How do you portray refugees without an “us” versus “them” mentality?
The was the goal that Stockholm-based photographer (and PPD reader) Lola Akinmade Åkerström set for herself recently when she spent some time at the Solbacka Integrationscenter in Sweden – a haven for newly arrived refugees hoping to escape from their past, learn Swedish, and integrate into their new home.
“Sweden has seen a mass influx of refugees seeking asylum recently, and the Migration Board works with a lot of subsidized public and private holding centers that take care of refugees for months, even years while their applications are being processed,” says Åkerström, whose work has appeared in National Geographic Traveler, The Guardian,Travel + Leisure, the San Francisco Chronicle and New York Magazine, as well as on the National Geographic Channel, the BBC, CNN and Fodors. com.
Located about an hour and a half south of Stockholm, the Solbacka center integrates refugees into Swedish society through language classes, activities, and field trips. “The property itself is a magnificent complex of buildings on several hectares of land,” says Åkerström. “It was once a boarding school for wealthy kids, and then it was abandoned for years. It was newly renovated over the last two years and converted into the integration center.”
Åkerström’s personal project comes against the backdrop of the refugee crisis in Europe that emerged over the past year, as Syrians and others in the Middle East and Africa have fled war and poverty in hope of better lives. The influx of migrants has brought with it both calls for aid and social unease.
Al Jazeera noted recently that Swedish authorities have asked police and the country's migration agency to prepare expulsions of up to 80,000 refugees and migrants who arrived in 2015. "We are talking about 60,000 people, but the number could climb to 80,000,” noted Swedish Interior Minister Anders Ygeman. More than 160,000 people sought asylum in Sweden last year. About 55 percent of applications are expected to be accepted, reported Al Jazeera.
Åkerström photographs the refugees and migrants at Solbacka living in an in-between space, where their past is behind them and their future is uncertain.
“The goal is to be with them in the moment — in the now,” she says, ‘because that is really what matters. They are safe and alive. So my goal is simple. To celebrate their humanity, those moments of absolute joy and as they are today.”