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This text was delivered as keynote speech at the conference organised by the International association for educational and vocational guidance (IAEVG) in Gothenburg on October 2, 2018. The speech should be seen as a draft. The text is made public for those who are interested to know more about our current research program on migration, learning and social inclusion.
Hossein is 17 years old and came to Sweden in 2015 as an unaccompanied minor. He was born in Afghanistan but raised by his mother in Iran. The family was very poor so Hossein had to work at construction sites as well as in people’s homes with household chores. He also collected garbage. In one of the families where he worked, he learnt to read and write. Besides that, he has no prior educational experience before coming to Sweden. Hossein is positive towards his current studies but he would like to study more together with Swedish students as this might support his language learning. Hossein doesn’t believe that he learns that much Swedish in the current introductory class. His goal is to apply for a national vocational program. However, he is worried as he hasn’t yet received a resident permit. Currently, he is waiting for a decision on his appeal to the migration court. Such worries occupy his thoughts and is negative for his concentration. During leisure time, Hossein partake in some exercise activities, but most often he is at home. He stays with a Swedish family with whom he thrives. Besides the Swedish family, it’s hard to find Swedish friends.
Nada is 18 years old. She came to Sweden as asylum seeker from Syria together with her mother and younger siblings. Her father was then already an asylum seeker in Sweden. Now the entire family have received a permanent resident permit. Nada and her family are state less Palestinians. She has 10-year experience of schooling from Syria. For Nadia, it is important to study in order to get grades, an experience she brings with her from Syria. As she wasn’t very happy with the school she was originally placed at – it was disorderly and she didn’t learn much – she contacted the public servant for school placements in order to change school – a school where she currently is. Although she is very happy with her teachers and their teaching, Nada feels as the years pass by without any educational progress. Her favourite subject is history and her dream is to become a lawyer. But as such goal requires a long time at the university, as well as grades in 12 subjects from her current school (she currently only have grades in 10 subjects) she might instead go for becoming a teacher, or something in economy or commerce. Thus, she will probably apply for a national upper secondary vocational program. Nada spends a lot of time with her family. She often feels tired and withdraw to her room. “It’s not as it used to be” Nada tells us, “same things every day, you wake up, go to school, eat and sleep”. Previously she thought much about her future, but not anymore. She tells us that when she came to Sweden, she had a tough time. She really wanted to manage her studies, get into a national program at upper secondary school, apply for the university, get many friends and do many things. But now she has no energy, she tells us. Now, she just wants the days to pass by.
These are just two stories of so far 120, that we have encountered in our ongoing research program on migration, learning and social inclusion. Stories by the asylum seekers and migrants themselves. These stories contain experiences of hardship and challenges, past as well as present, but also experiences of ambition here and now as well as hope for the future. From being forced to flee their homes, coming to a new country far away, these asylum seekers have been put in a waiting hall, for some for several years, waiting for a decision on their application for the right to stay in Sweden. During such wait, migrant youths, 16-19 years old, are put in programs in the upper secondary school called introductory programs, where they should learn the language, and study some other subjects, in order to become eligible to apply for a national program on upper secondary level. For many, the path is long, and they will never be able to enter such program before they become adults. For them, the next phase would be to enter adult education institutions such as municipal adult education and folk high schools.
For those asylum seekers coming to Sweden as adults, no specific education institution has been open to them. They have been left to stay at their refugee accommodation or the equivalent, waiting for a decision on their asylum application, maybe combined with activities organized by the Swedish migration authorities. However, with the migration movements during 2015, the Swedish government put in a lot of funding directed towards study associations and folk high schools in order to provide study circles for adult asylum seekers in what is called Swedish from day 1. These circles aimed to provide introduction to Swedish language and society. Study associations, whom have infrastructure built up across the 290 municipalities in Sweden, were mobilized, and by the end of 2017, more than half of all asylum seekers coming to Sweden from 2015 and onwards had participated in these study circles. In terms of participation rates, these circles were successful and one might even argue, impressive. However, did the circles really matter?
Maybe a bit over simplified, such question is too often answered by engaging researchers and policy analysists conducting quantifiable register studies, in order to identify if certain educational measures were successful, in terms of for example, labour market engagement and salary development over time. Such studies may of course be important, not the least for policy makers in order to define what is good or bad investments in terms of education within such economically driven definition. However, for us, such approach, and once again, maybe a bit oversimplified on my part, does not really provide the nitty gritty of what kinds of activities, practices and people that do indeed matter in migrants process towards potential social inclusion. This latter issue is what is in focus in the research program we are currently working with.
