Connecting urban pasts and futures in the youth work and urban justice project
“Our strength is to create relationships and we create relationships with young people that we recognise ourselves in and that we understand.”
This is Ermina Hajdarevic, a young leader who works for an organisation called Helamalmö, which engages in community work with children and young inhabitants in disadvantaged areas in the eastern part of Malmö. Ermina is talking about her experiences as an inhabitant in the city of Malmö and as a youth leader in Helamalmö. She was interviewed during spring 2021 as part of a project initiated by ‘The Gathered Voices of Malmö’, a cultural network formed from a research initiative. During winter 2019, a network of scholars, consisting of researchers, activists, culture workers and members of civic society, began to collaborate on a research initiative. After two years of collaboration, the cultural association, “The Gathered Voices of Malmö” (MSR, Malmös samlade röster) was formed. The main goal for MSR was to document the experiences of marginalised inhabitants in the city of Malmö. Its first project, “The Youth Work and Urban Justice Project”, initiated by MSR with an urban social movement called Helamalmö, involved youth leaders being interviewed after conversational training. All conversations that took place during spring 2021 aimed to investigate memories of the city of Malmö, memories of neighbourhoods lived in as a child, experiences of being the racialised other, the initial steps they took to engage with Helamalmö and the work that takes place today in Helamalmö. In all, six youth leaders were interviewed by members of MSR. I, Sima Wolgast, interviewed, among others, a youth leader from Helamalmö, Ermina Hajdarevic.
Malmö, with close to 350,000 inhabitants, is Sweden’s third largest city and just like in all major cities there are areas and districts in Malmö with different histories. Since 2016, the municipality of Malmö has been divided into 19 districts, with the most socially disadvantaged areas in the northeast, east and southeast of the city. The city of Malmö has undergone a similar transformation as many other post-industrial cities, including processes of gentrification. The effect of the large wave of urban growth together with profit-oriented logic has caused low-income groups to be marginalised to relatively poor areas, with scarce access to social and spatial rights and needs. While some socio-economically marginalised inhabitants are pushed away from attractive spaces, upscale neighbourhoods by the sea and profit-oriented logic reshape the old city-centre and other centrally located and attractive spaces in the city-centre.
Memories of the city of Malmö and a childhood
The conversation with Ermina took place in mid-April at 10 a.m. Ermina generously starts to share and open up as soon as she receives the first question. She clarifies that she is 25 years old and that she was born in Sofielund in Malmö. She lived her first six years in Augustenborg, situated in the east part of the city. Ermina moved to different parts of Malmö and, when starting school, the family moved to Segevång. Segevång is an area in northwest of Malmö, belonging to Kirseberg district. The place name Segevång has its origin in Segeån, a river flowing in the northeast of the area. Farmers living in the area cultivated the land before it became a more densely populated area in the 1930s onwards, with a mental hospital and the Sege Park as one of the area’s first urban constructions.
Ermina has vivid memories of her childhood when she lived in Segevång with both of her parents between the age of seven and twelve. Ermina and her family lived among the high-rise buildings. The conversation explored the different areas Ermina has lived in and how her experiences have influenced her.
Ermina: “I lived in Segevång.”
Sima: “When you think back to Segevång, did you experience that area as an extra disadvantaged area?”
Ermina: “No, I did not. I did not experience it like that (laughter)”
Sima: “Okay, how did you experience the area?”
Ermina: “I experienced it as having many green areas. I played football. But I did not go out so much, I liked to stay at home, but we, well… (laughter). I experienced it like a normal area, with a lot of green places. There were a lot of kids outside, a lot of rabbits, really a lot. We were outside and biked, like that, nothing strange. My parents divorced and me and my mother moved a bit away. Arlöv, outside Malmö, but it is a part of Burlöv, just a stone’s throw away from Segevång. Five minutes away. Arlöv was more exposed than Segevång. There is child poverty, there is a lot of people that do not have breakfast. There are a lot of rental apartments. I went to school in Arlöv for two years, it was pretty much chaos. It was chaos. And my parents told me not to stay in that school. So, I applied to a high school where sports are taught.”
Ermina didn’t experience Segevång as disadvantaged. On the other hand, she remembered Arlöv as a very exposed area with a lot of socioeconomic issues. Ermina explains how different areas she has lived in, together with other experiences from her childhood, have influenced her:
Sima: “If you reflect upon the different areas you have lived in, how have they affected you? From Segevång, to Arlöv, to where you are now?”
