Swedish Fryshuset and Järva i samverkan lead the way in meeting young people
The phenomenon of youth gang affiliation is an issue of concern to society in our western neighbour. Swedish NGOs have set out to find solutions by working with local communities and listening to young people.
At the end of November 2023, YMCA Finland invited local YMCA association staff to visit Fryshuset, a Swedish pioneer in youth work. The aim of the visit was to learn about Fryshuset’s model of youth work and the solutions its network of partners has found in the development of the youth gang phenomenon. The excursion included a visit to Fryshuset’s youth centre in Hammarby, Stockholm, and a trip to the Rinkeby district on the outskirts of Stockholm to visit the Järva i samverkan network.
Youth gangs are a serious social problem in Sweden
Over the last decade, Sweden has been increasingly reporting on gang-related crime. The phenomenon is considered to have taken hold, especially in the aftermath of the 2015 shooting incidents. Rinkeby is particularly known for violent clashes between two gangs, Dödspatrullen and Shottas.
Long perceived as a problem in large cities and the segregated neighbourhoods of Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmö, gang activity has now spread to smaller towns and cities, and shootings have already occurred in city centres. Youth gangs are involved in drug trafficking on a large scale and have also committed armed robberies.
The most recent feature of this phenomenon is the recruitment of younger and younger people to participate in violent acts. The gangs used to target young people aged between 18 and 22, but as the Swedish legal system has toughened sentences for those over 16, they have turned to using minors. Now the youngest offenders are only 12–15 years old. In the past, young people have been drawn into gangs, especially from families that were socio-economically disadvantaged compared to others, for example, because of parental unemployment, low education levels or mental health problems. In recent years, however, it has been noticed that children from middle and upper middle class Swedish families have also joined the groups.
A total of 30,000 people have been identified as being involved in gangs in some capacity, of whom more than 1200 are underage children and young people. Both criminal and preventive measures have been proposed to deal with this serious situation. In implementing the latter NGOs have a key role to play.
Fryshuset has a holistic approach to young people
Fryshuset, the largest youth centre in the Nordic countries, has been set up in a building in Hammarby, Stockholm, which was previously used as a industrial cold storage space. The building complex is a concrete example of the NGO’s holistic approach to youth work. Fryshuset provides leisure activities, while at the same time offering young people the opportunity to study creative subjects in primary and secondary schools. The secondary school curriculum offers courses ranging from basketball to skateboarding. Young women are empowered as music makers through workshops on songwriting and studio technology, for example.
Fryshuset aims to support young people, especially those who face challenges in their lives and are at higher risk of social exclusion than their peers. The criteria for admission to upper secondary education are only partly influenced by previous academic performance. The admission process takes into account, in particular, the young person’s motivation to develop as a student and his/her interest in the leisure activities on offer, as well as the young person’s life situation and individual support needs. Teachers and student welfare bodies at Fryshuset have a wide range of knowledge about the challenges young people face, and school education is accompanied by an encounter with youth work.
Those working with young people want to identify as quickly as possible the vulnerable children who are susceptible to or are already involved in gangs. For children and young people, gang influence means a destructive environment and, in the worst case, the growth of a criminal identity from which it is very difficult to break free. The seriousness of the situation is also illustrated by the greeting used by adults working with young people, as Raisa Lång Velazco, Fryshuset’s Head of International Programmes, explains to visitors. The young people are shown care and affection by hugging them, but the encounters also reveal whether the child or young person is wearing a bulletproof vest, one of the most concrete signs of belonging to a gang.
Fryshuset has more than 20 physical and digital meeting places in Sweden and joint activities through various networks, mandates and agreements with many civil society stakeholders. In addition to the Nordic countries, the organisation has cooperation projects in Europe, Africa and South America.
Järva i samverkan brings together actors in the neighbourhood
Järva i samverkan, or JIS for short is an association of the Järva area and its 17 actors in Stockholm. Launched in 2020, it was a response to the social problems of Järva and the need to promote cooperation between NGOs and the public and private sectors in the area. The Järva area includes the districts of Rinkeby, Kista, Tensta and Husby, among others. The area has a population of 60.000 to 70.000 people, of whom around 90 % are from ethnic minority backgrounds. The association’s aim has been to find sustainable solutions to the challenges faced by young people and families in Järva and to promote lasting change in the well-being of the communities.
–The Järva i samverkan network also aims to use the expertise of its actors and their interaction with residents to anticipate social changes in the area, says Georgia A-Teorin, Executive Director of Järva i samverkan.
At least 85 % of the association’s employees are themselves from Järva. When seeking solutions to problems in the area, the actors attach great importance to understanding the needs of the neighbourhoods, which can only come from genuine contact with the local community. The philosophy of JIS is influenced by the experience that external intervention and the implementation of short-term, external projects cannot provide lasting solutions to problems.
NGO’s in Järva i samverkan’s activities include Save the Children, Fryshuset in the Husby area, called Global Village, YMCA’s local association in Brumman, Rinkeby Folkets Hus, Norra Järva Scouts, Läxhjälpen and the local sports team Shanta IF, among others. The association is backed by one of Sweden’s largest foundations, Gålö Stiftelsen, which provides grants to organisations working with children and young people.