Setting the scene – Sweden 2018
During 2014 to 2016, Sweden had one of the highest rates of migrants seeking refuge in the world, counted per capita in relation to the total population. Calls were made that Sweden were not going to be able to handle the situation, and Sweden thus went from a situation of having one of the most generous immigration laws, into becoming one of the countries with the harshest ones. Established parties picked up rhetoric not possible only a couple of years ago. Migrants and migration were talked about as a problem, borders were closed, and family reunions were made more difficult. In the spring of 2018, the social democrats, the largest party in Sweden, were one of the last established parties to pick up the right-wing rhetoric speaking about migrants as a problem, in need of incentive in order to gain a will to learn the Swedish language. Not only migrants in general, but also refugees were said to have to learn Swedish in order to keep their financial support. In other words, migrants were thus more or less construed as lazy with no will to engage in language learning without the right incentive, i.e. financial support. However, such rhetoric didn’t help the social democrats, nor any other of the established parties in the latest election a couple of weeks ago. Instead, the right-wing extremist party with Nazi roots, the Swedish democrats, made further progress by winning more than 18% of the votes. Established parties in Sweden were in shock. Despite picking up the right-wing rhetoric, maybe in hope to win more votes, established parties didn’t manage to stop the progress of the Swedish democratic party. Instead, the rhetoric used and measures proposed have rather contributed to move the borders of what is acceptable or not to speak about in terms of migration and migrants in contemporary Sweden.
Setting the scene of the presentation in this way might seem a bit dark, and not very positive. This might be true. However, I do believe it is important that you as listeners, many of whom are not from Sweden, do get a picture of the quite dramatic changes that has taken place in Sweden recently in terms of migration and the way migration is approached and talked about. The current situation, have made Sweden a harsher place for migrants, and this is of importance to consider when conducting our research. For asylum seekers, the changing way migration is approached does have “real” effects in that some are not allowed to stay in Sweden, those who are here meet prejudice and hate form right wing extremists, as well as everyday racism. This is the context in which our research program is situated.
Aim and research contexts
Our overall interest in the research program is to answer the question over what language learning activities for (young) adult migrants that might be beneficial for their social inclusion. We do answer such question by turning our interest towards migrants themselves and the meaning they construe in relation to practices and people they encounter during their process towards potential social inclusion. In a first step, we focus on four different practices of language learning.
Firstly, we direct attention towards the work conducted by study associations with Swedish from day 1. Here, adult migrants are provided introduction to Swedish language and society. Secondly, we are interested in the introductory program on upper secondary level for young migrants (16-19 years old). Here we focus on both regular upper secondary schools, as well as folk high schools. The latter schools have recently been awarded a temporary right to provide these programs for young migrants, despite folk high schools usually only being allowed to register adult students. Thirdly, we are interested in the more general activities for migrants organised by study associations, and fourthly we direct interest towards Swedish for immigrants, an educational context targeting those migrants who have received a resident permit.
Adult education in Sweden
For those of you who are not from Sweden, a few words about adult education in Sweden might be needed.
Adult education has a long tradition in Sweden, going back to the 1800s with the establishment of the first folk high schools in 1868, in combination with the emergence of public libraries and public lectures. In 1912, the first study association was created, and with the social movements such as the workers movement, the temperance movement, and the free church movement, folk high schools came to develop into schools for the movement’s functionaries – many of whom were working class. Originally, these schools were for the rich farmers sons, but in the 1930s, the majority of students came from the working class, and thus these schools came to serve as the only possibility for further schooling of the working class at that time.
Folk high schools as well as study associations are part of what in Swedish is called folkbildning. In English the word might be translated to popular education. However, in Sweden, popular education is different as compared to other parts of the world. In Sweden, the relationship between the state and civil society organizations has always been close – as part of the Swedish corporist welfare model. The state has for the last Century financially supported popular education, which is still the case today. The State fund approximately 4 billion Swedish kronor to folk high schools and study organizations with the broad aim that it should support the further development of democracy, culture and lessen the education gap among the population. However, besides the general State support to popular education, the State commission popular education institutions with specific tasks, which generates extra incomes for these institutions. Swedish from day 1 is one such commissioned task.
What characterises popular education is first and foremost that it is free and voluntarily. This means that study associations and folk high schools are free to design any programs and courses they wish, and students are free to register with these or not. Secondly, popular education could foremost be categorised as non-formal education as there are never any grades provided. Only in those courses at folk high schools that provide eligibility to apply to higher education, there are documentation which to some extent have resemblances to grades. Thirdly, popular education is based on ideas of bildung – the free search for knowledge – and thus, study circle engagement, or engagement in courses at folk high schools should be based on participants own will and motivation. There have been ongoing discussions on what characterises the pedagogy of popular education. For folk high schools, the pedagogy has been argued to be based on the collective as basis for the individual’s development, relational and self-driven. For study circles, these were originally seen as based on the participants’ own activity and experiences. These experiences were the starting point for discussions in combination with literature. The study circle leader did not have a role as teacher, but was rather included as a member of the group. These notions of experience, the books and the leader, were the basis for the idea of collective learning among the participants, i.e. free and voluntary self-bildung.
