In 2015, Sweden received more refugees than any other EU country, except for Germany. Of the 163,000 refugees that arrived into Sweden (a country of 10 million people) that year, 25% or 35,000 were unaccompanied minors, young people without families. Volunteering to help refugees with food and shelter soared, and often young Swedes welcomed the refugees.

For Madeleine Ströje-Wilkens, an AFS Sweden volunteer, this was a turning point and a significant inspiration to act. Having been an AFS exchange student herself (Sweden to USA, 1959), and a lifelong diplomat (having served as the Swedish ambassador to Argentina, Chile and Iceland), Madeleine knew the importance of using intercultural learning to integrate these newcomers to her community. Madeleine explains more in her interview for AFS Now.


What inspired you to start volunteering to integrate refugees?

When my community Hammarö agreed to receive refugees, many people volunteered in different ways. We started with generous Christmas parties and gifts. Then we launched a Fikafé, a café in a church-owned place, where volunteers serve sandwiches and coffee/tea, chat in Swedish and give assistance with schoolwork to refugees every Monday for two hours. Since the volunteers there were mostly retired people and many of the refugees were young, I invited young Swedish students and our AFS exchange students to come and join these activities, and share more about their experiences. Many Afghan boys have also presented to the group about Afghanistan and its customs, like weddings, dances and kite building.

How did you integrate refugees in AFS activities?

After getting to know the young refugees I invited them to the excursions and activities which our local AFS chapter organizes for our AFS exchange students. Three years ago I invited four asylum seeking boys to our mid-stay camp with more than 20 AFS students from different countries. It was appreciated by all and led to deeper discussions about cultural differences.

My local Värmland AFS chapter has increased the number of youth refugees that we invite to our AFS activities and even started weekends mainly for refugee youth. Last weekend we had 17 refugees, some unaccompanied with permission to stay in the country and study, some with families with permanent residence, and some still waiting for the response from our immigration authorities. They come from Afghanistan, Syria and the Democratic Republic of Congo. AFS volunteers from different parts of Sweden came to learn how we work and also Nordic AFSers will join us next time.

What methods do we use in the integration seminars? Basically, we use the same AFS intercultural learning tools as for our exchange students. The iceberg model of culture is just as relevant as is the Describe, Interpret, Verify, Evaluate (D.I.V.E.) model we use as a tool to suspend judgement and tackle prejudice. We work in small groups, with flexible and innovative volunteers. We focus more on role-plays, energizers, presentations, YouTube films and a bit less on theory. Look up Swedish fika on YouTube to get a good idea!

What results have you seen as an impact of your activities with the refugees – on them, other AFSers, the local community?

I find that integration is a subject that attracts new volunteers and new people to AFS goals. It makes our own exchange students consider the difference in opportunities and cultures, it teaches them about immigration issues first hand, and the multiculturalism of Swedish society.

It is fairly easy to get Swedes to donate and meet with asylum seekers; but almost impossible to make them receive them in their homes. However, real integration starts there, where we can explain our unwritten rules and a country which is one of the most different ones to their own: in terms of gender roles, economy, role of religion, the relationship between teachers and students, individualism, egalitarianism, etc. The challenges are big, both for the immigrants and for Swedes.

I have arranged overnight stays with Swedish families for the refugee boys and permanent contacts have thus been established. One Afghan young man has even remained in one family. When I asked the Swedish mother a year later how it worked with Shukrullah she answered: “Oh, nowadays it is only the normal problem of getting a teenager to wake up in time for school.” Another boy from Eritrea is now a constant guest at the house where one girl started volunteering at our AFS camp. Brahne fishes with the younger brother and the father of the family is teaching him how to drive a car. Sofia and Ola, who have hosted one Japanese boy and one French girl with AFS, hosted Ashgar and Ahmad for one night. Afterwards, their main impression of the boys was that “they asked so many questions and were so interested in our job and life experiences”.

How have you cooperated with other organizations and the local council to make these activities possible?

By introducing AFS activities to other organizations I have started cooperation with the Red Cross, Save the Children, other educational organizations and the local authorities. They often ask me to cooperate saying: “You always bring the youth, we need them!” AFS and our activities and aims have become visible more generally in our community.

In the beginning, we received some funds from the local Council, and now we will seek state funding for integration, given that we are tackling a major challenge to all of Sweden. For our last seminar we received funds from the Council of Europe, via the European Federation for Intercultural Learning (EFIL) the European umbrella organization for AFS, and AFS Sweden also contributed. The local council helps is promote our activities and reach the immigrant families, while a Swedish educational organization “Medborgarskolan”, helps us by providing meeting space, logistical and promotional support.

At our last seminar Swedish Public TV came as well as the local newspaper and gave us excellent coverage. The TV coverage particularly noted “how the eyes were shining when Mohsen said he had stayed overnight in a Swedish family and made great contact with the brother of the family”.

We challenge other organizations and AFS volunteers around the world to join us and start such activities in their local communities. This is one of the best ways to continue the legacy and field work of the founders of AFS and use our intercultural expertise in local communities.

Read more in AFS Now