Ebba Akerman is the founder of United Invitations Welcome Dinners, which seeks to foster understanding and integration of immigrants into their new country by inviting them over for dinner. The movement was brought to Ireland, with ChangeX at the helm, in 2016.
Recently the interest for the initiative welcoming migrants has grown in the US. More than 30 people from Minnesota applied to host a Welcome Dinner in just one week as part of the “Minnesota Welcomes” campaign.
Ebba Akerman, was teaching Swedish to migrant students in Stockholm, Sweden, when she realised that, without having the chance to meet native Swedes, there was little chance of them getting a good grasp of the language. With the language schools mainly based in the outskirts of Stockholm, and most of the Swedes segregated in the centre of Stockholm, the likelihood of the two socialising on any level was close to zero.
Speaking to ChangeX from her home in Stockholm, Ebba says that the solution to the issue came to her was a very simple one – get established Swedes and new Swedes eating together. “A lot of my students would invite me to birthday parties or cultural festivals, and I really got to experience this amazing world that I didn’t know existed in Stockholm. The way I was included in their communities was the way I wished more people were included in the Swedish society. So the idea basically came from them and the hospitality I was shown as a new person in their lives.”
The way I was included in their communities was the way I wished more people were included in the Swedish society. So the idea basically came from them and the hospitality I was shown as a new person in their lives.
With a rising right wing party movement taking off in Sweden at the time, Ebba also felt that there was very little meaningful dialogue around immigration. People were stating if they were for, or against immigration, but the opinions in no way reflected the experiences or realities of her students, she says. ‘I knew that if more people could find out what it’s like to be new in Sweden, then we could improve on it. How do you find out about what it’s like to be new in Sweden? You talk to people and you get to know someone who’s doing this journey.’
And so in early Spring of 2014, she printed out a piece of paper with the following questions; ‘Do you want to host or do you want to be a guest?’ ‘Where do you live?’ ‘What days are good for you?’ ‘˜Is there something that you don’t eat?’ ‘What’s your phone number?’. From there, she began to mix and match people together from her class, with those who replied to a Facebook and Instagram post asking if anyone would like to host her students.
Word spread quickly, more people got in touch saying they’d like to take part too, the social media following expanded, and after a number of TV appearances, that number turned to hundreds of applications from all parts of Sweden. Two years on and there are now ambassadors in 44 locations around Sweden and another 30 locations around Europe.
A firm believer that zenophobia and social exclusion can be eradicated by people simply meeting each other, what better way than the dinner table for such a setting? ‘At the dinner table, no one is doing anyone a favour; you’re sharing a meal. This is something we do all the time with friends. If you were to invite me for dinner, you wouldn’t say, ‘˜I’m going to charge you this much’ ‘˜I’m really helping you out here’. You’re just cooking for yourself and you’re sharing it. It’s a very basic, human thing to share food. In the same setting, you’re also sharing your opinions and values and all those important factors in how we build our societies.’
‘No matter how simple it seems, I really believe that we can forgo zenophobia as well as social exclusion by meeting each other and for that, the dinner table is such a great setting.’
United Invitations has been an extraordinary success. After each dinner, a survey is sent out to all those who have taken part. In this, 98 per cent of Swedes who have hosted dinners say they feel that they’ve contributed to a more inclusive society. For the new Swedes, 99 per cent say they feel much more welcome in Sweden. ‘And that’s after one dinner’ exclaims Ebba. ‘So besides the fact that your Swedish language skills might improve, you’ve learnt something new about another culture or you have a better understanding of what it’s like to live in Sweden – and all of those rate really high – the fact that we’re working towards a more inclusive society is the one that suggests that something is actually happens here.’
For the new Swedes, 99 per cent say they feel much more welcome in Sweden
So what has Ebba learnt from her experience of setting up one of Europe’s fastest-growing movements of integration? ‘I think I’ve learned how easy it is to create change and start something. One of my greatest achievements is that, in the beginning, people were like; ‘Ebba has this crazy idea, she wants you to invite a stranger for dinner’, or ‘she wants you to go to a stranger’s house for dinner’. Then it reached a tipping point and it’s now accepted behaviour. It’s just about people meeting – if we can create so much good from just that, then why not do it?’
Together with United Invitations (Sweden), ChangeX is spreading ‘Welcome Dinners’ in the US and Ireland. To find out more about how to get involved as either a host or an attendee visit www.changex.org/unitedinvitations.