Ermina: “Well, personally, I don’t know, I have never reflected on how they have affected me. It is a part of one’s everyday life and all the impressions you get. Emm, but at the same time, I came to the conclusion that I wanted to be a social worker, so it has apparently affected my choices. Well, I think that I have experienced a reality that gives me tools to work with people. I have insight. I have been there. My mother was a single mum during that time. We went from having money, well, to: ‘Now you can’t have all those Adidas hoodies that other kids buy, or Converse, maybe it will be a second-hand jacket this year’. Well, it was another reality.”
Parents and experiences of trauma
Ermina’s parents, especially her mother, have been important people in Ermina’s life. Ermina describes her mother as a strong person, who was the one she could have a stable relationship with and who guided her through different phases in her life. Her relationship with her mother and her ability to relate to others later became a source of inspiration as a leader in Helamalmö. Both of her parents fled the war in Bosnia during the 90s and had to start their lives from scratch in Sweden. Ermina describes the first period in Sweden as an intensive period. Her parents didn’t have time to reflect upon their escape and the trauma the war caused them. Nowadays, since her parents are older, it is easier for them to talk about the war. Ermina believes that some of the trauma is transferred from her parents to her. The trauma has caused fears that can limit how far her parents allow themselves to dream and the extent to which they allow their children to try to make their dreams come true:
Sima: “How do you notice that the trauma has been transferred to you, or that you have been affected by your parent’s trauma. “
Ermina: “I think it has to do with dreams, dreams both for themselves and for us and where the limit goes.”
Sima: “Okay. So, trauma can set boundaries in dreams – what you can dream and what you allow your children to dream and hope for. Is that what you think?”
Ermina: “So, yes, they allow me for example to make music. They say: ‘Do it, but study at the same time.’ That is the framework. So, I’ve been studying and I’m making music. And now I have said: ‘Okay but now you let me be (laughs). Now I have to do my thing’. They are very supportive; it is not about that. They have so many fears, for example, that one should not have to fight like them. I think it is based on fears and not on wanting to limit your child. That you just can’t see beyond that fear and the limits it creates.”
Racism and owning your identity
Beside the intergenerational trauma, Ermina herself experienced trauma in Sweden. Her identity is both Bosnian and Swedish, and she has nowadays no problem switching between these identities. Although she was born in Sweden, Ermina did experience otherness in different situations in Swedish society, with both children and adults, by not being seen as completely Swedish.
Ermina: “I played football in a team where it was just me who was foreign and the only one with parents with a Muslim background and the only Muslim, well, in the class as well. It has turned out, I do not know how to explain it, but people’s ignorance can sometimes come out, and even if they do not mean bad you can take it badly and feel hurt. At least when you are a teenager and searching for an identity. One can be a little affected by it. So, yes.”
Sima: “Is there anything concrete you remember? If you can give examples when people have not meant badly, but it has been hard to hear?”
Ermina: “Yes, so it may have been from children in the class. Now, it is related to my faith, but just like that when you learned about Islam, and they would keep insulting Islam and screaming, so you think like ‘do not abuse his name’ (laugh). But then you can’t do so much. I hardly dared to say that I was a Muslim. And my mom said you should be proud. She said: ‘You have to own your faith, because if you do not own it, then they will step on it’. When that sentence landed in my essence, so that I could live by it, I was good. “
Sima: “So, you own your faith more.”
Sima: “Were there other things that could be linked to your background that people commented on?”
Ermina: “Well, I was… I do not want to say a nerd, but I had high demands on myself and my studied, so when we went to high school, I wanted an A in Swedish. I knew I could get an A. I knew I could write; my vocabulary was good and everything. Then I do not know, I couldn’t remember, and so I got a B. I was striving for an A, so I asked: ‘What can I do before the semester ends to raise my grade’. The teacher said straight out, “You know I do not think that you can get an A’. I asked why? I cannot quote her, but it was kind of like: ‘Your first language is not Swedish, you are not entirely Swedish’. That was her reason. I was born in Sweden and knew the Swedish language. And I have now graduated, but even today it feels like: ‘You cannot get an A, because you are not completely Swedish really’. There, that’s an example.”
The otherhood she experienced during her youth was different, depending on if it originated from comments made by other young people or if it was adults commenting on her. Young people seemed to be more expressive with their point of views and remarks, meaning Ermina did not want to reveal her faith at first. With help of her mother, she later overcame her insecurity and could later be proud of being a Muslim. The comments from adults were trickier. Teachers or sports-leaders commented on her identity rather than her skills. They made clear that in their point of view, Ermina was not Swedish enough. In other cases, she was neglected. The experiences of adults discriminating her seem to have been felt more harshly by Ermina and she can still feel some shortcomings in specific contexts even today.
