By Anton Wideroth
Making new friends is hard; making new friends in a foreign language, culture, and country is much, much harder. As a result, a sad trend is emerging in Sweden and across Europe: Refugees and migrants are excluded from society and unintentionally segregated. But fear not, across the continent private citizens are committed to breaking cultural barriers and helping society with integration’s most basic building block – friendship.
From dinner clubs to football matches to mum groups, the Swedish population is organizing to build communities. They call it “friendship volunteering.” The premise is simple: a few native Swedes and a few newly arrived Swedes make contact through one of the many new organizations or social media groups and then get together.
The new movement of friendship volunteering is incredibly rewarding and helpful for both groups. For new arrivals, it provides a safe space to ask questions, practice their Swedish, and learn more about their new home. For natives, it provides a wonderful window into the world, a fun way to tackle a defining issue of our time, and the opportunity to expand their minds and social networks. It also serves a key social need.
In recent years the Swedish society has become increasingly segregated. Newly arrived Swedes tend to settle in ethnic enclaves in suburbs while native Swedes often go about their lives without knowing their new countrymen and women. Segregation is linked to more instances of xenophobia, exclusion and radicalization. Natives are increasingly tempted by the anti-immigration parties currently growing all across Europe (in recent polling the anti-immigration Swedish Democrats have received more support than any other party) and new arrivals may be tempted by radical preachers, especially on social media. If friendship volunteering continues to grow, it has the power to decrease segregation and promote mutual understanding and respect.
Segregation is not only a problem in Sweden or even Europe; it is an ugly and pervasive phenomenon all over the world. So wherever you are, I encourage you to join the movement and make new friends! Talk to a person from a different social group, invite them to dinner, laugh with them and share with them. Trust me, never has it been more fun and eye opening to make a difference.