During the year of grace 2013, I worked as a Swedish for immigrants language teacher in the outskirts of my hometown Stockholm. Sweden is statistically multicultural, with roughly one-fifth of the population being born abroad or with both parents being born abroad. As a society though, it leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to integration. The municipality where I was working, still has Sweden's second highest immigrant population per capita at nearly 40%. When I met one student on the metro and asked if he enjoyed living there, his reply was "Nah. Norsborg, Afghanistan. Same thing."
Ironically, meeting native Swedes is a common difficulty among those who move to Sweden. Besides offering insights like this, the students invited me to dinners and birthday parties. The way I was included in their cultures, that was how I wished more people got included into the Swedish society.
So, the idea of United Invitations (in Swedish it's Invitationsdepartementet) really came from them. It's an initiative where immigrants who study Swedish are invited to the homes of native Swedes for dinner, or vice versa. A dinner that is free of charge for the guest, served at home and takes place with no further obligations then to meet and eat this one time. If you become friends - that's great, and around 25% of participants do. But we also believe that anyone is nice enough to have dinner with, at least once.
After one of the initial dinners, a guest from Pakistan told me that this was the first time during his two years in Sweden that he had been invited to a native's house for dinner. I remember finding that remarkable. Since then I've heard of the first invitations in seven, nine, eleven years. A woman from Eritrea, who for the first time after 20 years had dinner at a Swedish couple's home, asked if someone were paying them to do this. The answer is no, as no one pays or gets paid to participate and the host cooks the food at their own expense.
The idea of sharing food is ancient and anyone can start their own chapter. What began with a simple invitation handed out in a few classes, eventually grew into initiatives in 44 locations in Sweden and another thirty something around Europe. In Stockholm we had 200 dinners the first year, three times as many the following year, and another 600 already this year. And yet a city of nearly a million inhabitants, so much more can be done.
I am fully aware of the larger challenges facing the Swedish society as a whole, with lack of housing, access to labour markets and polarized political views. But when it comes to integration - have we even tried, if we haven't even shared meal?
Sweden, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Eritrea. Well, same thing when it comes to a love for food. By sharing meatballs, biryani, injera, we also share our values, opinions and, maybe most importantly, our time.
This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post to mark the occasion of two critical conferences at the UN on the Refugee and Migrant crisis: the UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants (Sept. 19th, a UN conference) and the Leaders Summit on Refugees (Sept. 20th, hosted by U.S. Pres. Barack Obama, at the UN). To see all the posts in the series, visit here. To follow the conversation on Twitter, see #UN4RefugeesMigrants.