I Hope That The New IS Members are Not Any of My Former Students. Each and Every Time I Hope.

All the time reports on new Islamic State members from Europe pop up in the news, and all the time I hope that they are not any of my former students from my time as a substitute teacher in the projects in Sweden. I try to see the positive in things and I have previously shared sunny stories from my time as a teacher, but when I read about a new young Swede having joined IS I always feel a sting of despair and I go online try to see if it’s one of my former students. This frustration of how we in my own country – the best country in the world, in my opinion – are now losing our young ones to IS sometimes spills over, and today I need to vent.

Teaching Swedish as a second language to children in the underprivileged parts of the city years ago, I knew we would lose most of the kids to poverty and drugs, it was an equation almost impossible to battle. Children should be the society’s main priority; our pride and joy; we should invest each and every penny in their well-being, but the case was the opposite. The area where I taught was the kind of area where buildings are falling apart in the hands of slumlords, infested with cockroaches, where gangs are ruling the blocks; the kind of area white hipsters move into because it’s cool to show solidarity with underprivileged people, then quickly move out of after their first robbery or the first homicide nearby.

The vast majority of the children were immigrants living under unfair conditions. They were often children of refugees with untreated traumas – several of them had themselves survived or had parents who had survived massacres in certain countries. The majority of the parents were on welfare. Some of them were violent to their kids. Me and most of my colleagues did what we could, but we had very little instructions from the management on how to deal with the social problems we encountered, and we had to try our own ways. Some became overly personal, gave the kids their private number and let them call at any time of the day. Others took on an authoritarian approach and cracked down on every single misconduct.

For me my work was not facilitated by the fact that I was myself a working poor, paid by the hour as a sub and therefore having to work evening shifts teaching adult classes just to pay my bills. Maybe needless to say, I was myself often running on empty, distressed by the inability of not being able to give the children what they needed, because they needed so much. This was at the time hard to verbalise since I, just like my colleagues, was trying to keep up hope, keeping my successes close to my heart. So instead of touching base with these feelings I usually put on a pair of hand-me-down heels, mixed water with my mascara to make it last longer, and hit one of the clubs where I knocked back the feelings of powerlessness with a cheap drink, trying to forget that the society that I represented as a white, Swedish teacher had nothing, often absolutely nothing, to offer these kids, my kids.

And here we are, several years later, with the murder machine of IS showing us how desperately we have failed some of our young immigrant kids, my kids.

A new news is coming up about a Swedish IS member, this time it’s a young man in his early 20s from the project were I taught, and I search on Facebook to see if it’s one of my former students. I hold my breath. I google. No, it’s not one of them. Not this time. I can breathe. Until next time, next news. Next battle about a precious young person that we have lost.

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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.

Nazis Attempting Murder on Leftist Activists in Sweden

http://www.sydsvenskan.se/malmo/fjarde-misstankt-pekas-ut-for-mordforsoken/The morning of yesterday, March 9, us Swedes woke up to horrible news. The celebrations of the international women’s day in Malmö had ended with demonstrators being attacked and stabbed by Swedish nazis in my city of Malmö. That’s right, my city. The news made it as far as to Al Jazeera.

Having held a legal demonstration around midnight to manifest women’s right to security, six activists were jumped by nazis when the former reportedly (note that details might vary in different media right now) went out from a pub and accidently stumbled upon the activists.

One of the activists, Showan Shattak, had been active in the supporter club of Malmö’s football league MFF. I knew who Showan was, I was once introduced to him by his brother, and he struck me as a quiet and serious guy. I didn’t know that he became a public person by speaking up against racism and homophobia within the supporter club. According to the vice president of MFF, Jonas Nirfalk, Showan was well known by the nazis and Nirfalk believes they took the chance to stab him when they ran into him. Among the activists Showan was the one being subject to the most brutal abuse; he is now anesthetized in the hospital’s intensive care unit. Time will tell if he will survive.

Thousands of people have gathered to show support for Showan, demonstrations has been held against racism and hate crimes. But a young man is still in the intensive care unit, with no guarantee of survival, because of his fight against racism. Maybe his immigrant background mattered, too?

I love my country, I will always stick with that, but this is not good. This is bad. Really bad.

Photocredit: sydsvenskan.se

Our Absolutely Amazing Arabic-Swedish Network

I’ve been volunteering for NGOs since my university years but I never thought I would start one myself one day; starting NGOs are for career driven young people, not the former high school dropout whose best day is spent tanning at the beach. But sometimes life takes you crazy places.

Back in 2010 I wanted people to practice my Arabic skills with and I found myself with no close Arab friends in my city of Malmö. Around the world language exchange meetings is a big thing and in Malmö you can for example practice French every other week, but Arabic seemed not to be on the agenda – despite the many Arab inhabitants of Malmö and the huge possibility of exchange. Complaining to a friend, she told me about an Arabic speaking girl she had met.

“I think she would be up for it,” my friend said. “Why don’t you send a message?”

This other girl was up for the idea and slowly me and her started to scrape together people to our language exchange meetings, held in Sunday afternoons in different coffee shops. Sometimes it was just her and I, waiting for people who didn’t show up.  But we stayed put, spread the word among our friends, posted online, and by time more people dropped in. When all the emails and text messages got too much we finally decided to start a Facebook page to coordinate the activities. The Arabic-Swedish Network was born.

