Sverigedemokraterna, Guess What? We’re All Here to Stay

In the wake of the frightening results of the Swedish election – 13% voted for the populist party Sverigedemokraterna, a double increase since the last election – I have many things to say, but what I want to do today is to share with you a small list. I like lists.

This one contains a description of a few different persons in Sweden. What do these people have in common? Make a guess while you’re reading.

  • Person 1: Iranian woman. Has a weird sense of humor, always makes you laugh, can cook you amazing dishes that takes hours to prepare.
  • Person 2: Swedish-Greek woman. A person who listens to you more than she talks about herself. Brings small gifts whenever you see her, anything from a bottle of wine to a pair of earrings from one of her travels all around the world.
  • Person 3: Syrian woman. Always makes the gatherings light and bubbly, always makes you feel good about yourself.
  • Person 4: Swedish-Finnish woman. Hosts you in her house when you need somewhere to stay, despite having three small unruly kids, without asking for anything in return.
  • Person 5: Swedish man. A wonderful person who’ll do anything for you and helps you out whenever you need him, but also tells you if he thinks you’re completely down the wrong lane.

So what is it that these people have in common? They’re all close friends to me. Without them my life would be quite empty. And the other common factor: they all have legal residence status in Sweden, just like I do. A residence permit or citizenship is not something that can suddenly seize to exist, no matter what your hair colour or religion happens to be. And you who voted for Sverigedemokraterna, guess what? Your racist policies won’t break up friendships, or lovers, or parents from their children. People from different colours and ethnicities have always mixed with each other and will continue to do so. We’re all here to stay.

My Friendship With a Man From Kurdistan

Nabaz

During a night out in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, I ended up sitting next to a man in the crowded garden of the Deutsche Hof, the kind of pub that pops up wherever American troops make their way into countries: the smoky garden made a healthy person develop asthma and at the other table a group of soldiers pounded their glasses on the table, chanting army songs. I didn’t think the evening would provide the starting point for a friendship, and I might not have thought that I as a European woman could be close friends with a man from Kurdistan – but your own prejudices sometimes prove you wrong.

The man was not as happy in Erbil as I was. I soon realized that a life of sudden escapes and being a refugee didn’t create a positive atmosphere around a place.

“I’m quite a negative person”, Nabaz bravely introduced himself. “I always expect the worst.”

Despite our different perspectives on things we started to talk. His stories from Baghdad where he grew up made me curious – he was obviously not the regular young guy showing off his money in this newly wealthy area. He had finished a degree in security studies, politics and sociology were his passion, and he had received a scholarship to do his master in UK. We talked politics and travels, mocking the quick development of Kurdistan that created a new bar in every corner, but with a lack of printed books that made students develop eye problems from too much staring on their Ipads.

It was fun to hang out with Nabaz and his friends, they mixed easily women and men from different ethnic backgrounds, but it was Nabaz that I came to be close with. He cared about his friends – his girlfriends without car he picked up and drove back home in the evenings, sometimes spending hours touring around the city, not to leave anyone out. We went to the café Tche Tche’s for a sheesha with friends, spent evenings in the garden of the magnificent Lebanese restaurant, or hung out in the car, driving around the city talking.

“I don’t know how we would have survived if civilians didn’t help us”, he once told me about the bombings of Kurdistan in his childhood. “People just poured over the border to Iran and the families on the other side of the Iranian border took us in.”

He remembered seeing women holding up their babies to overcrowded trucks, begging them to take only the babies, but there was no place. Other stories he told me, on love and control in a society that I was just to get to know, amazed me. Few men I know dare to open up so much about their emotions.

How could it be that a woman that had travelled all over and had all sorts of relationships, lent on a younger man for support? A guess is that his experiences provided a depth of knowledge on how life can treat or mistreat you, and therefore how situations might be solved. I found myself texting at different times for advice. He was always ready to talk (except from when he was in trouble himself and went off to get drunk somewhere. Hopefully the roles could be reversed at such times): A man that didn’t call back? He was just insecure next to an independent woman. A meeting with an old friend that ended in disappointment? “Jenny, people change. Usually to the worse”. I couldn’t have paid a counselor to get the life advice Nabaz provided me with.

In this blog I’m writing about women that have made an impression on me, but when it comes to women’s rights it’s important also to mention the men. To me Nabaz is an example of someone who empowers the women around him. To this day I’m also surprised with the fact that a person is willing to invest so much in a friendship with someone who only touches base in their hometown, a person that it will take time to get to know. I hope I’ll be able to provide the same response to someone else one day, on an evening when I don’t expect to meet someone new. At least I’ll be keeping my guards down; not thinking a friendship cannot be possible.

Photo: Copyright Sweden and the Middle East Blog

The Arabic Swedish Network

I originally wrote this blog text for my friend Tashina Alavi’s NGO Youth Innovatum, check it out:

One of Young Innovatum’s pillars is cultural exchange between young people from different cultures, so as to increase respect and tolerance for persons from different backgrounds. Sometimes there’s no need for taking a trip abroad to learn about others, as the world is becoming more international in our own countries – an example of this is The Arabic-Swedish network that has become a melting pot for young people from all around the world in Malmö, Sweden.

Inspired by language exchange meetings that are common in cities all over the world, we started a few persons back in 2010 to meet regularly in cafés and exchange Swedish and Arabic languages over a cup of coffee. And so the group started to expand, mainly by word of mouth.

Since then the group exploded with members that are regularly posting for meetings, cultural events and get-togethers, and unintentionally it has become more than a language exchange group; it’s now an arena for young people from different countries to blend and learn from each other. The group has a variety of people from all over the world: Sweden, Norway, Yemen, Syria, Egypt, Gaza and the West Bank, Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan, Morocco, Tunisia – even Iran.

Among many young Swedes there’s a growing interest in learning more about the Middle East beyond the common stereotypes in the Western world, why the Arabic culture and language is appealing – an expanding cultural scene in Malmö with Arabic music concerts and the annual Malmö Arab Film festival has probably played its part. On the other hand, for some foreign people in Sweden, experienced prejudices and a lack of interaction with Swedes becomes an obstacle in the effort to making Swedish friends and getting to know the Swedish culture. In the network many people have found a place to break the ice, and have quickly made friends over barriers and religions. The positive interest in cultures has most likely been one of the key factors to the expanding network – in our group, the merging of different cultures is what attracts its members, it’s regarded as something interesting, not a problem. A lot of activists from the Middle East have found the group to be an arena for networking with Swedes and also sharing inspiring news from the region – news that might not reach the regular media, such as the increasing demand on women’s rights and the growing arena of underground journalism. With the mutual learning between our participants, prejudices have been erased and friendships between people that might never had met otherwise, have taken place. Where curiosity replaces fear and real people replaces stereotypes, life becomes richer. Hopefully the core of our network can inspire others to start up similar events or networks in other cities or countries. For more information on the network, search for the Arabic-Swedish network on Facebook.

Photo: Copyright Sweden and the Middle East Blog