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A quest of love: Mujtaba's Swedish Integration

Borrby, 10 March

When Mujtaba Jahfary arrived in the tiny hamlet of Borrby, southern Sweden, four years ago, nobody had seen an Afghan refugee before. To some it came as a shock. 

"It was expensive to shave and cut my hair, so I looked like a Taliban,” says Jahfary, 29. "People were scared. It is human nature to judge someone by their appearance."

Trimming his beard to resemble a Swedish hipster was not enough. Having made the dangerous journey through Iran and Turkey, then by boat into Greece and north to Sweden, Jahfary embarked on a new mission that he likens to a “real jihad” – to become a good Swede, and to help other refugees do the same.

During his odyssey into Swedish society he has made friendships with local people and forged a bond with the village that has become his home. Learning how to fit in has now made him a key figure in helping the new wave of asylum seekers integrate into local life.

"Borrby people are special," says Jahfary, who fled Afghanistan to escape the violence. "I have friends here, they feel like family, and they are Swedish. If I had to move to a big city it would take me years to build new relationships like these."

A light-bulb moment took place after a night spent smoking with friends outside his apartment. The mess they left behind prompted neighbours to complain. 

On the advice of a volunteer refugee worker, Jahfary took a bunch of flowers to say sorry. Now he and the neighbours, a middle-aged Swedish couple, are close friends.

"That was a turning point in our relationship, it showed he accepted the Swedish way of life,” says Kenneth Tufvesson, 65. He and his wife, Ann-Kristin Sahlin, treat Jahfary like a son.

"As a parent it is important to be there if children need help, the door should always be open. We are here for him like parents,” says Sahlin, who was born in Borrby and saw her own children grow up there.

Jahfary’s gesture prevented a build-up of tension between them, she says. And for her new Afghan neighbour, it was a lesson that he had to adapt to Swedish social norms. Had he not made contact with the couple in the apartment below, he would have carried on doing things that annoyed them further. 

Now Jahfary works every night at a large centre for asylum seekers in a nearby village, where he tries to pass on the lessons he has learned to those who are arriving by the busload every week.

One of them is time-keeping. Swedes are always punctual – when they agree a time, they mean it, Jahfary says, and if you are late they are upset. 

“Most refugees don’t do this. In our culture we don’t ask when, we just visit, you don’t need to book a time. But here dinner at 7pm means food will be on the table, so you have to be there at 6:55pm." 

Of course asylum seekers make mistakes, Jahfary says, whether it is being noisy after 10pm, not tidying up after yourself in the laundry room, or failing to wear reflective clothing when out at night. But if they break the unwritten rules repeatedly and don’t apologise, that is what creates distance between them and Swedes.

Changing behaviour is no easy task. The sheer number of asylum seekers has overwhelmed the local authorities and created tensions in overcrowded accommodation where new arrivals are forced to wait for many months to get their asylum application approved, which entails the right to work and study Swedish. Jahfary has to deal with squabbles over inadequate washing facilities, monotonous food and crowded bedrooms, not to mention the boredom that sets in when educated young men have little money and nothing to do.

Since the attacks by Islamists on Paris the atmosphere has changed, local people are more suspicious of the dark-skinned Muslims that are suddenly in their midst. And since Sweden imposed border controls, there is mounting uncertainty among refugees about their future.

"Refugees know nothing about the language and the society," Jahfary says. “You have to teach them how to behave. Then there will be no problems, no distance between people. And they learn fast." 

The best way to learn is to make contact with local people, like he did, by spotting things that need to be done then offering to help. "Then you will get new friends. If you sit in the camp, nobody will come,” Jahfary says.

Jahfary is also involved in the Afghan Cultural Association based in Malmö, which tries to teach Swedes about Afghan culture. 

The local refugee support group, Österlens stödförening för flyktingar, sees Jahfary as an important ally in their work to help refugees take their first steps into Swedish society. 

“Mujtaba is like a spider in the web because he is everywhere, he has a lot of connections, and he always finds people who can help. He is amazing, I don’t know how he does it – it doesn’t matter how tough life is, he just wants to help," says Susanna Udvardi of Act for Integration in nearby Simrishamn. 

Through small acts of kindness and humanity, Jahfary, who trained as a dentist in Afghanistan, believes refugees can convince local people to see them as a valuable Swedish citizen, not potential terrorists. 

“We must give love, respect, and help people as much as we can,” he says. "This is what I call real jihad – but jihad in the right way."

By David Crouch, Sweden

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