Malmö is one of Sweden’s youngest cities— with the majority of the population under 35— and also one of its most diverse. Located in the southwestern tip of Sweden, it’s a vibrant hub for new immigrants and a community with the strength and potential of true diversity. A history of open door for immigrants is interwoven into the city’s legacy and demographics: 41% living in Malmö have foreign descent and a large part of the population are Muslim.
Malmö is actually the city my own father immigrated to in the 1970s when he left Communist Poland. He found work in the industrial shipyards and in a year made enough money to pay for his passage to America. Last week I took the 45-minute plane ride from Stockholm to Malmö to visit the city for two days and experience several inspiring initiatives focused on multiculturalism and entrepreneurship.
“Framtidsgeneration”, or Future Generation, is an initiative founded by former Parliamentarian and entrepreneur Luciano Astudillo and businessman Daniel Sachs. The focus of this program is reaching out to young people on issues that bring them together not divide them. The goal is fighting antisemitism, Islamophobia and all forms of hatred. The first step in this initiative was one I had the pleasure to experience: a performance of “The Third Generation”, a play that’s traveled around the world highlighting the young generation affected of Jews and Muslims residing in the Middle East, as well as Europeans connected to the Holocaust.
In a multitude of vignettes, the actors discussed raw emotions of guilt, resentment, anger, confusion and bigotry surrounding the biases that come with their conflicting pasts and religions. The play demonstrated that although it can be challenging, it’s exceedingly necessary and inspiring to work hard together to find spaces and issues where we as humanity can connect, relate and communicate—issues and passions that unite us— and accept those that have divided us in the past.
The play is just one step in a holistic approach toward mutual understanding and advancement of diversity. The second step was one I learned more about the following day: empowerment through entrepreneurship. Uppstart Malmö is a public-private partnership with a three pronged approach: helping nascent and growing businesses expand, recruitment and outreach. Malmö suffers from high unemployment among new immigrants and high youth unemployment. By using private partners to coach and advise growing businesses as well as invest in them, and using young diaspora leaders to communities and match skills for young workers, Uppstart Malmö has created 1000 jobs in less than five years.
It’s not about just celebrating diversity, it’s about finding jobs, according to 27-year-old Hasan who is in charge of delving into communities that can be quite isolated and helping young people get their first job. This is no-talk, all-action approach has especially helped many young women who culturally may not have finished school or have very demanding responsibilities at home, like taking care of several children or aging parents.
I saw the result of this proactive guidance on my last stop in Malmö which landed me in the immigrant-rich neighborhood of Rosengard. There I visited Yalla Trappan a business engaged in catering, sewing, massage, a restaurant space, marmalade-making and maximizing just about every skill of its wonderful female workforce. Stepping into this magical place, I really felt the most authentic form of women’s empowerment in my bones and going on all around me.
Yalla Trappan resides in what was an old apartment building, and stepping inside one feels cozy and at home. The “butik” bearing hand-sewn, colorful Ipad bags (some of which will go to IKEA) and “burkini’s” leads into a small restaurant space and wonderful kitchen brimming with vibrancy, a slew of languages and amazing scents of Middle Eastern food!
Although the fig marmalade is renowned around the city and the feta filled puffs are mouth-watering, the true treasure of Yalla Trappan is it’s amazing group of women. Hailing from Poland, Lebanon, Iraq, Kosovo, Palestine, Macedonia and Pakistan, they have come together in the joy of work and womanhood, leaving differences of language, culture, religion or politics behind. Most have four or five children to take care of, and have had harrowing journeys that have brought them to Sweden. But the positive energy radiating from them was unbelievable.
Not only does Yalla Trappan provide the women a place to work but there is also weekly tutoring in Swedish language. Leaving the 5-room space after a lunch filled with spicy herbs and delicious breads, I felt a hope and optimism that only comes from unity and a will to overcome. Thank you Malmö for opening my eyes and giving me inspiration!