Room at the Table

It troubled Ebba Akerman that her immigrant students felt so isolated, so she did something about it.

Updated: Sep 24, 2018 19:00:04 IST
Room at the Table

A cool breeze is coming off the Baltic Sea as I cross the walkways that connect Stockholm's Old Town to the trendy district of Sodermalm. It is a late Saturday afternoon in March, and I'm on my way to a dinner party. But this is no ordinary supper with friends. My host for the evening is social entrepreneur Ebba Akerman. And all the guests will be strangers.

Any chill I feel from the night air evaporates the minute Ebba comes to her door. It's the first time we have met in person, but the apple-cheeked 31-year-old greets me like an old friend, with compliments and a friendly handshake. I am the first of her five guests to arrive. She invites me to add my shoes to the pile already heaped under a cluttered hall table, then I follow her into the kitchen where she is washing a hotchpotch of unmatched crockery. Pots of herbs jostle for space on cluttered surfaces.

I'm here to learn about Ebba's initiative to bring immigrants and native Swedes together around the dinner table. In over two years, she has helped arrange more than 1,400 dinners in Stockholm. She calls her initiative the 'Department of Invitations'. "The name was a bit of fun," she says, "playing on the importance of democratic institutions in Sweden." But it has caught the imagination of the media and led to a degree of fame for Ebba, its self-appointed 'Minister of Dinners'. Since then there are ambassadors in 44 locations around Sweden and another 30 locations around Europe.

It all started over two years ago, when she began teaching Swedish to immigrants, a service offered free of charge as part of a two-year government introduction programme for refugees and family members. More than a quarter of a million people, including many from the war-torn Middle East and Horn of Africa, have been granted residence permits in Sweden in the last five years. Many migrants in Stockholm live on large estates of apartment blocks in the outer suburbs.

Through talking to her students, she soon discovered that few had ever visited a native Swedish person's home. "One told me that living in the suburb of Norsborg was not very different from being in Afghanistan," she says.

It troubled her that Sweden was more segregated than she thought, but she didn't know how she could help. "Then one day," she explains, "I was on a train listening to a podcast about the theory of six degrees of separation and began to wonder whether I might be the person who could connect immigrants with native Swedes."

"First, I asked my classes if they would like to have dinner with a Swede," she says. "They were a bit perplexed, but when I explained it would be a free opportunity to mix with Swedish people and practise the language, around half said they would be interested." She asked their preference for hosting or attending a dinner, phone numbers, availability and any dietary requirements. She recruited some Swedish friends and began matching people based on their preferred dates, distance from each other's homes and the age of their children if they had them.

 The first dinner in early 2014 was hosted by a family from Cameroon. It was attended by Jenny and Olof, Swedish friends of Ebba's. "I was quite nervous," says Ebba. "I was worried they might not find the place or that they wouldn't understand each other." But the dinner went well and when Jenny posted some pictures of the evening on Instagram, Ebba says it felt amazing. "I thought, 'Wow, it works'."

After a blog post that went viral and some media coverage, the idea started to take hold, and Ebba found herself inundated with people who wanted to be a part of it.

Kami Montgarde, a tall 26-year-old student with heavy black-rimmed glasses and a shock of black curls, arrives and is ushered in by Ebba. Born in Iran, he is a naturalized Swede who arrived in the country as a child. He was one of the first people to offer to host a dinner for immigrants. Sitting himself down beside me at Ebba's kitchen table, he tells me that the initiative is close to his heart because of his own family's experience as immigrants and the woman he calls his Swedish grandmother. Karin was the first Swede to invite his family to dinner after they fled Iran in 1991, he says. She tapped his mother on the shoulder during an exercise class and said, "My husband worked in Tehran, I speak your language, why don't you bring your family for a meal?"

"Karin introduced us to Swedish culture," he goes on, "inviting us for Christmas and the Swedish Midsummer celebration. Through her, we were exposed to the country's old songs and national dress. This meant that I never felt like an outsider."

It doesn't mean, however, that he felt totally relaxed about hosting a family of immigrant Afghans for dinner. "I worried they wouldn't like my cooking," he says. Ebba, who has been quietly listening to Kami's story, looks up from the work surface where she is preparing pre-dinner nibbles and rolls her eyes. "Food shouldn't be a barrier," she says, "but it is sometimes the case." One Swedish family went to the trouble of serving reindeer, prompting an involved discussion about whether it was halal (apparently it can be), she recalls, while a Macedonian couple asked their grandmother for a cooking tutorial via Skype so they wouldn't disappoint their Swedish guests.

