My Own Private Light in the Global Darkness

The last weeks were bad weeks for all of us who believe in peace and coexistence. Hell, it’s been a bad year so far. There was the terrorist attack in Tunisia and new reports of young people from Europe being groomed to join IS. A new IS member highlighted in the Swedish news supposedly comes from the projects in Malmö in Sweden, where I once worked as a substitute teacher. Maybe he is one of my former students?

Even though my teaching job was several years ago, I remember my students well and still run in to them downtown sometimes. Unfortunately very few of them have been able to break the cycle of poverty and alienation. I know some of the boys I used to teach are now in jail, and the girls, now young women, I often see pushing strollers outside the discount store, married early and on welfare. And now we are starting to loose some of our young ones to the terror machine of IS. If the new Swedish recruit is one of my former students, this would be almost unbearable to know.

But then last week something happened in my own life, something surprising, that turned things around. Since it’s been a bad year for most of us believers this year, I decided to share the story with you.

On the evening train a young woman sat herself opposite of me. A classy girl, one of those I always envy: nice jacket, glossy hair, carrying a trendy, cream-colored bag full of books and papers. She kept peeking at me from her side of the small table. Suddenly she spoke to me, asked something about a school.

“What?” I unplugged my headphones.

“Were you a teacher in… (the school were I used to teach)?”

“Yeah, I was”, I answered, surprised. “Why?”

“You were my teacher.”

“Your teacher?”

When she said her name, I couldn’t believe it. Was this really she, the young and angry girl that had once been one of my students? I remembered her well: a girl that had possessed the mix of sharp intelligence and inability to make use of her talent. She had confidence, I remember how she in an essay called “My Dream Job” wrote that she wanted to be the Prime Minister of Sweden, whilst other girls wrote that they wanted to marry a football player. But most of her energy she put into fighting with other students and bullying teachers, instead of her schoolwork.

We leaned over the small table between us and hugged. I asked where she was going on the train.

“I’ve been to uni, I commute.”

“You’re at university?”

“Yeah, I study engineering, first year.”

Within seconds, words spilled out. She was studying a bachelor’s engineering program in another city. It was long hours and hard work but she really liked it. After junior high school where I had taught her, she had wanted to get away from the projects and applied to a new high school in the other end of the city. She had coerced her mom to sign the school application.

“My mom didn’t realize why it was better there. You know, she didn’t go to school herself.”

The daughter of uneducated refugees from Kurdistan, she had started a school where everyone else had well-off parents. She had to study more than full time in order to keep up with the other students. Her grammar, vocabulary, everything had been at a much lower level than her peers’. It had been three years of tears and hard studying, and from her family she couldn’t receive any help, but she didn’t cave in. When graduating high school she had the grades to enter university. She stilled lived with her family in the projects, they hadn’t been able to move out, but she wasn’t in touch with anyone of her old classmates. When I asked about the kids that had been in her class – I was curious to know about them – she didn’t know.

“But what about Mohammed?” (one of her best friends, not his real name)

She shrugged.

“I stopped hanging out with all of them. They drained me on my energy. Most of them didn’t finish high school and… I wanted to move on with my life.”

We spoke of politics and she delivered her own opinion about IS and the women’s rights situation in Kurdistan. She asked about me and I said where I have been working – she was thrilled to hear I have been working in Kurdistan. She told of her own plans for the future:

“I might go for a master directly after my program. As a women they’ll always regard me as less than men in this business, you know what engineering is like, so I need to have twice the competence of the men who apply for the same jobs.”

When the train stopped and we went off, she hugged me and wished me good luck for the future. Soon she had disappeared in the early darkness of the March evening, I watched her bouncy ponytail as she disappeared. She, the girl with so little chances who had made it so far, had wished me good luck for the future. It used to be the other way around.

Of course I didn’t tell her, but that evening, she was my light in the global darkness. No matter how far IS will advance, or where European terrorists will strike next time, my former student will still be my light, a hope to hang on to. One million dollars couldn’t beat that feeling.

Swedish Muslim Students Responds to Hate With Baklava

In Malmö University in the city of Malmö, Sweden, a university that prides itself of being very mixed and with students from many different countries and backgrounds, a Muslim student discovered someone having posted a print of one of the Muhammed caricatures on the public notice board. These news was shared with me by Swedish journalist Nizar Keblawi, who made a news coverage about the incident in Swedish public TV, and then e-mailed me the news. The student who saw it, Lina Abu Zarour, snapped a photo, removed the print and gave it to the Students Union, who handed it over to the university’s administration. It turned out more pictures of the same kind were posted at the university, about four or five. The university reportedly took the matter seriously and launched an investigation. In media, university staff said they encourage all students to report such offences and pointed out that students from all backgrounds are welcome at the  university.

Then following the incident, Lina herself did something different. She and her friends decided to respond to the caricature by hosting an event where they handed out baklava (typical Middle Eastern sweet) wrapped in hadiths, teachings from the Quran. To Nizar Keblawi, Lina said:

“The event became a success, you can say.”

Her take on the postings of the caricatures is that people are usually scared to know of new things.

“It is lack of knowledge that’s behind these things”, she said. “People are afraid of learning about for example Islam. But you can’t judge the book just because of it’s cover.”

By sharing baklava with hadith quotes, she wanted to teach the other students more about her religion in a friendly way. And many students showed up, some of them wanting to show their support to the Muslim students at the university. Lina Abu Zarour made headlines in Swedish media with her response, and was among many things invited to an in-dept interview in Swedish radio. What more is, she was able to show the whole country a way to respond to hate and ignorance: with kindness.

