Community Builders: An Interview with Ali Jehad
Photographer, acroyogi and DJ, Ali Jehad is a talented individual. For years he has worked to build community amongst expats in his region, Malmö, Sweden. We sat down with him to talk about how he's facilitated friendship and connection for so many people who've moved to a new city.
Panion: Hi Ali. Thanks for taking the time to chat with me! I know so many people in Malmö who are friends because of you. You are responsible for so many connections and have enriched many people’s lives by creating a welcoming expat community in a place that’s often difficult for building new friendships. How did you get started community-building in Malmö ?
Ali: I’m not really sure. I’ve always found it easy to connect to people and also help people connect with each other. So after moving around a lot, I found myself in Malmö, and I kept seeing and hearing about things that people wished were around, such as social communities and communities focusing on activities such as slacklining, longboarding, acroyoga.
P: What attracted you to the expat community?
A: I was living in China in 2012-2013 and was quite active in the expat weekly meetups in Beijing so after moving back to Sweden I joined a facebook group called Malmö Expats. For a couple of years I kept seeing people asking the same question, “How do you make friends in Sweden?” and “What do I do to feel less lonely?”
So I decided to set up a small group called Malmö Expat Meetup. I was expecting 3-5 people to come for the first meetup. About 40 people showed up. At that point, I realized that this was something that people really needed.
P: Why do you think your community has grown so much?
A: Malmö is a very active town with a ton of companies that hire from all over the world. Everything from small startups to larger companies like IKEA and Ericsson. Being a Scandinavian city, it’s always hard for these expats to find friends outside of work or school.
I think the major thing that has people coming back and telling their friends about it is the fact that it’s well planned, fairly laid back but and most of all, safe. I put a lot of work and energy into making it safe for everyone, no matter where you’re from or how you identify.
P: What is the most difficult thing about creating a community?
A: Filtering through all the fake accounts and people with the wrong intentions is hard. And most of the time, I really just want to be just another dude who just happened to set this up and not some sort of organizer.
But I guess it’s just part of the responsibility when you run communities like this. It’s hard to maintain momentum in a community.
P: What inspires you? What gives you all of this energy?
A: At times, the energy does run out. But seeing all the new friendships, people celebrating their birthdays together or even going on big trips, discovering the world together gives me all the inspiration I need to keep running the community.
P: I know that you’ve relied on Facebook to keep everyone in touch quite a bit. Why did you start using Facebook? Do you see any disadvantages?
A: I started using Facebook in 2007 when I was living in Australia. I was hanging out with a lot of people from all over the world and I had no idea about how to keep in contact with them at the time, so someone told me about Facebook and it seemed like a pretty good solution for that problem.
Facebook being what it is, I don’t like the way that I can’t reach out to everyone who’s in the group. When I make an event, I can only invite my friends in the group or at the most, about 150 people out of the 1600 members.
As an organizer for the community, that just makes things so much harder. I really need an alternative to Facebook that allows me to reach out beyond just the people I’m already friends with.
P: Did you know that Panion Communities has that feature? We've really been focusing on how large networks can stay connected. I know you’ve tried out Panion as an individual. How do you think it could fit into community building for people like you?
A: It does have a lot of potential. I like the fact that it’s a very straight forward tool. One of the main things needed to grow a community is a straight and simple line of communication and most of all, a simple way of establishing new connections.
P: Interesting information! What other advice would you give to someone trying to create a community?
A: You are going to fail at certain parts and sometimes all of them but failure is one of the biggest lessons out there. Also that most shortcuts aren't worth it in the long run if you’re looking to build a stable community. And lastly, whenever you are working with people, less is always more. It’s easy to fall into the trap of overplanning an event.
P: How has COVID19 impacted your community? How has it impacted you as an organizer? How has it impacted you personally?
A: I had zero social interactions for the first 7-8 weeks. All social meetups have stopped for now. I’m not working as a freelancer, as an organizer or anything... It’s all on halt right now.
P: Wow, that's really challenging. Can you tell me a little more about your freelance work?
A: Most of the work I’m hired to do is portrait and documentary photography. I cover music festivals, cultural events, and humanitarian work. I also shoot promo shots for musicians, actors, and people who just need better portraits.
I also DJ at a club (Glorious at Moriska Paviljongen) as well as perform gigs with Malmö stad.
P: If someone would like to hire you for your services, how can they reach you?
P: Thanks so much for your time, Ali. So many people are grateful for your community-building work. I wish you the best of luck!