‘I didn’t think I would ever fit in here’

In 2016 Cheryl Carvalho moved from the UK to Skellefteå with her family. Six years later, she has no regrets - but it wasn’t an easy ride. Photography by Donna Richmond.

It was in 2015, after a family holiday to visit my sister and her family who had recently moved to northern Sweden, that we thought seriously about making the move too. As Brexit became more of a possibility, so the UK was becoming a less desirable place. We learnt from my sister’s experiences in Skellefteå that we could have a higher quality of life as a family, and live in a better society for our three daughters to grow up in. With my then husband unhappy with his work and house prices at a record high in the UK, we decided to take the plunge and sell our Essex home for a new life in Västerbotten.

Our first year in Sweden was wonderful, like an extended holiday. Life was simple, just settling in and figuring out everyday life.

But the next couple of years were incredibly tough for me. I was missing loved ones terribly. The girls had settled almost instantly and had many lovely new friends, and I longed for that myself. Making new friends as an adult in a new country can be so difficult and I was extremely lonely.

My previously outgoing personality had taken a beating and I had lost my sparkle.

'I really didn't think I would ever fit in here'
Cheryl with Bella, Ava and Freya.

I distanced myself from social media and contact with friends back home became less frequent. I simply couldn’t bear to read about all the fun they were having when I was feeling so isolated and alone. Perhaps this makes me a bad person, but it was the space that I was in at the time. I do have regrets about this and maybe I should have forced myself to reach out and try harder, but I will not beat myself up over it. After all, friendship is a two way thing and we all have busy lives. I knew that we had made the right decision to move for our family, but would I ever fit in here?

I honestly thought that after two years here I would feel settled and have found a great group of friends as I had back in the UK. I had never had a problem making friends before, and I like to think that I am a friendly and approachable person. But here in my small village, I was never able to get past the “Let’s be pleasant and just talk about the weather” stage. I guess that a big part of that was the language barrier (I had very limited Swedish at the time) and the fact we lived in a small village. Of course, I had my sister here, but I didn’t want to feel like a burden. She had her own busy life and I wanted to make friends of my own.

Around this time, I remember finishing my Swedish studies and feeling full of hope that I would be able to find work here and start to feel settled. But those hopes were dashed when my Swedish teacher told me that I would struggle to find any job with my limited Swedish. She meant no harm, but my self- confidence plummeted. I needed to work not only for financial reasons but also to make friends.

I’d left a travel industry job in the UK that I had loved, with wonderful colleagues, and as I became more lonely in Sweden I came to realise how much I liked just being around other people. It was all I had ever known, but suddenly I felt so isolated. So, I decided to continue further with my Swedish studies, and then after a chance meeting, I met a lovely couple who were looking to hire someone in their growing catering business in Skellefteå.

'I really didn't think I would ever fit in here'This really was the turning point for me. Two and a half years later I am still working for the same employers and life certainly feels more posi- tive. I have a great job working on Campus Skellefteå where every day I get to meet people from all over the world. With more and more people now moving into the town from overseas, my English skills at work actually come in handy! Through working in Skellefteå I have made friends, whether it be my work colleagues or other people I have met along the way.

I love that Skellefteå is a multicultural town and that I can speak freely in my native language as well as in Swedish, which is still a work-in-progress but improving all the time.

Life for me and my girls is now very positive. They are thrilled to have so much more independence here in Sweden than they ever could have had in the UK. It’s a safe place to live, and now that they are all teenagers it means I can sleep better at night! I often ask them how they feel about life in Norrland, and if they would ever want to return to the UK and I’m happy to say they choose northern Sweden every time.

Cheryl was speaking to Paul Connolly

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