What Mandela Meant to My 5-year-old Me

Can I tell you what Nelson Mandela meant to my 5-year-old me, back in the early 80s?

Once my sisters and I were shopping with our dad in the grocery store. He didn’t want to buy the apples from South Africa, asking us to choose from the other shelf instead, and we demanded to know why. And so he started to explain.

There was a country far, far away, where some people were treated differently than the others. Therefore us in other countries should not buy their things, so that they would understand what they did was wrong. This was a tricky thing to explain for three small girls with one million questions, but dad didn’t give up.

“It would be like… if Maria (their friend’s daughter) wouldn’t be allowed to sit on the same bus as you”, he explained, as he trailed us through the store with a shopping cart filled with unflavored cereal and other boring groceries that characterized Sweden in the 1980s. “Or if someone was sick, and the hospital wouldn’t let them in.”

The story haunted me. A few years later the front pages posted the news on Mandela’s was release. One of my friends’ father explained what the headlines were about, as we passed by the placards.

These stories must have affected my in a way I didn’t realize. And yes, feelings of anger and sadness followed as a result of knowledge. But I am glad adults were willing to take their time explaining things, instead of sugarcoating it. Small things like these shaped me into the person I am today. It made yesterday, to me, a special day.

Two White Women Buying a Table from an Iraqi Family

On a rainy November evening a few years ago, me and my flatmate took a bus to the other end of our city to buy a second hand couch table we had seen an ad for online. We were scraping together to buy things to furnish our flat going all over the city to collect second hand furniture from richer people that traded off their old stuff, and we were happy to finally afford a table for our living room. It was a long way to go to this neighborhood, where small houses replaced the rental flats in our area, and we searched for a while before finding the house. A pretty little brick house with an accompanying garden, was supposedly the correct place according to the address we had been provided with.

As we rang the doorbell a small boy opened. “My mom is coming” he said, then adding, unasked: “She only speaks little Swedish.”

A woman dressed in a black abaya appeared in the doorway, introducing herself in broken Swedish. We realized it was an Iraqi family that we had come across. It was obviously not one of the Baghdadi families, liberal in the urban kind of way – it was a conservative, religious family we could tell from the woman’s appearance and the religious scripts on the wall. We were surprised, then felt stupid being surprised. Why couldn’t a conservative Iraqi family stay in this upper middle class area? Here we were: two white women still buying second hand furniture because we couldn’t afford the new things, still sharing a flat in what someone could have called a “socially deprived area” where water leaks in the house made our flat smell of mold, and shootings was such a regular happening it hardly made headlines. Your own prejudices can have a way of coming back and slap you in the face sometimes.

The woman introduced us to the tables they were selling off and we chatted a bit. It turned out they were from Diwaniya, a city in Southern Iraq, and had arrived to Sweden a few years before. Selling all they had in Iraq before fleeing the escalating violence, and her husband starting to work as soon as they had arrived, after a while buying a small candy shop, had made them being able to buy themselves the house and put their children in nearby reputable schools.

Her husband and his brother came home, we agreed on a table on a price, then it was time for us to go. The woman started to propose that we had to drink tea first, we must be tired from the long bus ride. Or maybe eat something before leaving? We explained we were in a hurry and that we had to call a taxi to transport the heavy table to our place.

“Taxi?” the man asked. “You don’t have a car?”

“No.”

None of us actually even had a driving license, but we withheld that so as not having to lower ourselves even more in the eyes of the sellers – we had already told them the area we lived in. Without further discussion the man and his brother carried the table to their car, announcing they would bring us home.The woman kissed us both goodbye and, when we declined tea or dinner a second time, welcomed us back anytime. None of the people we had bought our furniture from had been that nice.

We squeezed into the car (damn, it was even a Volvo) with the brother of the husband and the big table, and at our house he helped us to carry the table into our living room. When he had left we looked at each other, baffled. It had been a trip of surprises, not only over who stayed in the house, but over the ride. None of our fellow Swedish countrymen would ever have done us that favour.

Photo: Copyright Sweden and the Middle East Blog

We Hate Refugees

UNHCR poster

I’m in Beirut, Lebanon. One thing has changed since I was here the last time: the refugees. Everywhere, children in plastic shoes and torn clothes selling chewing gum; women on the brink of exhaustion slowly dragging around their children, asking for money, then falling asleep in street corners as as the night falls, tucking their children under their abayas.

“Don’t be humanitarian now”, my Lebanese friend said when a young boy approached me. “There are so many of them, you’ll never be able to help them all.”

Sweden complain on how many Syrian refugees that has been applying for asulym the last year, and as an escape route, issued only temporary three-year-residence permits in the hope of being able to send everyone back later on. Well Swedish authorities should visit the neighbouring countries of the source of conflict – these are always the ones that carries the greatest burden of refugees. Nevertheless the authorities of my country are not the only ones that doesn’t want the refugees. In Turkey, they are locked up in camps next to the border, suffering under horrible conditions, so that they won’t travel to the inland and bother the local population. Why don’t we just admit it, that we all hate refugees? We never seem to reflect upon the fact that it could have been us that had to flee our homes.

When I was on my own again another small, dirty boy approached me, holding out packets of chewing gum.

“We’re sleeping on the street miss, we live in the street, we have nothing to eat.”

“I know, sweetheart.”

I tucked a few bills in his hand, hoping noone saw. I know I’m a stupid humanitarian person, but I just can’t be a part of the rejection – at least not all of the time.

Photo credit: UNHCR

Party with the Different

Party

Last weekend me and some friends threw a party at my place to celebrate an achievement, it was real fun thanks to my friends bringing foods and hookah (water pipe), even a small baby that everyone could grab and cuddle with, so that I could focus on trying to wear my new heels and look good (hey, I’m being honest). I happen to have ended up with friends and acquintances that ranges from very liberal to very conservative and I invite them all. Someone who believes in the clash of civilizations probably wouldn’t think my parties was a great idea.

But not all of my friends drink alcohol and they show up anyways, the hookah keeping them busy. Not everyone eat pork so we skip that, just so that noone will eat it by mistake. I also have friends from different religions and people sometimes hold biases, but I can’t let that come between an invitation. Very few are free from prejudices (including myself) and I just let people meet and figure out who that other person is for themselves. Ofcourse I don’t put up with everything: if you are too judgemental on a woman wearing the hijab and therefore is surpressed; being a Jew and therefore hate Arabs; being an ignorant Swede who doesn’t like foreigners – I get exhausted. But I’ve also seen persons change and reconsider their stereotypes – it’s sometimes painful to realize what you have been thinking, but it can also be a wonderful feeling to let go of your prejudices (sometimes prejudices contains a lot of anger).

I’m not saying it’s easy, it’s sometimes a mine field and many times I become sad by the force in how much some dislike each other and try to convince others to follow. But so far I haven’t caved in when it comes to the parties at my place. I believe in people.

Photo: Copyright Sweden and the Middle East Blog