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Migrant Lives

When Afghan Refugee Weavers Meet Swedish Designers

For Afghan asylum seekers arriving in cold Sweden, the transition isn’t always simple — but a new project is aiming to ease the way.

Anna Forsberg and Afghan craftsmen
Anna Forsberg and Afghan craftsmen
Ric Wasserman

STOCKHOLM — A tightly packed showroom and workspace in the Swedish capital is filled with textile designs. Afghan and Swedish patterns combine to make entirely new and unique creations.

This is Stage One of the "Craft and Integration" project — An initiative that is partnering newly arrived young Afghan rug and textile makers with Swedish designers and rug experts.

"We should work with young people coming to Sweden who bring a lot of knowledge from their home countries and they can also teach us something about patterns, traditions, and techniques," said Anna Forsberg, the Swedish project director.

Forsberg saw lots of untapped potential here, both artistically and as a business. Young refugees have brought with them incredible skills in centuries-old Afghan weaving traditions.

"When so many refugees came to Sweden in 2015 I thought that maybe I should do something in Sweden as well that connects to textile and design," Anna recalled.

Thirty-five thousand unaccompanied children and adolescents sought asylum in Sweden in 2015. Half of them are young boys from Afghanistan. Many have little formal education. But some of them are talented textile and rug craftsmen.

Back in her shop, Forsberg shows Abedin Mohammedi how to use a Swedish loom. Now 18, Abedin arrived in Sweden two years ago. He's been involved in the Craft and Integration Project for the past six months. Back in Afghanistan, Abedin sat by his mother on the kitchen floor, and learned to make rugs from the age of 11.

He effortlessly gets the hang of the Swedish loom, and is confidently weaving within five minutes. But he's not convinced this is for him. Making a handwoven rug is time consuming.

"I know how to make Afghan rugs and that's pretty boring," he told me. "I was a child making rugs which took three to five months."

Forsberg has just ordered a loom from Afghanistan. And when Abedin hears that, he brightens up. It's something he knows about: "I can do that. If they get an Afghan loom I can teach others," he says.

The Craft and Integration project — Photo: Ric Wasserman

Stina Lanneskog is a textile designer and concept developer, and Forsberg's partner in the project. She tells me that young men like Abedin might surprise themselves once exposed to new approaches. "I can teach them through the design process and being creative that you can do so much more than you know," she said.

Lanneskog tells me they started the creative process with an experiment: The Swedes drew typical traditional Swedish patterns on paper, while the Afghan boys drew patterns from their own tradition. Then they cut them out, and mixed them up.

"Everyone had their shape and then we placed it on this black paper together. It's a quick and quite visual way to see how it will become in the end," she explained.

At the project launch I noticed people looking at the Afghan-Swedish textile mix. They looked pleasantly puzzled. "It's a mix that you can't really put your finger on," Lanneskog noted. "You know it, but you can't understand where you've seen it. So it's like a known and an unknown."

That's the whole idea: to create an entirely new design, spanning two very different cultures.

With his creations in the public eye, Abedin is looking rather proud. Far from his family, surrounded by a new language and culture, he has faced plenty of challenges since arriving. Despite all that, he tells me that he hopes he'll be allowed to stay. "Sweden is a good country. There's freedom of movement, I can go to school," Abedin says. "I can work. It's good for me here."

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