At Stockholm's “Fryshuset” (the Cold Store) a 25-year-old social entrepreneurship is turning the destructive forces which often plague social outsiders to positive forces and insider status. New methods grow to meet new demands. The aim is to catch youth at risk of falling outside of society, to recognise their potential and believe in their power so that they could stay in school and later enter working life.
It's a gray and cold early Stockholm evening the first Friday in May. A group of young men and women of many nationalities gather by the City Hall underground station, where they change into light green winter jackets with “Easy Street” printed on the back.
They are this evening's hosts covering the public transport system, employed by Fryshuset, where Easy Street is one of the many programmes reaching out to young people at risk. Easy Street is in itself a way to get young people with a tough background into the labour market.
Those who finish the training to become an Easy Street host (the training is run in cooperation with Tollare Folk High School and the police), will get to work as one. The idea is to turn destructive power into positive energy which can benefit society.
The hosts always work in pairs, and visit vulnerable underground lines and stations until two in the morning at weekends. Many of them used to hang out in gangs like the ones they meet on their rounds. They know the milieus, they know the areas and they know the codes. Often they will try to win over the gang leaders.
The Citygroup, a junior branch of Easy Street, are still at Easy Street's offices this evening. They'll go out in about half an hour, heading for where young people might be gathering tonight. The team consists of leaders Nada Dimi and Yahya Mohammed Ahmed and their trainees Iris Honkala, Emilie Söderström and Sayjad Jawad. They'll be looking for parties, youth recreation centres or other attractive places for young people to gather.
The City group has 24 trainees between the ages of 18 to 20, in addition to the two leaders, who work for free giving education and walking night rounds. One aim for Iris, Emilie and Sayad is to promote safety and prevent people becoming social outsiders.
“We approach young people in their own environments, and get to know them. We gain their trust by returning over and over to the same group, so they know we're there to help, not to make problems for them”, says Nada Dimi.
We travel to T-centralen (Stockholm's main underground interchange) and what is commonly known as “plattan” - “the board”. Two Easy Street hosts are already there, as well as security guards and police. It soon becomes clear they enjoy an extensive contact network. Various gangs come up and greet the male members of the City group with the typical male handshake. There's the odd hug. Nada Dimi and Yahya Mohammed Ahmed say hello to young people, security guards and police. It's an important part of their job to cooperate with them.
“We don't enter into situations we feel we won't be able to master. We complement the police, security guards, social workers and we help each other, but it is easier for us to talk to the youths themselves. We are more like grown-up pals to them than
the others”, says Nada Dimi.
”They are very competent and a great help. They meet the youths on their own terms”, says one of the security guards we meet at the underground this evening.
The night remains calm. We wander up and down streets.
Every so often there are spontaneous meetings, often surprisingly warm-hearted. We part company around eleven o'clock. Nada Dimi and Yahya Mohammed Ahmed have another three hours of walking to do.
Easy Street runs several programmes. In addition to the public transport project, some work with supporting young victims of crime. There are also courses for youths in the suburbs, teaching them law, conflict resolution and ethics and morale.
They then “patrol” their areas with older hosts. There are many stories of people managing to break free from being outsiders with the help of Easy Street. One example is seven truants who used to hang around in Malmö, who went from 80 per cent truancy to full attendance while improving their grades from 30 to 200 points. Today they're attending upper secondary education.
“Many down-and-out youths seek like-minded people. Our forte is that we come from that same background. That is our unique qualification”, explains Beatrice Jabbour. She has been working at Fryshuset for ten years.
She knows what she's talking about. She too comes from a tough background, but with Fryshuset she finally found an environment where she could be herself. She describes her job as a lifestyle or a calling. She underlines that Fryshuset's work is meant to complement other resources in society, and that its strength is to be successful at the entry level.
Easy Street is also present in some schools, to create a safe social environment and to give support to pupils. Youths tend to come to school even if they lack motivation to study, so it is important to be present also here.
It is also important to present an alternative for young people to the criminal gangs which often hang out near some schools, trying to recruit often very young pupils.
“There is immense power and potential within the young people exposed to these dangers, and we recognise that potential rather than doing what is so often done; focusing on the problems. Many of those we meet show an amazing spirit of entrepreneurship.
They need it to survive, and it is the same qualities we often see in great leaders”, say Beatrice Jabbour.
The methods needed to prevent young people ending up as outsiders are simple, she says.
It is all about being patient and never giving in. The turning point often comes when the consequences of living as an outsider start getting too serious. People in that situation often open up to the idea of finding a way out, and that is when they need support from people with similar backgrounds, where they can be themselves and where others believe in them.
Fryshuset and its programmes have been established and recognised in Stockholm for a long time now. As part of his 60 years celebration, the Swedish king invited Fryshuset to the palace, to present a one day introduction on the theme “From outsider to insider” in front of the royal family and government hosts. Fryshuset staff also give many presentations, often at police academies and as part of the education for social workers and teachers. Anders Carlberg, founder of Fryshuset and now its managing director, has held speeches for 100,000 people in total. He still thinks things are moving too slowly.
“I am worried about outsiders' situation, and that it will end in tears if we don't do something”, says Anders Carlberg.
He wants a completely different level of commitment to young people and their situation from what he sees today, and calls for more adults to be role models and conversation partners for the youth of today. Social evolution has seen a prolonging of the time we spend as youths, which in turn has led to a widening of the generation gap. Adults and youths no longer meet in the same way through everyday work - the arena where they used to learn to understand the codes of adult life. Young people's role models become altogether different, created in their own worlds.
“All change begins in the relationship between humans, and cannot be created through bureaucracy. You need capable adults, acting like adults but who communicate with young people as their friends”, says Anders Carlberg.
At the very least, he says, we should contemplate the economical aspects of prevention thinking. Avoiding only one placement in a juvenile institution saves around one million Swedish crowns (€ 107,000) a year. That is worth keeping in mind when municipalities cut their budgets for youth projects. He has many stories of young people who have joined Fryshuset's programmes and broken free from their status as outsiders. The other day he met one who now ran his own business, with a yearly turnover of 250 million Swedish crowns (€ 26 million). Next year sees the start of a new higher secondary education course in international enterprise, making use of the high variety of languages spoken by young people on the fringes of society.
“There's a thin line between wanting vengeance and wanting a second chance” says Anders Carlberg.
Fryshuset was established in 1984 in a closed down cold store. The original idea was to create a meeting place for basketball and rock music enthusiasts, but the social commitment soon grew from this.
Today Fryshuset comprises 24,000 square metres, runs an upper secondary school with 1000 students as well as some 30 programmes - one being a big skateboard project. There are some 15,000 regular users, and as many visitors a month to other
one-off events. Fryshuset employs 357 people; 130 in the school and 150 in “Easy Street”. In 2006 the turnover was 180 million Swedish crowns (€ 19.2 million) out of which 16.6 million Swedish crowns was municipal subsidies.
Since 2006 Easy Street has also been operating in Gothenburg and Malmö. Fryshuset also works with honour related violence, children of psychologically ill parents, gang-members seeking a way out, single mothers and much more.
For more information on the ideas behind Fryshuset, read the book ”Generationsklyftan hotar demokratin” (The threat to democracy from the generation gap) by Anders Carlberg.
Also see www.fryshuset.se