Iraqi school girls paddle a small wooden boat across a river, as they head to school.
Photo credits: Tourism in Iraq
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.
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.”
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)
“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.
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.