Frustration with being shut out of the Swedish job market has prompted several Swedes with immigrant backgrounds to seek – and find – success in the melting pot that is New York City, contributor Rafaela Stålbalk discovers.
“Adaptable, well-educated Swedish-Ghanaian fluent in five languages seeking vacant position.”
This is how Medufia “Keke” Kulego would introduce himself in job applications that he sent to countless employers throughout Sweden.
After spending four years in New York studying business marketing and finance on a full scholarship at St. John’s University, Kulego was prepared to start his career back in Sweden.
But despite tons of skills, Kulego was unable to land a job in Sweden that matched the skills he’d acquired at university. Instead he was stuck with mediocre, entry-level gigs.
Kulego was born and raised by Ghanaian parents in Rosengård ‒ a district in central Malmö that some refer to as “the roughest ghetto in Scandinavia.”
Educated, fully fluent in Swedish, and entirely assimilated to the Swedish society, Kulego was left to assume his ethnicity was the reason he’d been shut out of the Swedish job market.
Aggravated with the situation, Kulego looked for opportunities back in the United States, hoping employees there would have more confidence in him than those in his home country did.
And in 2001, Kulego was given the chance he’s been waiting for: he went from being an underrated jobseeker in Sweden to a successful investment banker on Wall Street.
“In the States, your skills and personality are what matters,” Kulego, 39, says.
“Here, it’s different from Sweden, where your name is a first indication of whom you are.”
As Kulego sees it, job seekers in the US aren’t prejudged by their surnames as often as seems to be the case in Sweden.
“Here, a ‘Kulego-CV’ has the same chance as a ‘Svensson-CV’. In this sense, I believe that Sweden has much to learn from the US regarding how it can best utilize its immigrant citizens’ talents instead of losing them to competitive markets,” he explains.
Kulego’s story is not unique.
Talking to educated immigrants in Sweden, and a consensus quickly emerges: immigrant unemployment is a serious problem.
According to November 2011 figures from Statistics Sweden (Statistiska Centralbyrån, SCB), the unemployment rate among immigrants in Sweden is around 35 percent.
This staggering number is based on several factors including the lack of ample jobs in the Swedish market, discrimination, and complications involving the accreditation of foreign degrees.
Consequently, many immigrants leave Sweden to look for jobs elsewhere. Norway, England and the United States have, due to their high demands for workers, been some of the more popular destinations among young immigrant professionals from Sweden.
“I’ve never asked for special treatment, just a fair shot that would allow me to contribute to Swedish society,” says Kulego, recalling his frustration while job hunting.
Following his move to Manhattan, Kulego met a group of other first-generation Swedes living in “self-imposed exile” in New York City.
Among them was Omino Gardezi, a Persian/Indian-Swede, with whom Kulego met up in 2004 and started the network, “Blatte United”, which aims to connect immigrants with roots in Sweden.
The term “blatte” is a derogatory Swedish slang term often used in reference to an immigrant, but Kulego and Gardezi thought it was well-suited for their growing network as the duo wanted to reclaim the normally negative connotations of the term and link it to something positive.
There are roughly 25 expat Swedes who are members of Blatte United who live and have successful careers in New York City.
The network is an upbeat and unique group of people which includes renowned star Swedish chef and restaurateur Marcus Samuelsson.
Together they entertain, travel, play football and debate about current affairs in Sweden. Recently they had a chance to meet with prime minister FredrikReinfeldt to debate on Sweden’s immigration-emigration challenge.
“In New York, we are all foreigners,” says Kulego.
“Anyone competent is likely to get a chance.”
Stories like Kulego’s have caused concern in some quarters in Sweden, with commentators such as author Tove Lifvendahl arguing that Sweden risks losing many highly qualified workers when Swedish society makes them feel undervalued.
“We bullied them away and showed them the door,” she wrote in a recent column.
Lifvendahl’s argument rings true for Kulego, who says the endless rejection he experienced in Sweden is ultimately what drove him away.
“I love Sweden. It is my home. But I had to leave because it did not want me,” he says.
“And although I must admit that walking away from the comfortable and secure social welfare system I had in Sweden was not an easy thing to do, I am happy with my decision because today I am successful in a way that I would not be had I stayed there. I am on the world stage; I am where everyone wants to be.”
Ironically, the story of Kulego’s success abroad has helped get him the recognition that previously eluded him back in Sweden.
He’s been featured in a number of media reports about Blatte United which highlight the fact that people with diverse ethnic, cultural and professional backgrounds, can succeed even if they are “blattar” from Rosengård, or born to parents of modest means.
Now a father of three himself, Kulego hopes to see improvements in Sweden in the near future so that his teenage children won’t have to face the same obstacles he once did.
“Sweden’s demographic is changing,” he says.
“Therefore, the business culture must change its mentality, and not be afraid to open its doors to non-traditional standards.”