​​The fast-growing Swedish city where international families feel at home

“People ask me whether I’m getting restless about staying in the same city for so long,” says Amy Loutfi, Professor in Information Technology at Örebro University. “But I tell them it’s not the same city – so much has changed.”

​​The fast-growing Swedish city where international families feel at home
Photo: Getty

As an expert in AI and robotics, she knows more than most about rapid changes. Nonetheless, she says the transformation in Örebro since she arrived from her native Canada 20 years ago has been profound.

Firstly, Örebro University itself has been a huge catalyst for the city’s development since opening in 1999. Then there’s the exciting part that a city known for its magnificent 13th century castle is playing in Sweden’s 21st century startup scene, thanks to the entrepreneurial hub Creative House

Furthermore, parents say it’s an ideal place to raise a family for a host of reasons. The Local spoke to Professor Loutfi, and another even longer-standing international resident of the city, to find out more.

Can’t pronounce Örebro or place it on a map? Discover the opportunities for internationals in this exciting city

A region of young talent

Maybe you’ve seen the name Örebro but have no idea how to say it? Or where to locate it on the map? The city is the sixth largest in Sweden and has an enviable location in the heart of the country, just a little closer to Stockholm than Gothenburg. But anyone thinking of it as simply a stopping point between bigger cities is sorely mistaken. Professor Loutfi says the sense of opportunity in Örebro today is palpable. 

“I came from a town on Canada’s east coast that was in decline with a shrinking population,” she says. “The city of Örebro, on the other hand, has a pulse and you feel it in the bone marrow of the place. There are people coming, new restaurants opening and new initiatives starting.”

The university offers Sweden’s most modern medical training programme, ranks third nationally for scientific excellence, and is an important node in the national AI network. Professor Loutfi has a strategic role in developing the university’s role in Swedish and European AI initiatives through the Wallenberg Foundation’s WASP programme.

“We have a strong university and that means a fantastic pool of young people,” she says. “If you’re interested in establishing a startup or relocating your current business, you’ll get access to a generation with solid knowledge who are often interested in staying and contributing to the region’s growth.” 

Little wonder that local startups making innovative use of technology are flourishing. “It was all about skor [shoes] and kex [cookies] when I arrived,” recalls Professor Loutfi. “Now, a wide diversity of businesses keep the city vibrant.” 

Want to make a smart move? Find out about the opportunities for international people in Örebro

Professor Amy Loutfi. Photo: Supplied

Location and lifestyle: ‘everything is possible here’ 

Richard Kennett, who grew up in Brighton in England, moved to Örebro in 1987 as a love-struck teenager who had fallen for a Swedish au pair. The city now has an international appeal and level of self-confidence he could not have imagined in the early days after his move. 

“At first, Swedes would ask me ‘Are you mad?’” he remembers. “The entire personality of the city has been transformed. I’ve seen a metamorphosis over 15 or 20 years – and today everything is possible here.”

Having raised three children who were born in the city, he says: “I think Örebro has been the perfect place for them to grow up. We’ve had a great system from kindergarten through school and all their sports clubs and activities. It doesn’t take long to get anywhere.

“The geographic location of this city is phenomenal – and so is the choice of lifestyle. You can live in the middle of nowhere, in a country village close to the city, or in the city itself.” 

Following the university’s opening, Richard cites the local hospital becoming involved in research as another key milestone (it’s now rated Sweden’s best university hospital). He credits “a generation of politicians who focused on vision and possibility”, as well as the city’s location, which means over 70 percent of Sweden’s population lives within a radius of 300km.

 Photo: Business Region Örebro

A home for families

Professor Loutfi, who has two daughters aged 11 and nine, also greatly values the family-friendly environment. As well as a sense of security and community, local residents enjoy easy access to outdoor activities and unspoilt nature.

“It’s beautiful here. You can hop on your bike and after 20 minutes you’re really out in nature and I think that’s different from Stockholm,” she says. “There are fantastic hiking trails nearby, like the Bergslagen hill range, where you can just go for a couple of hours or for a day.”

With the pace of developments in AI, has she ever thought about leaving? Even after a spell as a researcher in Spain, she knew she wanted to return to her adopted home. “I turn every stone and weigh all the pros and cons, which is what Canadians do,” she says. “I always come up with more pros [for staying].” 

In Örebro, the list of pros for talented international people and their families keeps on growing.

