Both of Maria Kjellberg Harkins’ children, now seven and ten years old, were born in Hong Kong, where Maria lived for many years before coming to Malaysia. Before Hong Kong, Maria lived in a number of other countries around the world. In fact, the Chairwoman of the Swedish Women’s Education Association (SWEA), spent most of her childhood and all of her adult life not living in Sweden.
The only time she lived there was on her own and away from family (still stationed overseas) when she attended boarding school there. Those six years had a deep impact on Maria’s sense of identity. Those years left her with a lifelong love for her country’s language and culture and a commitment to help preserve both.
SWEA was founded 30 years ago by a woman like Maria, Agneta Nilsson. Agneta made the USA her new home but wanted to ensure that even in her new environment she would not lose her roots, that other Swedish women living abroad would have support and that their children would grow up understanding what it means to be Swedish. Today SWEA has about 9,000 members in 77 chapters worldwide.
What started three decades ago means that today a Swedish family moving to any number of countries country can call the local chapter for help and information. Likewise, members are not surprised to receive such calls and are happy to help in any way they can.
“We support the wives and children by giving them activities, by helping them make educated decisions about schools…” Maria says.
Once the families have relocated, such activities include meetings, lunches, trips and organised talks by guest speakers. “Swedish women don’t just want to sit and talk; they want to learn.” Maria says. Mainly they want to learn about their host country, so they have had someone talk to them about local holidays such as Chinese New Year and recently had a speaker from Sisters in Islam. “There is also a mum’s group…[altogether] we have three or four things a month.”
And that is just the start. SWEA ensures that wherever there is a chapter, there is a little bit of what is familiar. Traditions are kept and festivals are observed. This both softens any homesickness felt by those who miss Sweden and ensures that those who are perhaps growing up away from their native country will feel right at home when and if they return.
Maria tells me about last year’s day of Santa Lucia, celebrating “Swedish Christmas” on the 13th of December at the Swedish Embassy in KL. The festival’s traditions were kept, including songs and a dinner (a smorgasbord, of course) with favourite seasonal dishes. “Many of SWEA’s activities are a joint effort with the Swedish Embassy,” says Maria.
When invited, SWEA shares something of Sweden’s culture with Malaysians as well. IKEA invited SWEA to sing during
Santa Lucia festival. “If you see something of Sweden’s culture, we usually did it,” Maria says.
Many of SWEA’s children who live in or near KL attend Swedish language classes in Mont’ Kiara and Maria comments on the importance of exposure to the language, even for native speakers. “Language grows, and if you are an expatriate, you do not grow with your language.”
KL’s SWEA chapter is relatively small; usually it has between 55 and 75 full members (and their families) and yet they have been chosen for this year’s SWEA World Conference. The location was decided by vote, and Malaysia was elected above Vienna, Beijing and Paris although it is a longer trip for most members. Maria concedes that as well as the weather, the people, the level of service , the food and price (every member pays her own way) played a part in swaying votes. She also credits the hard work of the organising committee here, to make a visit to Malaysia so desirable and with what she expects will be a very successful and memorable conference for all involved. One of the guests will be Agneta Nilsson herself.
Recently, the Swedish Embassy in Malaysia announced that it would be closing down in June due to budget cuts. However, thanks to the dedication that started 30 years ago with Agneta and continues with women like Maria and tens of thousands of SWEA members, Swedish expats know that nearly anywhere their family ends up, they will find a little piece of home.
Source: The Expat magazine March 2011
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This article has been edited for ExpatGoMalaysia.com