We are now more than 240 members in the Facebook group and new people join every week. We have no rules for membership other than that you have to be nice to each other; you don’t need to have speak certain level of Arabic or Swedish to join, if you speak none of the languages you can just join in and start from scratch (hey,  there’s too many rules in the Swedish society anyways). New people who has arrived in Sweden and found the group online, takes the opportunity to introduce themselves on the wall and then shows up on the next meeting. As we are so many members nowadays people set up their own events: poetry and sheesha nights, dinner parties, breakfast meetings. I know of many who think Sweden is a difficult place to make new friends and getting in touch with Swedish people – our network is an exception.

Since November this year the Arabic-Swedish network is a registered NGO, we figured it was a good idea since we spend most of our free time on the network anyways; our homepage you’ll find here. Now where will this unplanned NGO go next? I don’t know, but if you’re around, drop in on any of our events – I guarantee you’ll have a good time.

Photo: Copyright Sweden and the Middle East Views Blog

Workshop for Young Female Filmmakers from Egypt and Sweden

MAFF

Malmö Arab Film Festival, (MAFF) that I have previously blogged about, is now launching a workshop for young female filmmakers from Sweden and Egypt on the theme “Women in Egypt During and After the Revolution“. During September 2-8 the workshop is held in Malmö, Sweden for the ten chosen film makers; five from each country.

The mix of film makers from both country will be a very special opportunity – both countries has a tradition of theatre and movie making and in Egypt young women has made their way onto the international stage through movies such as “Cairo Six, Seven, Eight“, a controversial movie about sexual harassments of women in Egypt, who’s lead actor Nelly Karim presented the movie at last year’s MAFF.

Are you interested or do you know anyone that is? Apply or share the information! For more information on criterias to apply click here.

What Iraqis Think About Sweden

Irakier i sverigeSince the American invasion and the following gradual collapse of Iraq, many Iraqis has applied for asylum in Sweden and in 2007 constituted the largest group of asylumseekers among the many different nationalities that applied.

In my city Malmö, sometimes called “Little Baghdad”, many Iraqis have settled and formed their own communities. In small shops in the middle of our city you can now find things like halal meat, wonderful carrot-marmelade with 80% sugar (that Swedish health freaks would report to the police if they could) and other products that I would find in my local baqala in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan. Globalization is a great thing when you can find your favourite marmelade from another part of the world in your own hometown.

Host communities usually has opinions about newcomers, but I think the other way around can be more interesting. Iraq I dare to say is quite the antithesis of Sweden: a large country with a weak central state, where religion plays a major role for many, hospitality is highly valued and your family is the main social network to rely on. The clash is quite big for some – Sweden being very secular with a strong legal system where many people can feel controlled by the authorities; from the housing market to the humiliating procedures at the unemployment agency. If I ask though I might not receive the true answer – critizicing someone’s home country being such a taboo for most people. But what does Iraqis really think about Sweden?

A while ago I joined this interesting Facebook page, “Iraqis in Sweden“, to see what was going on. The group is nicely illustrated by a Swedish and an Iraqi flag intertwined, with updates in both languages. On the page news about Sweden and Iraq are posted, often in an informative way about Sweden. One of managers of the page, Mohammad, tells me that the aim of the page was to create a meeting point for Iraqis in Sweden/Europe and that the group aims to serve people who might need help in Sweden, for example legal assistance or to rent a flat. Quite a nice idea, isn’t it, especially if you think about the many hate groups online, dedicated to bring down other people?

Checking the updates, one post caught my attention: “What advantages/disadvantages are there in the Swedish culture/society do you think?” The answers to this post arrived quickly.

“That everyone pretends to be PERFECT while they’re worth nothing!” one man writes, the comment getting three likes.

Someone replies:

“There is no disadvantages everyone goes his own way, and there’s nothing better than the Swedish society!!” Two exclamation marks, 15 likes.

Other people add upp to the bad list: the politicans, the wheather, there is no summer, it’s hard to find a job. Then another one, the profile picture showing the face of a young woman in a hijab, comes up with a long, reflective post:

“There are both advantages and disadvantages in each society and this is the case for the Swedish society. But I think that the advantages in the Swedish society are more than the disadvantages (…) The RESPECT, FREEDOM, EQUALITY (social), HELPFUL etc… The disadvantages are that parents have some problems raising their children here since the parents wants to raise them according to their traditions/religion. This often leads to a big problem that in its turn is a big disadvantage!! Me myself I have all love and respect for SWEDEN”

Who knew that such a subject could bring on such strong feelings? I wouldn’t, if Ihadn’t found this page. Or as a post reads when scrolling up to another heated discussion: “Do you think you can say anything just because now you’re in Sweden?”

Well on this page, obviously yes. And what better is, everyone gets to share their views without censorship or feeling held back. How I love the dynamics of the diversity sometimes. In Iraq or in Sweden.

Photo credit: Irakier i Sverige

Malmö Arab Film Festival 2013

MAFF

Two years ago my city Malmö started an annual film festival with many interesting movies from all around the Arab world. In Sweden it’s mostly Iranian culture that has been representing the Middle East, maybe because of the big Iranian diaspora that established Sweden in the 70s and 80s, with many well-educated Iranians that brought with them movies and music.

But also the Arab world has a rich tradition of arts and culture, why I think it’s wonderful that a film festival of this kind has now reached our industrial-city-turned-college-town. In 2012 Malmö Arab Film Festival offered live talks with directors of several movies, among them the movie Cairo 678 that is discussing the taboo topic about sexual harassment in Egypt. I’m sure 2013’s edition will launch more great opportunities.

The festival is also seeking volunteers that can help out preparing for the fall. Have a look!

Photo credit: Malmö Arab Film Festival