Can Europe Make It?

Professional skill-sharing should be at the heart of refugee inclusion

Programmes such as 'Swedish for Professionals' pave the way in providing practical support for recent migrants, as well as ensuring wider social inclusion.

Katarina Stiessel Fonseca
21 December 2016
Mohamed Hassan Dirige, teacher in Dadaab refugee camp, Kenya

Mohamed Hassan Dirige, teacher in Dadaab refugee camp, Kenya. Photo: Oxfam. Flickr. Some rights reserved.How can a migrant arriving in a new culture with a different language, or a refugee just granted asylum, preserve a professional identity? How can a migrant or refugee recipient society capture and employ the potential, the skills and tremendous human resources that newcomers bring?

Sfx, ‘Swedish for professionals’, is an ongoing attempt to provide possible and practical answers to just such questions. In Stockholm county, ten educational programs combining Swedish language studies with vocational courses, fieldwork, study visits etc. are designed to show, teach and guide newcomers to how their profession is organized and how their work field functions in Sweden.

The programs have been running for some 15 years and every year over 1000 students are enrolled. The programs include academic as well as non-academic professions. All the programs are organized and offered by public local adult education providers. Sfx relies on cooperation between the municipalities and are promoted and coordinated at the regional level where both the County Administrative Board of Stockholm and the Stockholm County Association of Local Authorities have important roles to play.

All the 26 local authorities have signed an agreement, and a letter of intent, stating that all eligible students who match the respective program’s requirements and wish to pursue his/her studies at an Sfx centre should have the right to do so, regardless of municipality of residence.

The first Sfx program started in the year 2000, initially with project funding, for the medical professions. Today around 100 doctors, dentists, nurses, physiotherapists and pharmacists are studying in the municipality of Södertälje. They are medical professionals who come from all over the world and who are residents in different municipalities around the county of Stockholm. All come to study Swedish language and learn about the Swedish health care system - about its regulations as well as its culture.

The other academic professions that have their own Sfx-programs are so far: teachers, engineers, economists and lawyers and some social scientists. The Sfx for IT programmers and for entrepreneurs can include students with background in higher education or with a more vocational profile.

There are non-academic programs training people to become bus drivers, lorry drivers and skilled craftsmen such as electricians, painters, welders, tilers, mechanics, and carpenters. All of the Sfx courses employ methods used in the regular adult educations system, following the official curriculum for Swedish for immigrants and Swedish as a second language. In addition, the programme provides courses and other activities that aim to convey understanding of the migrants' professions' way of operating in Sweden.

These courses are developed in coordination with pre-existing bodies such as unions (for mentoring programs), or institutions of higher education (for further studies and orientation) and industry associations (for the validation of skills etc.) are used. Some programs also cooperate with employers, to make the programs adequate for employment, for internships and for recruiting students to available jobs.

A key element in transferring skills from one geographical, political and cultural context to another is the assessment of previous qualifications. In the example of the medical professions the newcomers need to submit the documentation of their qualifications to the The National Board of Health and Welfare to have them evaluated.

As a result of that validation process they receive a reply from the board that is stating what is their equivalent title or competence in Sweden and what are the additional courses, tests and/or probationary work that is required in order to have their full professional licenses to practice medicine in Sweden. Most other recognition of foreign qualifications is provided by The Swedish Council for Higher Education, although teachers also need to go through The Swedish National Agency for Education.

On the whole, Sweden is hardly a country that easily accepts and employs professionals that are shaped and formed within other systems, and who operate with frames of reference other than the Scandinavian. However, the last four decades have changed at least urban areas into more multicultural zones with somewhat more cosmopolitan attitudes.

The important role of cities in welcoming refugees is quite obvious in Sweden. To be more specific: the initial reception and the period of asylum processing in temporary accommodation can take place almost anywhere. But the faster development of methods to teach Swedish in combination with equipping the newcomer enough to enter the labor market usually requires the larger numbers of participants, more available workplaces and higher tolerance for diversity.

To be fair in the description it should be mentioned that there are also extraordinary initiatives for newcomers taking place outside urban or suburban areas. Today’s labor market with a strong need to recruit skilled labor in many different fields is a driving factor especially for cities to see, and try to make use of, the potential of the large number of arriving refugees.

In order to do with, we might prefer to use ‘Inclusion’, instead of the more insidious ’integration’, which always seems to end up with the newcomer having to do all the adaptation, rather than it being a two-way process. This is happening - or not happening - depending both on policies and political priorities taken at a local and national level, but also ultimately on individual choices, behavior and attitudes.

Those two inevitably also interact with each other. Receiving a new-in-the-country colleague in a productive/constructive way requires some dose of open minded approach and the situation is ideally nourished through genuine curiosity. The employers and other people involved, hopefully, are not expecting the new college to reason and operate identically, or very similar, to someone native to the culture - but this different approach can provide learning opportunities for local businesses and workers as well as for newcomers.

The greatest value that someone coming from outside might be bringing is sometimes exactly that different experience that make them perceive other possibilities, solutions or obstacles than the native colleague. A newcomer is by definition something a person can only be called during a limited period of time, it is a passing stage, and it is of course arbitrary how long someone can be seen as such.

There can be a long or short stretch between being newly arrived, an immigrant or just foreign born. If focus lies on inclusion and on seeing the individual as a professional much is gained. Sfx is one example of that aspiration, an example that hopefully allows its former students to be good examples of finding a way in the new country, using their professional identity.

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