#11 youth
Alice Kohn

Fighting Intolerance

A young entrepreneur has found a way to turn Sweden's problems with foreigners into an opportunity for immigrants as well as Swedish businesses.

For those who claim that you cannot change the world since you cannot change the people in it, the story of Sofia Appelgren is evidence that change and insight can be introduced into a close-knit society with nothing more than a strong will to help others and a practical approach.

From a very young age, Sofia Appelgren has thought of herself a business woman. Even before she has turned 20, she had already founded a party-planning business and designed clothes for a local shop.

A native Swede born in Goteborg and with a degree in communications from a Swedish university, Appelgren had never given discrimination in the Swedish job market much thought until she met her Turkish husband. As she witnessed his struggle to find a job – her husband Sadar was even told once that he should change his name to something more Swedish-sounding to improve his chances of getting invited to job interviews – she realized how much the country's close-knit labour market discriminated against foreigners.

Sweden's record on labour market integration is the second worst in Europe

In 2012, a study completed by Stockholm University revealed that Sweden is the second worst country in Europe when it comes to labour market integration. This is mainly attributed to the prejudice directed at foreigners by many Swedish businesses along with the fact that eight out of ten jobs are secured through relationships in Sweden. In recent years immigrants have been pushed out into the suburbs, where they live in segregated communities with no close contact to mainstream Swedish society. This isolation denies them potential routes into the working world, leading to a kind of "invisible wall" immigrants are confronted with when trying to find employment.

This was the beginning of a success story.

"When I first witnessed the challenges immigrants face from up close, it surprised me," Sofia reports. "I wanted to contribute to change, but in a practical way." She came up with an idea for bringing immigrants and Swedish companies together in a way that would be beneficial for both and presented her idea to her city council. But in a country with a strong traditional belief in the welfare state's ability to solve social problems, there is no wide-spread recognition of the need for non-governmental initiatives. The council refused to provide her with funding, but she was referred to five other business contacts. She was lucky: one of them liked her idea and gave her the budget to try her "Mitt Liv" (My Life) programme for one year. This was the beginning of a success story. The programme, which started out with 20 participants, already has 200 participants lined up for the coming summer. In early May another office opened in Stockholm, and a third is planned for Malmo.

Swedish companies actually need immigrants

The key to Sofia's idea was her realization that Swedish companies really needed immigrants. Statistics show that in two years 27% of everyone between the ages of 18 and 64 living in Sweden will have a foreign background. "Companies have to understand that the national market is changing. They cannot face the future without including people who immigrated to Sweden," according to the 30-year-old.

"Companies have to understand that the national market is changing. They cannot face the future without including people who immigrated to Sweden."

Mitt Liv is a mutually beneficial mentorship model. Each year the programme picks young, driven immigrants to participate. They need to know a little Swedish and require a great deal of help in their careers. Each participant is offered mentorship from one of Sweden's traditional companies. So far 24 firms have come on board at Mitt Liv. The young immigrants meet with their mentors at least two to three times a month during the one-year programme. Participant and mentor are matched based on common interests and career paths. The mentor introduces the participant to Swedish working life, organizes company visits, and provides tips for the future application process. But most importantly, the participant ultimately attains those all-important contacts inside the Swedish professional world.

In return the participant provides knowledge about his or her culture and language skills by giving workshops, lectures, or organizing consumer surveys for the company. The company pays for the privilege of working with the immigrants. These payments have allowed Mitt Liv to become self-supporting. And it makes the participant feel like an equal partner who doesn't just receive help, but also contributes to the company.

"What we want is to break the prejudices by changing the mind-set from seeing migration as a problem into seeing it as a resource, an opportunity," Sofia says. "The immigrant pattern in Sweden changes from year to year. Lately we have had many war refugees arriving from Iraq and Syria. Many of them are highly educated." Like Muhammad, a young IT-engineer from Iraq. When he came to Sweden he initially earned a living as a taxi driver. This year he is participating in Mitt Liv's programme at Volvo. Now there has been talk about having him stay on at the company after the programme is over.

Mitt Liv has taken an unexpected but welcome turn

Over the six years of its existence the organization has undergone some changes. At the beginning it just worked with girls from high school. Thanks to new data that showed that the challenges immigrants face are almost equal for both genders, it now accepts men as well.

Today the focus is more on immigrants with a university diploma, since they have more to contribute to a company and are more likely to be offered a job as well. Mitt Liv's records show that 42% per cent of all former participants found a job. Over half the participants have stayed in contact with their mentors after finishing the programme, and 82% per cent want to contribute to and be an active part of Mitt Liv.

Sofia finds this last figure especially gratifying: "We are creating a wide network for immigrants. Former participants introduce their friends or family members as potential participants and they help each other in finding jobs through the contacts they have to the companies." And this is probably the most remarkable development in the organization: Companies are beginning to see Mitt Liv as a recruiting channel. They consult with the organization when looking for certain professional and language skills.

The problems we are facing in Sweden are the same as in other countries. We have had requests from countries such as Hungary or France.

This has enabled Mitt Liv be instrumental in writing even more success stories, like that of Aki, a young Japanese woman, who was unemployed for five years before finally finding a full time job as a receptionist at the Länsförsäkringar insurance company. SEB, Sweden's biggest bank, has chosen four Mitt Liv participants for their trainee programme, and the list goes on and on. "These driven, well-educated young people are our ambassadors for breaking down prejudices," Sofia notes with great enthusiasm before adding: "The problems we are facing in Sweden are the same as in other countries. We have had requests from countries such as Hungary or France. We don't plan to extend to other countries, but we hope that there are people who get inspired by our idea and maybe start an organization like Mitt Liv themselves."

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