A parent whose child went to a school run by the AcadeMedia chain, said they were drawn by the additional subjects, such as music and theatre, on offer. 

Better possibilities to study internationally and move schools if posted elsewhere

Those who chose to send their children to schools running the International Baccalaureate programme did so either because they liked the programme’s more demanding curriculum or because they were only on a short or medium-term posting to Sweden and wanted to make it easier for their children to shift their education to a new country. 

One parent, whose child went to the British International School of Stockholm, cited the “ease of transferring to a new school when moving to a new country”, and “exposure to different cultures and points of view” as advantages. 

“I love the IB. It’s one of the best but also most challenging educational systems in the world and this is widely recognised,” said one parent, whose child goes to the international school run by the Bladins Foundation in Malmö.

“Here in Malmö, the big risk is that there are no options for the final years outside the one school. If your child doesn’t achieve the academic standard required, then you are screwed.” 

Who was happiest with their choice of school? 

There was little variation in parent satisfaction between those who sent their children to a municipal, private or international school. 

The parents who sent their children to standard municipal schools rated their school on average at 7.7 out of 10. Those who sent their children to a privately run free school rated their school at 8.2, while those who sent their children to a school run by a non-profit organisation rated their children’s school the highest at 8.6. 

Those whose children went to a school running the International Baccalaureate programme rated the school on average at 8.3. 

There was slightly more variation between types of schools when parents broke down their ratings, with standard municipal schools falling further behind on the level of discipline parents perceived at their children’s schools, and also on the quality of extra-curricular activities.

  Overall Teaching Happiness of child Discipline Extra-curricular
Standard municipal 7.7 7.4 8.3 7.1 6.6
For-profit 8.2 8 8.5 7.9 7.4
Non-profit 8.6 8.6 9 8.5 7.1
International school 8.25 8.2 8.8 8 7.3

Which individual schools/chains came out tops? 

The schools which won the highest approval rating tended to be the international schools run by non-profit foundations, such as British International School Stockholm, Bladins International in Malmö, The English School Gothenburg, Sigtunaskolan, and Stockholm International School (although note that there were only one to three respondents for each of these schools). 

When it came to the for-profit free school chains, there was more variation, with some parents loving their children’s schools and others disappointed. 

Four parents sending their children to the IES chain gave the school ten out of ten, but two IES parents gave their school four or five out of ten. It was a similar story with the Kunskapskolan chain, where one parent gave an eight, another a four.

“The best thing about my child’s school is how respectful the children are towards each other,” send one parent who sent her child to an IES school. “There is a culture of the children being kind and supportive of each other. The teachers have all been amazing, and it’s been really interesting for my child to meet teachers from a huge variety of different countries.” 

Several IES parents also praised how well organised their child’s school was, with high standards of cleanliness and discipline. 

“I chose IES because the school inculcates the right values that I would like my children to have – discipline, respect for teachers, diligence in studying, academic excellence,” one wrote. 

“The staff seem genuinely interested in our concerns. The kids enjoy being there and enjoy learning,” wrote another. 

On the negative side, one noted that “teachers are not paid as well as [at] public schools”, another that “teachers are very often changing”, and another that “no proper curriculum [had been] followed”. 

In general, the most dissatisfied parents had children at municipal schools, perhaps because they were less likely to have actively chosen them. Ten respondents gave their municipality-run school a four or five overall. 

“[There is] nothing to do in their free time and an extremely low level of teaching,” complained one parent, while another complained of “incompetent staff with a lack of social-emotional intelligence”, and another of “extremely large classes”. 

“I’m not entirely sure of the quality of the education,” wrote one Irish parent. “At least one of the teachers seems to think the Republic of Ireland is part of the UK.” 

A particular complaint about municipal schools was the way teachers seemed unwilling to use imaginative and engaging teaching methods. “Some teachers are not able to engage the class with interesting teaching methods,” complained an Australian father. 

Given the level of variation in answers to The Local’s questionnaire between both the best and worst municipality-run schools and the best and worst schools run by the free school chains, it is clearly important to talk to local parents about which school in your area of Sweden seems best. 

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