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Blog Post
1 July 2017
Author: Ninél Sukovich

How a forest walk can hold the key to immigrant integration

Photo by Joel Cross on Unsplash

Photo by Joel Cross on Unsplash

Yusra Moshtat is from Baghdad, Iraq. She fled the Gulf War in the 1990s and came to Sweden. This blog tells her astonishing story and how she ended up working with new immigrants, helping them to integrate through exploring Swedish nature. 

Yusra arrived in Gothenburg, a city on the West coast of Sweden, in the summer of 1994. She had left a good job, the safety of her home, and her family and friends, trying to save the life of her firstborn son Mimo, who was seriously injured during the Gulf War. The hospital where Yusra was recovering after giving birth to Mimo was bombed. She fled in terror, carrying her new-born baby to a nearby bomb shelter. The bomb shelter was soon also struck by bombs, and of nearly 400 people taking refuge within its walls, only half survived. Mimo was only a week old at that time and sustained severe brain damage in the attacks.

Yusra in the forest near Gothenburg, Sweden. Photo courtesy of Yusra Moshtat.

Yusra in the forest near Gothenburg, Sweden. 

Photo courtesy of Yusra Moshtat.

A year later, Yusra arrived in Sweden and tests revealed that Mimo had dangerous levels of uranium and other toxic chemicals in his blood – almost certainly as a result of chemicals used in the explosives. Doctors told Yusra that Mimo only had 3 years left to live. When confronted by this horrible news, a long struggle began for Mimo and his mother, as years of constant doctor’s appointments followed. During that time, Yusra also had her second son Rani and went through a divorce. She, however, was determined to rebuild her life.

Back in Iraq, Yusra used to work as an economist and completed a Master’s degree in Business and Economics. She was quickly offered a job when she arrived in Sweden, even though she could not speak the language yet. But, after a few years in the city, Mimo started to have breathing difficulties. Yusra then moved closer to the forest, where she and her children were able to walk in nature and breathe fresh air. “Even though Mimo was blind,” Yusra explains, “he could draw beautiful flowers and had a great sense of smell. We would often laugh and listen to birds in the forest while I described the beautiful colours of nature to him”.

Against all odds, Mimo lived to be twelve years old. He was a fighter, and Yusra was overwhelmed with grief when he passed away. The forest became a place where she could find solace. Being in nature provided her with happy memories of her son, and she started running outdoors which she had never done in Bagdad. The loss of her son and her growing relationship with nature spurred Yusra’s interest in hazardous chemicals and environmental issues. Before long, Yusra made a bold decision to go back to school and study environmental health.

When Yusra finished her studies, she started working as an environmental health inspector for the city of Gothenburg. Her job was to make sure that property owners met the requirements of indoor environmental quality regulations. Yusra chose to focus her work on preventive measures: “My main objective was not to punish those who broke the law but to listen and understand how I can help them make things right. And only if that didn’t work, I used the law”, she says.

Because of Yusra’s experience and language skills, she ended up working a lot in immigrant neighbourhoods. As Yusra carried out the inspections, she noticed that water usage among the immigrant households was extremely high. She often discovered high humidity levels and mould in people’s homes, and noticed that many of the tenants used strong chemicals for cleaning.

Yusra came to realize that these people had never had the opportunity to learn about chemical use, water management or nature conservation. “Unlike in Sweden,” she says, “people in many other countries don’t have the privilege to focus on environmental issues or chat about the weather. These matters seem like trivialities compared to more immediate issues, such as poverty, war or hunger”.

While Yusra’s department mainly focused on large-scale problems like climate change, she felt she “could not work towards these huge goals without informing people about the simple things”. So, Yusra began contacting immigrant associations in the area asking how they could collaborate. “I felt I had a responsibility not only to inspect but also to inform people how they can lead better and more environmentally-friendly lives”. That is when she remembered the many benefits she had gained from her time in the forest and thought: “What better way to inform people than through nature!?”

Together with several immigrant associations, Yusra started organizing nature trips for immigrants, especially focusing on those who had troubles integrating into Swedish society. The first trip was an outing to go fishing in a nearby lake. Yusra chose places nearby so that people could easily join without public transportation or cars. Suddenly, places that had been foreign started to become close and familiar. Participants started comparing trees and plants to those back home. They started viewing Swedish nature “through other eyes,” which is where Yusra’s project gets its name (“Med andra ögon”).

 

Participants of Yusra's project during one of the forest walks. Photo courtesy of Yusra Moshtat.

Participants of Yusra’s project during one of the forest walks. 

Photo courtesy of Yusra Moshtat.

These nature trips became an effective and useful platform for integration, where all kinds of questions could be answered about nature, and about life in Sweden. As the immigrants became more interested in the environment, their groups began talking about more complex problems, like the connection between lifestyle choices and climate change. And, as the program evolved, Yusra made effective changes to the curriculum through the feedback she gathered from the participants and encouraged community members to share their own knowledge with each other.

Yusra’s project inspired many people and was the first of its kind in 2006. Since then, similar projects have been carried out in Sweden, Denmark and Norway. However, relatively few were as successful as Yusra’s. She thinks that it might be because nature guides who worked in those projects were native Swedes, or came from neighbouring countries. Because of this, they lacked experiences that bound the immigrants together and struggled to make the same connections with participants. Yusra believes that the real secret to integration through nature is to give immigrants opportunities to become guides themselves. “There are lots of educated immigrants in Sweden with degrees in natural sciences,” she says. “They could be great role models”.

Together with the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, Yusra produced a publication about her project. The report gathers gained experiences, interesting conclusions and useful recommendations. Today, more than 10 years after the start of the project, the real results begin to show. Immigrant associations have started to receive funding for nature activities and more immigrants are becoming professional nature guides. Yusra is grateful she had the chance to fulfil her dream: “It made me the person I am today” she says, concluding that she has “the best job in the world”.

This blog post is based on an interview with Yusra Moshtat and is written by Ninél Sukovich, an intern at SIANI and recent graduate with a BSc degree in Environmental Science from Södertörn University, Sweden.

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