Ahmed Hussen Egal arrived in Sweden from Somalia 16 years ago with only the clothes on his back. Last June he received the Nelson Mandela Award from Stockholm City Council for his work in helping other immigrants into jobs.
One ninth of Sweden's population were born outside the country. Many have settled in the capital, Stockholm, but find themselves isolated from the mainstream by their lack of jobs. The award, given on Swedish National Day, was the climax of an occasion when the city welcomed all immigrants who had received Swedish citizenship during the year.
'In Somalia I studied Law and was a bank clerk,' says Egal. 'For seven years I had fought in the resistance movement against our dictator. Two weeks after my arrival I started working as a cleaner at the Central Station in Stockholm. I saw thousands of people going to work. Most of my countrymen in Sweden had no work to go to. The knowledge they had back home did not fit in here.'
The idea began to form that he should do something to help his countrymen into work: 'It is only through your work that you get integrated in society.' In 1996, he set up Kunskapsutveckling för Somalier (Knowledge Development for Somalis), now known as Kunskapsutveckling AB, in the Rinkeby area of Stockholm.
Between 1996 and 2002, 235 people passed through courses at the school and 73 per cent have found jobs. Others are continuing their studies.
The project is supported by the city, the Board of Integration and the European Union. Courses last from six to 12 months, and often include work placements. Each student is given a coach and a supervisor, who are recruited from potential employers, such as care institutions and groceries, where there is a labour shortage.
Subjects studied include such basics as maths, civics, computing and Swedish. When students have successfully mastered these, they are given vocational training as, for instance, nursing assistants, shop assistants, cleaners, store-men, truck drivers or building workers. Once a week a lecturer from the political or commercial world comes to speak at the school, and often stays on for lunch with the students. 'In this way,' says Egal, 'the students feel they can be part of something bigger, which is the opposite of being only a problem.'
A high quality of teaching is ensured by cooperation with adult education colleges. Some of the teaching is in the students' mother tongue. The project has now opened its door to people from other African countries, as well as Somalis.
Accepting his award, with his wife and four children in the audience, Egal said, 'Like many other refugees I came to Sweden with many disappointments and much bitterness in my rucksack. Along the road I learned that the necessary change had to start with me. When I dealt with these changes in my life, I discovered that I got the strength I needed.'
Egal believes that new arrivals can bring new strength to 'the heritage that has built Swedish society'. Of his work for integration, he says, 'You only have to meet the unemployed where she or he is and think big!'