The Saga Theatre is in darkness as around 200 people gather for a day focussing on Afghanistan, arranged by the Swedish Red Cross. A single spotlight directs the attention of the audience to two people on the small stage. Ramin Malekzade, an unaccompanied 17-year-old child who is waiting to hear whether he has been granted a residence permit, and his custodian Kazem Bahadori are here to describe their experiences of coming to Sweden.
Kazem Bahadori was 16 years old when he arrived at Malmö with his parents. Determined as he was to learn Swedish as quickly as possible, he spent days on end in the library.
“I used to listen to the news on headphones, reading the text and looking up any words that I didn’t understand.”
Just across the road from the library was a large building, that to Kazem appeared as enchanting as a castle.
“I found out that it was one of the best upper secondary schools in Malmö, Sankt Petri. So I decided there and then that one day I would go to that school.”
The most successful pupil in Malmö
On his own initiative, Kazem arranged to transfer to Sankt Petri, and could start the programme in natural sciences at the school. He took his studies seriously and got involved in other issues. He campaigned successfully, for example, that pupils with another mother tongue than Swedish should be given more time to complete exams, something that was subsequently adopted by all the schools in Malmö. He only took advantage of the extra time himself once. He put together a football team from pupils in the language classes, and this team won the school championships. In his final year at upper secondary school he was recognised as the most successful pupil in Malmö, and awarded a Rotary scholarship worth SEK 10,000.
“I don’t come from an academic family, in fact both of my parents are illiterate. But they realised how important education is, and I’m enormously grateful to them for that. Being able to see how I was developing was an additional motivating factor for me.”
Custodian and contact person
Photo credit: Charlotte PerhammarAfter two years in Sweden, Kazem trained as an interpreter and worked during the summer period. It was here that he came into contact with the role of custodian for the first time.
“Some of them could be responsible for as many as 40 unaccompanied children, there was one couple who together had 80. They didn’t even recognise them, or remember their names. I thought this was terrible, and saw how troubled the young people were.”
Since then, Kazem has been custodian for three unaccompanied children from Afghanistan, and contact person for two others.
“I’m sure that having the same background is very important: I can be a role model for these children in their new country. They see that hard work and study enable you to reach your goals, even if it is difficult and depressing sometimes, and your social life suffers. I can also master the cultural and social codes of both societies, and can better explain the differences.”
Wants to test the limits
Moving to Linköping and starting to study here was more difficult than Kazem expected.
“I found it difficult to get used to not having my family close – I felt lonely. Now I can compare the way I felt with how the unaccompanied children feel, not having their family here in a country where they don’t speak the language or understand the culture.
“I’m used to it now; my family is just a few hours away, and Swedish culture is not so strange.” Over a cup of coffee together at Zodiaken, he tells me in perfect Swedish how difficulties and opportunities have provided his driving force.
“I am originally from Afghanistan, but was born in Iran where my father worked as a supervisor on building sites. Afghanis in Iran are discriminated by the system there. We were allowed to go to school, but we didn’t get any grades. And the discrimination was also in sporting activities. For example, I won a chess tournament at school, but they wouldn’t let me progress to the championships. The Iranian guy that I had beaten went instead of me.”
Kazem believes that his success in Sweden is a result of the discrimination he experienced.
“I would never have been able to achieve my goals in Iran: the society there put set limits on me. When I came to Sweden and saw how free people here were, and the opportunities open to them, I had to take full advantage of them. I want to test the limits, both my own and society’s. How far can I go? How much can I do myself, and how much will society allow?”
Kazem is trying to decide which master’s programme he will take. Production planning or logistics management – both are about how to plan things, and this is something he is good at.
“An education gives you a safe future, you become independent. But it must be an education you have chosen yourself, not one chosen by society or your parents.”