The first encounter with Helamalmö
Today, Ermina is a social worker after coming in contact with leaders working in social projects organised by Malbas, a Basketball club in Malmö, as a child. Joining Malbas was the common way for young people to get in touch with Helamalmö. One of the young Malbas leaders, Nicolas Lunabbas, initiated an independent organisation that is now called Helamalmö. Ermina recalls her first encounter with leaders that became a part of the organisation Helamalmö.
“I was in second grade. How old are you then [when you are in second grade]? Nine, ten or something? They got some money to bring out players from Malbas. They played basketball professionally, but did something alongside the basketball playing, alongside their professional playing. The leaders encountered a reality, coming out to city areas with poverty, child poverty and segregation and other things that we think do not exist in Sweden.”
Since 2004, Helamalmö has arranged activities for children and youths primarily in disadvantaged parts of Malmö. The organisation is based on the principle of engaging young people in the creation of locally relevant activities, and then training them and also employing them as youth leaders. Since 2017, Helamalmö has run an open venue or a community centre at Nydalatorget in Malmö. Through this, they offer youth activities, but have also provided the city area with access to a public library, a youth clinic, free exercise opportunities for young and old, as well as free breakfasts every morning. Helamalmö increases the cohesion and sustainability of the area. They create collaboration between trade and commerce actors, municipal authorities and institutions of higher education to draw resources into a politically and socially disadvantaged area. Helamalmö may have started as an organisation for youth and leisure work but has now developed into an organisation with far greater ambition, which is based on the transformation of urban spaces. Helamalmö can be described as a space-claiming, urban justice movement.
As mentioned, Helamalmö grew out of Malbas, the largest basketball club in Malmö. The basketball club has been in existence for over twenty years, and alongside offering basketball training to young people, the club also contributed to community-oriented activities. One of the activities that they were involved in for more than two decades was to send professional basketball players to disadvantaged suburbs. Soon one of the basketball players and leader Nicolas, or “Nic”, discovered that it was not enough just to come out and play basketball with the children.
Ermina: “Nic was out in the field and saw what was happening and what needs there were. That there was hunger and there were a lot more issues. It was not enough to come out and play basket. I think that is why we connected so well with him when he came to our school. Now it is only him that I remember. So, I was in that programme, but I moved. So, I was not in the program all the time. But that was my first encounter with the leaders. I have had Nic on Facebook and followed the work of Helamalmö but did not really understand what it was. It was three years ago, when I started to study to become a social worker. We had to attend an internship site and there was a study visit related to that. Then I came in contact with Helamalmö again.”
Nicolas soon understood that no one really wanted to address child poverty in Malmö in a serious way. So, he started to build his own infrastructure consisting of inhabitants that themselves have experienced a life in the disadvantaged suburbs. One core value that was going to permeate the organisation was that all activities were to be based on the basic needs of the children. The idea was influenced from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, where the most fundamental needs have to be fulfilled before transcendence to other needs is possible, such as the need for self-actualisation. In other words, the idea is that the most basic needs of individuals must be met before they become motivated to achieve higher-level needs. Ermina explains the whole process as a personal conflict for Nicolas:
“It was a conflict for him and so he started to seek, create his own, try to get it right, where he could adapt activities to children. It was the reason that we were drawn to him, it was not about the basketball, it was because it was fun. We could decide. And it is the same with the meeting-hall in Nydala. If the kids like to do something, we can make it come true. He has influenced that way of working with the kids.”
When talking about her own experience of racism, Ermina relates her own disadvantaged situation as a child to the children and young people that she is working with today. She can see that poverty and racism contributes to narrowed opportunities for children and young people to explore their own lives and dreams:
Sima: “Did these kinds of things happen often, being neglected or singled out due to your religion or double identities, or was it rare but harsh?”
Ermina: “A few times. It is more about a feeling, what kind of feeling you get […] I had kind of accepted some things, and just: ‘Yeah, bro it’s the way it is’ (laughter).”
Sima: “Exactly, so some things you get used to, you kind of accept them in the end.”
Ermina. “Yes, I think it becomes part of you, then it can determine your future, it can happen, but it may not happen to everyone. I know from my job, my children, my kids how they limit themselves […] It can go so far so that they don’t even have any dreams, there is not even a fantasy, and no freedom to dare to dream and dare to see themselves where they might want to be.”