Fathers working together to change a generation’s experience
Pappagruppen is one example of Järva i samverkan’s outreach work. The twenty plus fathers attending the group, who meet weekly, are third and fourth-generation newcomers aged between 25 and 35. The men in the group are characterised by experiences of being outsiders in Swedish society and with a lack of parenting models. Nedal Shelash, Project Manager of the group, says that the group brings together fathers from all backgrounds around the same goal.
– The main question we ask is whether we want to live in this area – and if so, how we can change it. It is up to us to create our own village. No one else can take responsibility for it on our behalf.
Shelash believes in the power of the Järva community. The future of the area cannot be built by the work of organisations alone, but requires a genuine commitment to change from the local people. Shelash is keen to point out that only a very small group of people in Järva, and especially in the headline-grabbing Rinkeby, are criminals. The vast majority of people living in the suburbs are ordinary people who know their neighbourhood by its positive aspects. Like other locals, Shelash hopes that Rinkeby and Järva will not always be portrayed through the problems of the area:
– Don’t bully our young people and stigmatise the whole community. Write about our children who are doing well. Together we must be able to change this narrative.
One of the aims of the Fathers’ Programme is to build trust in Swedish society. The group has met with rescue and emergency workers, and together with the children they have practised, for example, CPR on a person who has had a medical attack. Next up is a visit to the police. The aim is to give the children a safe and positive first impression of the authorities, rather than the negative experiences of their fathers.
The impact of the Pappagruppen on the target groups has been surveyed through an annual qualitative study. Survey results have shown that fathers have deepened their relationship with their children, improved their self-esteem and strengthened their trust in public officials. Fathers have felt that where they have been unable to make their voices heard in other forums, they have found a place in the group to make a difference. Fathers have also been active in their peer group outside the meetings.
The Swedish welfare society has not reached everyone
After a decade of youth gang activity in Sweden, it has become clear that the phenomenon not only affects Swedish society as a whole but also reflects it. The phenomenon is so complex that it is not possible to speak only of individual factors, but the emergence of isolated and fragile areas in Sweden has been identified as one of the reasons for this development. In the 1960s and 70s, suburbs on the urban fringe were built as part of the ambitious Miljonprogrammet housing programme of the time, but the socio-economic investment in them has been insufficient as the population has grown and diversified. Housing has fallen into disrepair, schools in the areas have not been adequately supported, children and youth activities have not been provided, and services such as a post office, healthcare centre and library have disappeared one by one. Many pupils in these areas may have learning difficulties, drop out of school and have fallen through the support network. The young people in the area suffer from a deep sense of isolation and loneliness, and many carry the experience of not belonging with their Swedish peers.
Involving young people in the social debate
In addition to regional gaps and inequalities, Swedish society has begun to recognise that the voices and aspirations of Swedes from different backgrounds have not been heard in the public debate and that their agency has not been supported.
The work of Fryshuset and Järva i samverkan, on the other hand, supports the empowerment of young Swedes in a variety of ways and sees young people as playing a key role in conflict resolution. Fryshuset organises training courses for young people in the Dialogue for Peaceful Change mediation and conflict resolution method. Originally developed in Northern Ireland, the method increases young people’s understanding of how confrontations are structured and how they themselves act in conflicts. The aim is both to provide young people with tools to manage the conflicts in which they are involved and to help them prevent them from arising, including through mediated interaction. Young people will practise using the mediation method in situations simulating a chain of events based on real events. Representatives of the police, the municipality and the social services are invited to join. After completing the training, the young people become peace ambassadors, Fredsambassadörerna, and are empowered to contribute to the well-being of their communities. By empowering young people and giving them roles in maintaining peaceful coexistence, they also become committed to promoting change.
As gang crime has shaken Swedish society, the Järva area has been less and less visible in crime statistics over the last couple of years. Although research data on the change will not be available until later, it is already clear that the tireless work of NGOs with young people has reached out to the youth communities in the area, and actors like Järva i samverkan have led the way in how to boldly go about finding local solutions to local youth challenges.
Hankekoordinaattori, Suomen NMKY:n Liitto
+358 50 554 4258
Raisa Lång Velazco
Head of International Relations, Fryshuset
Suomen YMCA:n Liitto tekee työtä nuorten hyvinvoinnin, vaikuttamismahdollisuuksien, kestävän tulevaisuuden ja rauhan edistämiseksi. Tarjoamme nuorille kansainvälisiä mahdollisuuksia ja toteutamme kehitysyhteistyöohjelmaa YMCA-kumppaneiden kanssa. Jäsenyhdistyksemme 30 paikkakunnalla tekevät lapsi- ja nuorisotyötä ja tarjoavat monipuolista harrastustoimintaa.
Olemme sitoutumaton ja voittoa tavoittelematon toimija sekä osa maailman suurinta nuorisojärjestöä Suomessa vuodesta 1889 alkaen.