The first time the young immigrant men met their future Swedish neighbors, it was Kristin Ohman (photo above) who made contact.
“They were standing alone so I came over to meet them and I gave them some flowers,” the 74-year-old smiles, as she remembers the gathering of the 70 people hand-picked to live in her new apartment building. “They seemed a bit shy, but they were all very positive.”
The “SällBo” project in the Swedish city of Helsingborg aims to combat loneliness among the elderly at the same time as helping former child refugees integrate by housing them side-by-side in the same building. There are 31 flats for retired people and 20 for 18- to 25-year-olds, ten of which are reserved for people who arrived in Sweden as unaccompanied child asylum-seekers.
The project’s name combines the word “sällskap,” meaning company or togetherness, with “bo,” meaning to live, and under their contract, residents commit to socialize with each other for at least two hours a week, helped along by a live-in social coordinator.
“It’s not only the first in Sweden,” says Dragana Curovic, an integration specialist at Helsingborgshem, the city’s municipal housing company. “Our constellation is unique anywhere in the world.”
Built as a home for seniors in the 1960s, the block became Sweden’s largest housing facility for unaccompanied child asylum-seekers in the aftermath of the 2015 European refugee crisis.
Curovic and her colleague hatched the idea for their integration project two years later, when considering whether to convert two floors back into assisted housing for the elderly and leave the bottom level for young immigrants. In the end, they decided it would be better to mix the groups together.
“We thought, ‘okay, we have this house, and we have these needs, and we know that there are a lot of lonely people. Why don’t we do an integration project, where there are different kinds of people?’”
Bridging generations and cultures
Curovic believes old people can feel cut off even if they frequently meet other pensioners. “They easily feel excluded from their community because most of the information they have comes either from people of their own age or from the media,” she says. “So I think that loneliness is not only sitting at home alone.”
Immigrants to Sweden frequently end up living in highly segregated areas where more than 80 percent of people are first or second-generation immigrants. Those who arrived in Sweden as unaccompanied child refugees often have no relationship at all with a Swedish adult who has not been employed to look after them.
“They have people from different government authorities, but it’s difficult to make natural relationships with adults,” Curovic explains, “which means that in combination with the cultural differences, their social life is limited to youngsters in a similar or the same situation.”
Her hope is that by meeting and working together with elderly Swedes, the young men will improve their cultural understanding and absorb practical skills they would normally have learnt from their parents. Former child asylum-seekers face a lot of stigma in Sweden, so Curovic hopes the project will also help them understand that not everyone in Sweden views them with suspicion.
The first new residents began moving in at the end of November at the rate of two flats per day. Those who arrived in Sweden as unaccompanied child asylum-seekers will be the last to move in. The social program will then start in the New Year.
Ready for socializing
Ohman, who used to work in crisis preparedness for the local regional government, said she had been drawn to the idea because she enjoys talking to the 20-something friends of her daughter and her musician husband.
“I love hanging out with young people. Every Christmas I hang out with my daughter in Gothenburg. They like people who don’t fit into the box. No one was looking at the iPads or phones. They were just hanging out.”
But her daughter is more than 200 kilometers (125 miles) away in Gothenburg, and her son is twice as far away, in Karlstad. So in the seven years since she retired, she had begun to feel isolated in her city-center apartment.
While the apartments in SällBo are small, there is a lot of shared space. There are two sitting rooms on each floor, which have been converted into an art atelier, a yoga room, a library, a board-games room, a gym and a computer games room. The kitchens, meanwhile, have been themed for pickling, baking or growing herbs. The hope is that this will encourage residents to move between floors.
Kalle and Anki Andersson, 85 and 70 respectively, moved from an apartment building 300 meters away, so they used to meet the young men living here when it was a refugee home.
“There were 98 child asylum-seekers here and we had no problems with them,” Anki says. “There were no disruptions whatsoever. They always were friendly and said ‘hello.’”
Like Ohman, the couple was drawn to the project by the prospect of sharing their lives with younger people. “We think we will spend a lot of time socializing with them. We don’t want to live only with older people,” she says. “I think we’ll make a little coffee, sit here and hang out and talk a little,” Kalle adds. “We shall see.”
Perhaps surprisingly, Curovic has found younger Swedes as interested in the project as elder ones.
Since her son Dante was born 20 months ago, Rosanna Simson has been living at her mother-in-law’s house, but was worried about setting up on her own. “When we saw this, we were really excited, because we thought we’d feel so lonely moving from a big family to a one-bedroom flat with just the three of us,” she explains.
“I love hanging out with elderly people. They’re usually really talkative and they like telling you about how it was then they were young. I think that’s so sweet.”
The project will run for two years, after which the company will decide whether to extend it or whether to replace the flats for young people with more assisted housing for the elderly. Whatever happens, Ohman is convinced that other municipalities in Sweden will copy it.
“There are so many people out there today who don’t have anyone to hang out with,” she says. “We sit involuntarily alone in our flats. I think there will be more and more of this.”
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