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.

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.

Young Angry Men

angryman

Stereotypes of young angry men are often used in order to incite fear of the other – that other that is so scary to us for reasons we might not know ourselves. This is a disease so common we don’t reflect upon it. Why was for example Trayvon Martin’s murderer released if it wasn’t for that justifying fear?

I’ve been afraid myself: growing up in the capital of Sweden didn’t spare me from class related tensions, often connected to ethnicity or color, and riding on the subway made me subject of things such as sexual harassment and girls spitting me in the face. I was a blonde middle class girl for all they knew and an easy target for whatever anger they needed to vent. And yes, I was afraid of young men, especially of color, who seemed angry.

Later on when I was grown and graduated university I worked as a substitute teacher while I hoped a job opening would come through. I took on jobs in the projects as the social aspect of teaching appealed to me. The job contained a lot more of steering off violent teenagers and spending time on the phone to the social services than what it contained teaching, and it was draining at times but I was dedicated and stayed on. In one school I had a particularly violent student, one of those who would have scared me when I was younger, a 13 year old boy that we can call Mostafa.

On good days Mostafa was happy with merely stabbing a sharpened pen in his school desk while repeating every word the teacher said in a mocking voice. The whole school seemed to be afraid of him. I dreaded classes with him but always tried to keep my cool. That plus a dose of discipline and kindness was my way of dealing with the students.

“I’m gonna destroy your presentation, you fucking bitch!” was one of his opening lines, to which I usually replied “Oh, really”, which always left him puzzled for a few seconds.

But despite our efforts to teach the kids we teachers never asked ourselves what the anger came from. We didn’t seem to have the energy to do the math of alienation, substandard housing, poverty. Isn’t that the fault of the whole society?

Now Mostafa was the child of immigrant parents from a Middle Eastern country and I mentioned once to the students that I had lived in his parents’ country of origin. Mostafa didn’t comment upon it but other kids asked me of the few words I had picked up in Arabic and Mostafa overheard it all. One day he banged on the door and demanded to be let in when I was preparing a class. He positioned himself on a desk and started to talk to me about his parent’s home country, as if he wanted to verify that it was really true I had lived there. We had a small conversation where he asked questions such as “Did you have friends there?” (“Yes, I did”), before he went out again.

After that day he slowly changed his behavior in my class. He stopped mocking me when I spoke. He stopped throwing things across the classroom. He tried to finish his exercises and left his desk to show me that he was writing (“Great, Mostafa. You’re doing really well”). Then the school semester came to an end, so did my temporary contract and the next semester I was teaching at a different school.

One evening there was a festival in our city and I was out with a friend to listen to some live music. When we approached the hiphop scene I suddenly heard a teenage voice calling my name:

“Jenny, Jenny!”

It was Mostafa, whom I hadn’t seen since the end of the last semester. He had spotted me from the audience stage and suddenly stood above me.

“Hi Mostafa!” I answered with a smile, pleased to see him.

Back then I often – and I still actually do – ran in to former students who were happier to see me outside school than they had ever been seeing me inside of it. When bumping in to each other downtown many wanted to talk a little and tell me about their lives; some simply said hi; the most hardcore ones usually just nodded in recognition or ignored me. Not wanting to talk was to me understandable, as some of them dropped out of school and joined gangs, and this is nothing you want to admit to your former teacher. But nothing of what I could have expected had prepared me for Mostafa’s response that day: he jumped off the stage, threw himself in my arms, and buried his head in my shoulder. Perplexed I hugged him for a few amazing seconds.

“How are you? I’m fine! I gotta go!” He said all in once and then freed himself from my embrace, suddenly realizing what he had done; the hug of a former teacher in front of his friends, then set off and ran away.

I never saw him again, later on I heard that he was one of the kids to drop out of school, but I will never forget the hug that day. It changed my previous perception of young and angry men. In that very moment, the angry Mostafa whom everyone was so afraid of, was nowhere in sight.

Photo credit: mahwaff.com

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

Where Are You From?

commons.wikipedia.orgMy friend Sara’s post on Facebook the other day received a huge amount of comments. Sara recounted a conversation she had had in the lunch room at the hospital where she is working: a “tall, blonde” medical doctor had responded to Sara introducing herself by asking: “So where are you from? You don’t exactly look like you have viking blood in you” (the vikings are Sweden’s infamous seafaring warriors that terrorized other nations in the years 800-1500). Even though Sara simply had answered the woman with the name of the Swedish city she grew up in, the woman didn’t give in but kept pushing for my friend to explain her ethnic belonging and family history.

On Facebook Sara explained how tiring it is to receive this question over and over again and summed it up by concluding that no blonde medical doctor had to answer endless questions about their background on a coffeebreak on any given medical clinic in Sweden. Many commented with their thoughts and advice on how to handle such a situation, some of them being quite radical about asking the woman to fuck off or simply leave Sweden for a more tolerant country; most of them Swedes as Sara mostly has Swedish friends. I was about to agree with them then it struck me: I was once one of those people asking Sara where she was from.

When we had been friends for a while years ago she had brought up the subject of her being the odd one in the all-white Swedish middle class surroundings of university life where we both were, and in that moment I realized that when we first got to know each other I had asked her a million of questions about her home country. Why? I found her country so damn exciting and I wanted to know all there was about it (I had never been there myself). But I hadn’t seen it as a problem back then before Sara brought it up.

“Well you ask me a lot of questions, just like the others,”  Sara agreed when I reminded her, then adding in a conciliatory manner: “But on the other hand you did seem genuinely interested.”

In my country some newcomers never make it into the Swedish society; they never learn the language, never make it to the jobmarket and their kids go to one of the ghetto schools where more than 50% don’t graduate junior high school. Being an outcast is also degrading and I have met a lot of anger in the ghettos in Sweden. But maybe as the glass ceiling is one of the hardest to break through this might create a lot of bitterness of another, more damaging kind than the feeling of being an outcast? If you are doing your best trying, graduating from high school with straight As, make it to medical school or another attractive university program, get yourself a good ass job and still neve becomes accepted for who you are because of your different name or (in Sweden) black hair – couldn’t this be worse?

Me myself I didn’t graduate junior high school and spent a considerable amount of time in special educational programs for troubled kids – but when I did make it to university in the end noone looked surprised when they saw me or asked if I was the first one in my family to attend university, when on my dad’s side I actually was one of the first, and my parents even made me give them a copy of my (usless) Bachelor’s degree in political science for them to frame and hang on the wall.

After quite some thinking I answered Sara’s Facebookpost and told her my thoughts about myself, saying I think she could point out to the blonde medical doctor next time that it is very tiring having to answer these kinds of questions. Because I don’t think she realizes herself that she’s a part of that glass ceiling that holds people back. I’m not free from prejudices and also I need an eye opener sometimes. And I believe in dialogue rather than telling that clueless person to fuck off. Sure, asking someone to fuck off is needed when the person knows what he’s doing, but most of us are just ignorant like me and needs to be made aware, just like Sara did with me once upon a time. I actually think the Swedish persons being so radical have made the same mistakes in the past.

I hope I will read a new Facebook update from Sara soon, with the result of the next answer on the question: Where are you from?

Photo credit: commons.wikipedia.org

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