Looking for a vibrant smaller city with a high quality of life? Find out more about opportunities for international people in Örebro

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My Swedish Career: How falling ill inspired this Canadian’s start-up in Sweden

For Canadian Denise Fernandes, it was the less-than-happy experience of falling victim to Sweden’s notorious vinterkräksjuka [norovirus] that led to her setting up her own business in Stockholm.

My Swedish Career: How falling ill inspired this Canadian’s start-up in Sweden
Denise Fernandes created her rehydration product after a bout of Vinterkräksjuka. Photo: private

For the Toronto native, despite having lived internationally between homes in Canada, the USA and the UK before moving to Sweden, she was unprepared for the onslaught of the seasonal illness.

“I had absolutely no warning!” she laughs. “My husband – who is Swedish – hadn’t told me about vinterkräksjuka. So, when my whole family became ill, it took me completely by surprise.”

“The illness is famous here. Now that I’ve been here longer, I’ve had people give me their stories unprompted – they’re almost like war stories, with people saying, ‘let me tell you about the Christmas when we all had the bug and we were staying in my parents’ house which only has one toilet.’ And after you’ve experienced it, the stories make perfect sense: it comes violently, everyone in the family gets it, you’re debilitated; no one wants to come and help you because if they do, they’re going to get sick. It’s a challenging thing.”

READ ALSO: Six common illnesses to avoid in Sweden this fall

To combat the bug which had taken hold of her household, with her husband and their two young children also unwell, Fernandes searched for over-the-counter rehydration remedies in Swedish pharmacies. Finding only one option, with what she considered excessive sugar content – and, armed with the benefit of a background in pharmaceuticals – Fernandes set about to create a “cleaner” alternative to the medication on offer.

“I worked with a lab for a year, researching all-natural formulations. And the product we’ve created – Dropp – is now on sale across the country in Apoteket [Sweden’s state-owned pharmacy],” she says.

“We've created it especially for a Swedish market – the label, ingredients, website – everything's in Swedish, so people can have complete control over what they're consuming. It's important here, people have a real understanding that artificial sweeteners aren't good for the body. It's just come onto shelves here, but the response has already been really positive.”

Denise Fernandes tested her rehydration product over 1,000 times before reaching the final formula. Photo: Private

Winter maladies aside, the move to Stockholm in 2015 proved to be a process of transition for Fernandes and her family.

The most difficult adjustment for the seasoned nomad was adapting to Swedish cultural norms. Fernandes describes Swedish people as “reserved” – not a trait she sees as naturally compatible with her Canadian roots: “As a North American, I probably speak ten decibels louder than the average Swede. I’ve even been ‘shushed’ in a yoga studio…”

“As a foreigner, you’re sort of embarrassed by your own loudness versus Swedes’ quietness,” she admits. “I’m much more aware of that now.”

Aside from being married to a Swede, Fernandes notes that she had no real exposure to Swedish language or culture before moving to the country. “Personally, as a Canadian who had lived in central London for around eight years and had studied in the US, I was struck by the fact that there was much less contact here with individuals you didn’t know, Swedes seemed hesitant to speak to people they were unfamiliar with. It took me a bit of time to pull myself back and not engage with strangers so much.”

READ ALSO: My Swedish Career: When you're based in Sweden, people take you seriously

When it comes to the local language, Fernandes receives Swedish tuition in an unusual form – from her own young children, who are both bilingual in English and Swedish.

“I spent a short period studying Swedish, but I started working as soon as we arrived in the country, so I didn’t have any real dedicated time learning it. I’ve learnt the most from my children speaking it to me and around me. I guess you could say that my children are my Swedish teachers! It’s their first language, so it’s natural for them to explain something to me in Swedish that they don’t have the words for in English. They correct my pronunciation all the time!”

Despite feeling she has a way to go before she’s mastered the Swedish language, she’s found making the effort in speaking it has had a huge positive impact, in both her personal and professional life. “Swedes are very tolerant and forgiving of people who don’t speak their language” she says, adding that this has given her the confidence to immerse herself in situations where Swedish is required – and she encourages others to do the same.

“Give it a try” she advises. “I was a bit hesitant because I’m not fluent, but I’ve been surprised by how you can get by. I’ve sat in meetings in Swedish and, through a mixture of hand gestures and words, you can make yourself understood! The reality is in Sweden people really want to see you succeed – and want to help you get there.”

And for those who have a burgeoning business idea in Sweden, Fernandes’ outlook is similarly positive: “If you’ve got a concept that you think could work, share it. In Sweden, there’s really no barrier to success. If it’s an idea that could benefit society, people will be receptive to hearing what you have to say.”