The Subject of “Immigration” Has Hijacked Our Lives

A while ago I came back to Sweden after being abroad on a humanitarian mission for eight months. It’s always a minor culture shock to come back after a humanitarian mission, but what struck me the most this time was not usual differences; the rainy winter, the small changes in the street fashion, new songs on the radio – but how the topic of immigration has seeped into each and every conversation.

While I was away, Sweden held an election in which the populist right-winged party Sverigedemokraterna doubled their support and scored an amazing 13% of the votes, despite for example my own eager attempt to stop them by mailing my vote from the Asian country where I was. The main topics that Sverigedemokraterna made their election issues, are immigrants, refugees, the economy (unclear how), the elderly population, and immigrants again. Even before the most recent election in 2014, the party had been able to set the public agenda to be focused on immigrants, even for people otherwise not engaged in politics.

In the year of 2015, I discovered upon taking the train from Copenhagen airport to Sweden and re-entering my home country, the subject is not only popular: it has now completely hijacked our conversations. Most of my friends seem to speak about it. Acquaintances I hardly know speak about it. A man who I sold my old bed to raised the subject when he came around to pick up the bed. I hear the subject when queuing in the grocery store. You would think that people would want to speak about something else. How was my humanitarian mission, for example? I was in a rough place where many things happened, both of the exhausting kind due to the domestic politics, but also positive things. I don’t have to speak about that constantly, but I wouldn’t mind venting a bit with friends or sharing of some of the things that I experienced and learned. But it’s almost never brought up, because other things are on most peoples’ minds.

For example: Should all refugees really come to Sweden? Will integration of immigrants really work? Why has Sweden’s integration policy failed? Should Muslims have the right to wear headscarf in school? How can we get rid of the newly arrived immigrants from Romania, who are begging on the street? Almost no one seem to be in touch with concrete, true facts about immigration or integration, and I wonder how they know that Sweden’s integration policy is so failed? Have they read the policy? Many also don’t seem to be in touch with a lot of people who classify as “immigrants”, in their own daily lives.

The other day I caught up with a friend of mine who factually stated:

“In the papers you read all these chronicles about immigration, from all different perspectives, as if it’s the only current thing right now, and then we read these chronicles about that there’s a major subject about immigration. We just shouldn’t keep discussing the subject. I mean, what happened to other current affairs? What happened to global warming?”

The subject has totally hijacked us and we’re not even aware that we’re hijacked, like a Boeing 787 where the passengers seem not to notice the change of course, despite there being clouds outside when there should have been sun, and the pilot lying on the floor of the cockpit, tied up and gagged, desperately trying to call for help.

Today I went to the hairdressing saloon, a new place I haven’t tried before. The woman who owned the saloon was really nice, and during the hours it took her to do my hair, we chatted about many things. She told about her upcoming vacation in Dubai with her family, how she loved the country and was ready to soak up in the sun, to get away from the rainy Swedish spring. I said I had recently returned, and that I had missed the rain. We spoke about the difficulty on buying clothes online, that even if it’s cheap it’s sometimes a loosing deal since you rarely put in the energy to send back an item you don’t like. We bonded over that we both loved shopping and missed the variety outside Sweden, and agreed that we equally could spend 24 hours straight in an American-style mall if we’re given the chance.

That was nice. A different conversation from many of the others I had recently. The woman didn’t even mention the word “immigration”. Maybe she would want to hang out with me sometime? It would be a wonderful change. I might see if she’s up for a coffee this weekend.

Saudi Arabian Rap Video for Workers’ Rights

Saudi Arabia is not known for respecting human rights, and the current campaign for releasing the liberal Saudi blogger Raif Bedawi has shed light on the old phenomena of human rights abuses in the Gulf. But, like everywhere, there are exceptions to the rule.

The media group Tefaz 11 has produced a rap video shedding light on the situationen for foreign workers in the country, using the traditional tactics of humour and music to get their message through. The group is produced for Saudis, consisting of Saudis, showing that there is a diversity within Saudi Arabia and that everyone in the country does not support the discrimination that foreign workers are going though – or the human rights situationen as a whole.

See the video above, and below is a BBC clip portraying the people behind the video.

“My Mother Outside the Mosul Museum, 43 Years Ago. Now Everything is Destroyed”

After IS destroying ancient sculptures in the Mosul Museum, cleverly videotaping everything and uploading the demolition online for the world to share and condemn, without reflecting over the fact that we are all a part of IS propaganda machine, without actually putting the means in to stop them, a different kind of response came from Sweden.

The Swedish journalist Somar Al Naher published a photo of her mother who is from Iraq, when she visited Mosul Museum together with a group of girls 43 years ago, with a comment from Somar. Somar gave me the permission to publish this photo and her comment on Sweden and the Middle East Views. Here is what she had to say (translation from Swedish, Sweden and the Middle East Views):

Somar Al Naher

I have to tell this story and why this is an endless sorrow. This photo was taken exactly 43 years ago outside the Mosul Museum that is now destroyed. In the picture you can see my mom, she is in the middle of the back row, number five from the left. In front of her sits her younger sister. What we see in the picture are girls on a Scout camp. Each summer a number of girls were chosen from schools in Karbala and Najaf, to go on a camp in a new city in Iraq. Several girls come from deeply religious families, some of them had parents who were illiterate. But the trust and the confidence made the families allow their daughters to go on camps in places that were far away from home.

This picture symbolises everything that is about to be destroyed in Iraq: the people, the shared history, the proud heritage but also the development and the future. The girls of this generation would have had the possibility to change the world.

Photo copyright: Somar Al Naher