One of the main formal adult education institutions in Sweden is municipal adult education (MAE) which consists for Swedish for immigrants, basic courses equivalent to compulsory school and advanced courses equivalent to upper secondary school. Each citizen has a right to attend these courses, to take a leave from work, the course is free, and you have the right to a study loan.
Altogether MAE has more students than upper secondary school. MAE grew out of the tradition of popular education, and saw its day of light in 1968. Thus, this year 2018, folk high schools celebrate its 150 years anniversary, and MAE its 50 years anniversary. In MAE students combine courses from the different levels in order to gain the courses needed in order to get a job, or to become eligible for further studies.
With folk high schools, study associations and MAE, Sweden has built a generous system for adults to partake in education in order to gain employment, to prepare for life as citizen, as well as to have possibilities for personal development – basically the three aims of adult education in Sweden. In our research program, these institutions are in focus, or rather, these institutions are the starting point in our interest concerning migrants’ paths towards potential social inclusion.
The research design
In order to answer our research question, we focus on the above four contexts for language learning. Data wise, we are there as observers, looking at what is happening during teaching sessions as well as outside of the classroom. We collect documentation regarding the courses and teaching material. Informal conversations with students and teachers are conducted, as well as more structured interviews. Of most interest are interviews conducted with students where our focus is on their thoughts on their current education, how such education relates to their previous experiences of schooling, work etc., as well as what their thoughts are about the future. So far, we have conducted interviews with approximately 120 migrants of which many are asylum seekers, as well as approximately 40 teachers, circle leaders and principals. Our hope is to, at least, within the coming 6 months, have interviewed 200 migrants.
The plan is to get back to these migrants with a follow up interview 2 years and 4 years later. The focus in these follow up interviews is on their thoughts about the language learning they were involved in when we first met, in retrospective, and what other activities and people they have meet and/or been engaged with that they assign meaning to in relation to their paths towards potential social inclusion. With such a longitudinal approach it becomes possible to identify a range of trajectories of social inclusion and exclusions, as well as practices and people that might make the process towards social inclusion more or less possible.
However, we are just at the beginning of the research program and the first follow up interviews will commence within the coming 1 to 1,5 years.
Let’s turn to some preliminary results, so far, based on two recently published research reports (Fejes et.al., 2018b, c) that reports on our initial studies of Swedish from day 1 and language introduction in upper secondary school and at folk high schools. Here, I only touch upon some areas elaborated in these reports. The reports are unfortunately only published in Swedish. However, we are currently working on several manuscripts in English elaborating different aspects of our data and results.
I will here focus on four areas elaborated on in the reports. Some quotations from interviews will be provided as well as some reflections on these.
The four areas are:
• A willingness to learn Swedish
• A stable place
• Being professional and private
• Study associations as liaison
A willingness to learn Swedish
One idea expressed throughout all interviews is a willingness to learn the Swedish langue and become included. This is quite different from the picture painted through current discourses on migration and migrants in Sweden where calls are made that asylum seekers and migrants need incentives in terms of risk loosing financial support unless they engage in language learning. The willingness to lean the language and to become included is illustrated by one participant in the following way:
“I know that is through learning the language that I can enter society. I would like to learn the language in order to become better connected with Swedish society…At least I get the basics, of the Swedish language, and then I can use the language in order to understand Swedish people better (Participant 46).”
A stable place
We have also identified how participation in study circles, and in the introductory programs, are construed as important for migrants, not only for the language learning itself, but also as sites for stability in an otherwise stressful life situation. In these sites you are provided support, as well as a meaningful activity. As expressed by one of the participants in Swedish from day 1:
“Yes, I can only recommend that those sitting at home, that they have to come to ABF. Here you can find friends, you can learn Swedish, and you get in touch with people. ABF is not a school for me, ABF is a home. I feel at home when I’m here (Participant 1).”
However, despite feelings of being at home, and comradeship, life is stressful. Not the least due to past experiences of fleeing one’s home, as well as the constant wait for a decision on one’s application for a resident permit. With such stressful aspects, learning becomes hard as expressed by many of the interviewed migrants. However, as one of the study circle leaders express, it is important to keep these bad experiences outside of the classroom. Everyone have such experiences, and these need to be dealt with at other times.