Ermina is describing the invisible boundaries that are built up in children’s minds, caused by the racism that they encounter in Swedish society and in the media among other things. The way the media casts suspicion on the inhabitants of the suburbs is seen as one of the sources of limitation to what children and young people in the suburbs allow themselves to desire and dream of in life.
Ermina: “Well, I think the media has a very big influence on the children. They read about their neighbourhood which is always written about in a negative way. They feel suspected. So, I work with children who are eight, nine, and ten years old, and are suspected by the police and people in general, because if they look a certain way, people will get scared of them. And to constantly face that, that they are something that they may not be, affects them. It makes sense that you slowly become something you are not, just because everyone expects that of you. I think there are many factors that come into play there. Yes, I stick to what I said.”
Ermina is also reflecting on how experiences of living in disadvantaged social areas and having a socioeconomically disadvantaged life-situation have been a crucial component for all leaders in Helamalmö. These experiences are now tools that are used to establish relationships with vulnerable children, in order to motivate them in different areas of life.
Sima: “Okay, I’m thinking of the youth leaders of Helamalmö, do you think there is a common denominator? Something you have in common?”
Ermina: “Yes, it’s our background.”
Sima: “Can you tell me more about that?”
Ermina: “We do not all have exactly the same background and experience, but we have lived, and we have grown up in vulnerable areas. Some have been ‘trouble kids’ that have bonded with a safe adult, with whom they have had a relationship. Several of us have had that experience. We can understand the kids, and yes [in terms of] geographically, where you grew up, experiences… Maybe in meeting a confident adult role model… Nic usually says that there are no non-mixed Swedes here. There are people who have experiences, it is important to have experience and have felt it in a certain way in your body. That experience becomes a driving force and a tool later in one’s work.”
Sima: “So, the experiences settle in the body, in the memory and it is the common denominator and the driving force to continue to help children and young people in the same situation? Is there anything else it does, this experience, in addition to creating common drive?”
Ermina: “These are the key tools and the reason why Helamalmö has been able to develop and continues to develop. I think it’s a key factor in making it work. Our strength is to create relationships and we create relationships with young people that we recognise ourselves in and that we understand and then you know how to reach them and that is how relationships are created. It has been sustainable. I think otherwise it would have failed after so many years.”
Sima: “Right. So, it is based on experience and thanks to experiences you can create relationships. Is that so?”
Ermina: “I think so.”
At end of the conversation there was a mutual gratefulness for the conversation. When talking about parental trauma, intergenerational-trauma and the racism that exists in the Swedish society, both Ermina and I could feel a sense of deep understanding. There was no need to explicitly explain any specific emotions, such as grief, loss, sadness and rage. At the end of the conversation, Ermina said that she was not uncomfortable in answering my questions, knowing that I understood her even though I did not know her. Ermina also explained that the conversation allowed her to make a connection between her past, her memories and her present activities in Helamalmö. She can see more clearly what her work is about, and she can also more mindfully reflect upon her future, how she wants to develop in the organisation and how she wishes to contribute to her community.
In this conversation, Ermina´s memories take us beyond the present, and permit us to transcend the here-and-now. At the same time, her visual descriptions of different parts of Malmö, her rich semantic memories and gestures, taken together, promote a feeling of the past entering the present, making the conversation vivid and alive. She is very much aware, or in some sense becomes aware during the conversation of how her past has influenced both her mind and choices in life. Besides reflecting upon different parts of Malmö and how they have affected her, she also describes how different experiences affected her in a more profound way. Her parents’ trauma and racism have caused some limits in her life that she has overcome. Today she has the insight that she had to conquer an ownership over her own faith, her life and choices, in order to be able to define her own future. Ermina today can see these same obstacles in children in disadvantaged areas of Malmö. She sees how they are limited, not only by not having few material resources, but also by the limits developed over time in their minds. These limits are most noticeable in areas in Malmö that are exposed to poverty, racialisation, and are the target of negative images in the media. Further, the limits restrict hopes, dreams and lives. In the end there is hope though. Thanks to their experiences of disadvantaged areas in Malmö, Ermina believes that the leaders of Helamalmö can identify with the children and establish relationships with children in these areas. She can see that their drive to care and offer a secure relationship with an adult brings other visions into the children’s minds. To be listened to by secure adults and to see other worlds with help of projects conducted by Helamalmö, can help them to want to dream and hope for more for themselves.
Enrique Perez, interview with Nicolas Lunabba, Hur gör vi då?, podcast audio, 2019, https://podcasts.apple.com/se/podcast/hur-g%C3%B6r-vi-d%C3%A5/id1459133737?i=1000434433160