Summer has left us with barely a whisper, and September has ushered in a wave of heightened engagement and energized activity. Yesterday in the crisp Fall sunshine, we visited arguably one of the largest youth activity centers in the world, Fryshuset. Youth engagement focused around open dialogue, inclusivity and tolerance is a pillar for U.S. Embassy Stockholm’s outreach and a personal passion of mine. In a week where the United States diplomatic community has faced such tremendous losses, the work Fryshuset performs is an unparalleled public service to ensure a safer future.
Stepping into the grand corridors of what was an old freezing warehouse [hence the name “Fryshuset”], we saw these objectives come to life in the inspiring work Fryshuset, its 400 employees and more than 2,000 youth participate in on a daily basis. It was an astoundingly motivational afternoon, and forced me to ask myself: How can I be a better citizen? What more can I do to give back and affect positive change?
Passion and proactivity serve as the foundation for the authentic relationships Fryshuset’s employees seek to form with the almost 15,000 youth they reach in 3 cities— Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmo— within Sweden. Passion brings young people together around sports, theater or music, and proactivity, or the will to act and act swiftly and decisively, creates a cohesive responsiveness on the side of the volunteers and employees to help young people realize their identities and reject extremism and violence.
Fryshuset was founded 30 years ago for a group of kids who desperately needed a place to gather and play basketball. Today, the massive complex has two large basketball courts where concerts are often held, vast spaces for conferences, a bright cafeteria and three schools. They have a fantastic basketball team, with 50 percent female participation, who were shooting 3-pointers with ease as we toured the facilities.
Fryshuset employs a holistic approach toward youth engagement with specific niche programs that cut to the core of relating with young people. “Easy Street” is aimed at youth ensconced in gangs and employs former gang members and other young people from similar communities to connect with the young people in need. “Scenarios” utilized short feature films to address gender issues, and there is also a separate program to connect with and provide guidance to young people trapped in right-wing extremist and Neo-Nazi groups.
Fryshuset sensed there was a bubbling issue with right-wing extremism, and the non-profit along with the government, really focused on reaching out to these young people and giving them a new sense of purpose and identity. According to counselors at Fryshuset, there is also a great level of cooperation with American non-profits focusing on similar issues, and many of the counselors we met with had just returned from a fact-finding, informational trip to New York City. Thanks to grants by the U.S. Embassy here, Fryshuset is sending a group of young people to New York City in the spring to further these efforts and discuss best practices in an interfaith setting.
Fostering a common ground based on our similarities as human beings not our differences, is one way the counselors at Fryshuset have been able to use their programs to galvanize interfaith dialogue and combat gangs, right-wing extremism and hate crimes. Their embrace of diversity could be seen in the mystical stained-glass windows emblazoned with a diverse set of religious symbols images that adorned the courts and shone over the children playing each day as a living symbol. Standing in a circle with a young Imam from Jordan, a female priest, a Swede of immigrant background who studied criminal justice in New York City and several Swedes who grew up in Stockholm, I felt a sense of pride at how far we have come as global citizens and also that there is a strong acknowledgement of the hard work we still need to do and a strong will to do it.
Today, Americans everywhere are mourning for the loss of our public servants in Libya, but hopefully we can come together around a unity of purpose to overcome hate and continue to believe in our shared humanity.