“Yes, as a person or people, you have feelings, but I usually say: ”If you have a problem? It’s not easy to forget, but we will take care of that outside of this room”. Or we could sit in a room and talk. It’s important to separate things, here we either talk about Swedish, or we talk about everything. When we are finished we can talk about other things, that’s the way it is. You have to be strong, otherwise it won’t work (Study circle leader 5).”
However, despite the ambition to keep the tough things outside of the classroom, every now and then these things seep in. As one of the circle leaders tells us, when someone has received a positive response to their asylum application, this needs to be acknowledged in the group. However, such acknowledgement might at the same time reinforce stress among other participants who are still waiting for a decision:
“Of course you congratulate, but I also believe that those who have waited even longer, it affects them: ”why did she get and not me?” and ”she has only been here two years, and I have waited two years and eight months”. But, they are still happy. You then tell them: ”You will also get an answer soon” (Study circle leader 6).”
Being professional and private
But it’s not only the migrants who might have a tough time. Study association are depending on the work of volunteers. Only some of the leaders are employed. Thus, many who engage as circle leaders are there, not for the pay but based on a personal commitment. Thus, it might become hard to find a balance between the professional role as a circle leader, and the role as a person. As expressed by this leader:
“Actually, it was my husband. He could see how bad I was feeling. Then he said: ”You have to take some time off, you can’t solve all the world’s problems, you can’t solve the problems for everyone”. We do as much as possible. We offer what we can offer, what we believe can change their hard, hard time (Leader 1).”
One of the teachers in the introductory program elaborate on a similar topic:
“You become emotionally involved when they tell you that ”I’m afraid, I can’t sleep, I feel worried, if I’m deported I will be killed”. Of course, you are a fellow human, and you just can’t say: ”I do not want to hear about it”, you just can’t. You have to be there, to listen, then you might send them to the counsellor…it is tough, really tough. You can shut off, but I’m an emphatic person, I feel with them, I can feel their pain and their worries, you just can’t look away. You can’t expect that they will be able to sit there and listen when they feel that ”I will go home and be killed”, you just can’t. So, you have to show some respect, to be humble as a teacher, that’s what I believe (Teacher 16).”
Study associations as liaison
In all contexts studied so far, it becomes evident that circle leaders and teachers goes beyond what could be expected of them. This becomes most visible in the Swedish from day 1 study circles. The finances from government are directed towards introducing asylum seekers to Swedish language and society. However, our observations and interviews together paint a picture of study associations becoming a liaison between different societal institutions. One could even say that rather than conducting language teaching, which is of course part of what they are doing, they provide social work for asylum seekers. And maybe this is why those migrants we have interviewed are so positive towards ABF, in that ABF provides a space not only for language learning, but also a space to meet others, to get help with booking appointments with doctors, dentists, to get help to write letters to the migration court etc. As one of the leaders express it:
“They always want papers, a letter for the migration office, the social office, or kindergarten. One asylum seeker, he wanted to do body building, so he needed a letter in order to get a discount. All the time, I have to deal with their wishes, I do everything. At the beginning, I began work at 9, and worked until 5 each day. I take care of a lot of people, to make them happy. There are people coming all the time, they need something. I might book an appointment with a doctor, I talk to their handler at the migration office, the bank, the lawyer. I give participants a lot, and thus they are really happy. They do not only come here to learn Swedish, we help them a lot (Leader 4).”
So, what then can we conclude so far? Even though we have quite some distance to go in our research program, we can already identify some issues that we believe are important to point out, not the least in relation to the current political climate in Sweden.
Firstly, all of the migrants whom we have interviewed, now totalling around 120, really want to learn the language and become included in Swedish society. However, they face a range of challenges, of which one of the most challenging one is the constant stress of not knowing if you will be allowed to stay or not. For some, the wait has been for years, for others they have been engaged in processes of appeals to the migration court.
Maybe not surprisingly, we can also see how the engagement of teachers and circle leaders seem to be of uttermost importance for student’s motivation and progress. The teachers and circle leaders we have interviewed express high engagement for their teaching and students, partly to a degree that goes way beyond the task assigned by the municipality or by the study association/the government.
Thus, questions can be raised over whether such tasks, to be supportive in so many aspects of migrant students and participants lives, really should be allocated directly, or as is the case with Swedish from fay 1, indirectly, in the hands of volunteers and civil society organisations. How should the relation between the State and civil society be shaped in the future, and who should be responsible for what?
For further reading see our two research reports as well as our recently published book on citizenship within and beyond adult and popular education. The book will be available in a revised Swedish version within a few months, published by Studentlitteratur.