"Why not serve macaroni?" she says, handing us tiny cups of frothy soup and crispbread canapés topped with beetroot and goat's cheese. "It should be about getting together around a table and enjoying getting to know people, who, 100 per cent for sure, you wouldn't have met if you hadn't had dinner."

By now, another Swedish friend of Ebba's, Ellen Leijonhufvud, a 31-year-old digital planner, has arrived and two more guests from Afghanistan call to say they are nearly there after getting a bit lost on the way. The kitchen is getting crowded, and Ebba gently ushers us into the living room to help prepare the table. We shift a table to the middle of the room, opening its leaves to make it longer.

She puts a Billie Holiday record on an old-fashioned turntable and returns to the kitchen. I follow to see if she needs any help with the food. She doesn't: plates of mixed vegetables, rice, noodles and something delicious involving cashew nuts and mushrooms are all coming together in her capable hands.

Nematullah Rohid and Murtaza Bigzada are the last guests to arrive. The two friends, both single men in their early 20s, met in Stockholm after escaping Afghanistan. Rohid knows Ebba from language classes and his deep brown eyes light up as they greet each other warmly. She teases him about getting lost and he acts out a scene where he and Murtaza peep through windows to see if they have found Ebba's flat. Murtaza tuts and shakes his head like the straight man in a double act, a mixture of admiration and disapproval written all over his broad face and in his almond-shaped eyes.

Ebba invites us to sit at the dining table. I sit next to Murtaza and across the table from Rohid, as he prefers to be called, who explains that he spent his late teens working as a translator for the US military. "That is why I had to leave Afghanistan," he explains. "The Taliban was targeting people like me. I feared for my life and came to Europe any way I could: by road, on foot and even swimming."

He made for Sweden after hearing about its welcoming immigration policies; his first impression was indeed positive. "When I arrived in Stockholm in 2013, I asked a woman for directions. She smiled and offered to buy me a burger. It was the first time that anyone in Europe had smiled at me like that."

He spent his first seven months in Sweden in an asylum camp with no money or papers. Now he says, "I'm really keen to mix more in Swedish society."

While Rohid has been talking, Ebba has been bringing the food to the table, occasionally interrupting to explain each dish and to tell us to serve ourselves. Now, sitting down for the first time, she encourages Murtaza to tell us his story too. He explains that he left his home for a better life in Sweden. Now he is studying business accounting and hopes one day to start a business that bridges Sweden and Afghanistan.

Rohid's infectious humour and lively banter lighten the mood around the dining table. Ebba pours wine for those who want it and tea for those who don't. We toast each other with a Swedish "skal!" and chat about foreign dating etiquette, Stockholm nightlife and whether immigrants should adopt local dress.

Ebba disappears into the kitchen and re-emerges with pudding. Meringue Swish," she says, holding up a confection of meringue, vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, banana and chocolate sauce, a typical Swedish recipe, she tells us.

No one turns it down and the conversation shifts to our favourite national foods. And then, inevitably, to what Rohid and Murtaza miss about their homes. Rohid recalls some harrowing episodes of the Afghan war and says he is working on an anti-racism storytelling project with the Fryshuset youth centre in Stockholm, where he talks to young people about his experiences.

It is past 10 p.m. and Billie Holiday's voice is fading away to a hiss on the record player. Ebba's energy also seems to be waning and there is an unspoken agreement among her guests that it is time to leave. She hugs us all and refuses my offer of help with the washing up. "That can wait." A little bit of her warmth stays with me as I button up my coat against the evening chill.

As I wander back through the residential streets, I reflect on the immigrants' plight, and Rohid's poignant comment: "Having dinner with Swedish people helps me to feel normal." Dinner by dinner, Ebba's Department of Invitations is helping many others to feel more at ease in their adopted country.

Ebba's initiative is now spreading beyond Stockholm to other Swedish cities, as well as to Switzerland, Austria and Germany. She has created the umbrella name United Invitations for those who want to facilitate dinners in their communities. 

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