Fryshuset: Not only a youth centre

Stockholm has many pretty neighbourhoods: The medieval Gamla Stan, the luxurious Östermalm or the vibrant Norrmalm. Thus, the city is characterized by a lot of water and parks, the colourful facades of the Stortorget, pretty buildings such as the castle or the Nobel Prize Museum, boats and luxury shops. And then there is the north of the city, neighbourhoods like Rinkeby or Husby to which tourists are seldom drawn or if so, by unfortunate coincidences. These areas are rather socioeconomically poor and have a lot of immigrants, a high rate of unemployment and a low level of education. The youth center Fryshuset is dedicated to improving the lives of the young residents in Stockholm’s less fortunate postcodes. 

A space to feel comfortable

Walking down the hill from the metro station Gullmarsplan in the south of Stockholm, you can already see it in the distance: The white building on the roof of which “FRYSHUSET” is written in big red letters. That means “Freezer house” in Swedish and is the name of the largest youth centre in Stockholm. The centre owes its unusual name to the fact, that the building in which it was erected in 1984 was a former cold storage building. It has since been renovated. The hall behind the main entrance is light-flooded thanks to large windows and furnished in friendly colours. Here one forgets gladly ones everyday sorrows.

In Stockholm most people have heard of Fryshuset and young people between the ages of seven and 27 flock from all over the city to take advantage of the offers; Fryshuset features several schools, a skateboard park and a basketball arena, organizes concerts, discotheques and plays and runs many social programs. These mostly address socially disadvantaged people such as single mothers, immigrants or troubled adolescents, but also to people, who need help to get out of extremist movements or street gangs.

“To me, it is a place, where you can be yourself and feel safe,” Pedram Afshari tells. He is the project-manager of the social project Brobyggarna, which means “The Bridge Builders”. It is a project aimed at guiding troubled young boys into adulthood by providing them positive role models and teaching them fundamental values. To do so, 10 permanent and 12 voluntary workers offer many different activities, like skating, basketball and football.

Reach out

“Football is a great tool to gather youths,” Pedram explains. Especially during the high influx of refugees in 2015, many football clubs were overcrowded. He explains how the young people felt frustrated when they weren’t accepted into the other football clubs. It was part of his job to tell them, that this was not the result of racism, but of the rules these clubs follow: “Some of the young people who came to us had never been in a sports organization before. They have always played soccer on the streets, without a shirt or shin-pads,” Pedram remembers.

Fryshuset is open to everyone,” he proudly claims. The youth can come by spontaneously and don’t have to pay. “We just play football for fun here.” This allows the projects to get in contact with their target group and to set up a first meeting. Other times Fryshuset is contacted by parents or teachers, who wish for help with a ‘problem child’. Another way to get in contact with young people are the so-called ‘youth leaders’. These visit schools to present their projects to classes.

“These youth leaders have an aura that almost magically attracts children,” Pedram enthuses. He sees them as role models: “Most of them don’t have a degree in social sciences but have good social skills.” He himself looks youthful and charismatic, wears a red cap and a football jersey. “What I wish for teenagers is that they stand on their own two feet and go their own way,” Pedram says. He sees himself as someone who gives them the motivation to change their lives.

Make them stay

Once the adolescents have made it to the centre, they will potentially stay after the football matches or come earlier to get help with homework or finding a job; “One of our volunteers is even driving with the youths.” Later, mentoring and education play a much bigger role for the projects. “We trick the youths into coming here, but they don’t know it,” Pedram jokes.

One big aim of the project Brobyggarna is to establish a relationship between an advisor and the boys. These mentors then help the adolescents with all kind of problems: Some need help with professional or school matters. Others struggle with relationships with their family, friends or partners. “Most of the boys in Brobyggarna are missing a father figure in their everyday lives,” Pedram says. In an ideal case the mentors can partially replace the need for a father figure.

The mentor sessions are either done one-to-one or in groups. “Of course, in a face-to-face conversation, I can concentrate on the boy I am working with and help him better.” But one-to-one talks are expensive, whereas group sessions are cheaper. Because the permanent employees like Pedram have to be paid. The financing is made up of funds from the city, the state and the EU. “In a group session we can turn to more boys at once, but maybe won’t reach all of them. One advantage of this is, that the boys can meet people, who are in the same situation as they are.” This way they can learn from each other by hearing how others dealt with their experiences.

During ‘lessons’, the youth leaders try to teach the boys fundamental values and to prepare them for life. “Sometimes it’s just: How do I behave in an interview to get the job I want?”, Pedram explains, “Sometimes we deal with more complex questions…”. Like identity, for instance. Who am I? Who are you? These are the questions young men ask themselves in group sessions with mentors. They sit together and work with stories that describe specific situations. Fryshuset either develops these working materials itself or obtains them through cooperation with, for example, scouts. “The role of the mentor is to get the young people out of their comfort zone and to make them think. We then ask: What do you think about this? Why do you think this? Would it be different, if the same thing happened to a woman or a child? And then we discuss.”

Teach the everyday life

2015 was a peak immigration year all over Europe, with 162,877 people seeking asylum in Sweden. “Many of them were ‘lonely comers’,” Pedram explains. In fact, more than 20 percent of asylum seekers were minors, who arrived in Sweden without parents or other legal guardians. For this reason, Fryshuset developed many new social programs in 2015. Pedram for example, also works with young immigrants in the project “To live in Sweden”.

“One thing we do with ‘newcomers’ in Sweden is to talk about how they feel about the culture they left behind and about the culture they are confronted to in Sweden.” Many things that we take for granted must be taught anew. For example, the fact, that you look people in the eye when having a conversation.  Another aspect is sexual education and the contact with women. “Some of them have never been to a swimming pool and seen a woman in a bikini before. For us that’s easy, we grew up in the western world, for them it’s not,” Pedram states, “It’s very basic, but no one in Sweden teaches these things to them.” He believes that everyone concentrates on finding a job, a place to go to school or an apartment and learning the language of the country. “But how are you going to be a part of the society, if you don’t know the social codes?”, he asks.

Prevention instead of intervention

Before starting at Fryshuset, Pedram worked as a government social worker. “That was very frustrating sometimes,” he admits, “I always felt like I could not make any difference in that job. I always came, when it was already too late.” To him, there are several signs indicating, that a child is on the wrong path. Usually a social worker is only contacted when something bad has happened: The child has skipped school, shoplifted or injured someone, and sometimes even the police are involved. “So, until I could help, I either had to wait until something bad happened or hope that an adult would care enough about the child to notice something is wrong.”

In his experience, a teacher or a parent, who seeks help early, is often lacking. In addition, authority figures sometimes are not in contact enough and do not work together: “Everyone just does their own thing,” he criticizes. “To me, every child should have the right to grow up in a safe environment,” Pedram postulates, “But you can’t choose your parents and teachers – and sometimes they fail.”

“Now I’m not doing intervention anymore. I’m doing prevention.” By that he means, that he can teach young people, especially boys with a different cultural background, values and give them trust – before something bad happens. “When I’m working with a group of 50 adolescents, I maybe won’t be able to help all of them. But if I reach 20, that already makes a difference.” He has been working for Fryshuset for seven years now. “Working here has meant a lower income for me. But at least I feel like my work really helps.”