Mirvat Shikh Shouk lives in Malmö with her husband and three children. They arrived in Sweden four years ago and at first lived in refugee housing. Now, they have residency permits and live in a government apartment on the condition that they find their own place in four years (Sweden has housing shortages).
Mirvat dropped out of school at age sixteen to marry and have children, which she says she wanted to do. She completed her language courses and is now in school, working towards a high school degree. She plans to find work after this as pursuing further study without working full time would be financially hard.
She says she has changed since leaving Syria; she is more outspoken, asks questions and gets things done. She has also made friends with Swedes and people of other nationalities from her language studies. Her group was taken to visit a church as part of learning about Swedish society and she says that her awareness of other practices was already strong in Syria, and that learning about other religions strengthens her Muslim identity. She speaks warmly about being invited to peoples’ homes for Christmas dinners, and about how they prepared non-alcoholic beverages and foods for her and also ate and drank what they liked at the same table. During Ramadan, Swedish friends would invite her to come to their houses to cook ftour together as in the refugee residences they had no kitchen access and could only eat in the dining hall.
She attends public events like cultural festivals in town that include her children but says that she is too busy with studies and family to be involved in civil society activities. Significantly, her whole family took part in a documentary for Swedish television in which the lives of refugee families were followed for three years. She says this was a rich experience for them as they met many people and expressed themselves. At times, she felt it was too much of an engagement and wanted to stop but they all continued as she has a strong sense of commitment once she gives her word.
She has adopted new practices learned in Sweden. She pays attention to fitness and nutrition, and marvels at how you can see people in their sixties everywhere keeping active and in good shape (whereas “in Syria by this age people are sitting, in poor shape”). She says that she also learned self-reliance and talks about the importance of taking time to be alone and do things for herself as well as full days spent with friends, eating lunch and going to do something fun or interesting. She says that previously she was never alone and she thought that her time “should be devoted to her children and husband.” Her children and family’s acceptance (here and in Syria) depends on her “making them aware of how she is just like them, getting stressed and tired,” and how she too has separate needs, desires and goals. She finds encouragement from them because she “made them understand.”
She feels the Swedish bureaucratic procedures are unduly slow and get into unnecessary detail. She was frustrated when, in her confusion upon arrival, she made a mistake with a single number on one of her daughter’s forms and they had to start all over again. She said their lives did not start in Sweden until after the first year there when they got residency permits and their own apartment because prior to this they were in tight quarters, often feeling despondent as they could not study, work, enter society or cook their own food.