How Racism is Becoming Normalized in Sweden


Racism is becoming more normalized in Sweden – in all of Europe, I dare say, and people with xenophobic views who previously kept quiet about their views now feel more free to express them openly. Still, most of them reject the label of being racist.

A young Syrian man in Sweden recorded this woman on a tram in Gothenburg, Sweden, when she verbally abused him and his friends. Check the video out on his Facebookpage.

Don’t speak Swedish? This is the bottomline of what the woman yells about:

She gets 3.800 SEK a month, while “they” (presumably the young man and his friends) are receiving 8.000 SEK a month, to study Swedish for immigrants.

And at the end of her speech, she states that she obviously has the wrong skin colour, white, in Sweden, but even if she does, she still has the right to have opinions in her own country, and she’s not a racist.

Now with this kind of narrow definition, who is really left to be a racist?

Confessions From a Receiver on the Other End of War

Here’s a confession from Sweden: despite working in Syria and Iraq during the civil wars, the collective trauma of the wars has hit me the most when being in Sweden.

I am happy I have friends and colleagues from different countries also in Sweden. I’ve shared my views on my female friendships on this site before, several times. I’m happy I have a job where I get to offer some support to the refugees in Sweden. But the secondary traumas are creeping up on me from time to time, as well as the high cost of trying to be neutral in the midst of relationship chaos that comes from internalised conflicts.

There is one thing, according to me, that people who suffered a war have in common: distrust. And distrust can take many forms. People can become shattered. Or angry. Or hostile. Or traumatised. Or depressed. The good things lies underneath, still there; people can be still be wonderful friends, colleagues, human beings; but the reaction to war rarely leaves a person without a trace.

On the outskirts of these conflicts, here in Sweden, I’m trying to manage the Assad supporters disbelieving in the activists from the opposition. The opposition activists suspecting the Assad supporters for being in liaison with the intelligence. People blaming Iranians for messing up Syria. People blaming Iraqis for Daesh. People blaming each other for not caring about the others. Trying to remain neutral in this is a battlefield on its own.

Taking part of people’s experiences made things to me as well. All the stories I have heard are sometimes blurring in my mind, if I ever am to retell them. Was it the Iraqi boy I knew who was forced, as a teenager, to watch a gang rape of an Iraqi girl? Was it the Syrian woman I knew who couldn’t sleep through the night so she chose the day instead, terrified of the dark? Was it the Palestinian man who had covered his child’s ears from hearing the bombings at night in Gaza, who still was in anguish, because despite being outside of the country, his child still heard the bombs? Or was it someone else?

I just now recalled a morning that I spent some time back with a Syrian friend in the Swedish Migration Board, when she was about to apply for asylum. I had gone with her as she didn’t want to be on her own. She hadn’t slept all night but she was still composed. In the Migration Board, the queue system had broken down and people were fighting in order to get to the desk to have their application handed in before closing time. The scene somehow reminded of the situation at the Syrian border. There were no pens to fill in the applications. There was no one to explain anything. People were pulling at me, a Swede, to explain the system to them (I only could somehow), to ask for water (there was none), to ask if they would be allowed somewhere to sleep during the night (I didn’t know). There were too many people in the room that became unbearably hot. I started to yell at the woman behind the desk when she said she was out of pens. I started to yell when she refused to come out and organise the queue. I became increasingly irritated with the asylum seekers begging me for help.

My friend told me to come out and sit down at one of the benches in the waiting room, and surprisingly enough, a man left his place so that here was room for me. A Syrian family that my friend had befriended in the waiting room came up, and their 8-year-old daughter placed herself in my knee, so that she could watch music videos on my iPhone. But before so, she folded my jacket and placed it behind my head. Why did the girl do that? Her mom gave the girl’s brother a KitKat and a soft drink to give to me, him resolutely pressing the items in my hands, urging me to open the chocolate bar. Then a few minutes later, I heard the children’s father speak to his bench neighbour next to us. The neighbour had asked him something about Sweden, and the man answered:

“I don’t know… there is a Swedish girl over there who speaks a little bit of Arabic, that I could ask. But I don’t want to do it right now. As you can see, she is very tired.”

Your Values & Loneliness

The world is falling apart and people’s minds are going downhill with it.

Intolerance are increasing everywhere. People with intolerant views believe they are finally right.

What before was off the record is now on the record. Everything is possible. Everything is true. It’s like the Holocaust never happened. WWII never happened.

You try to stick to your values anyhow. You try to stick to what’s right. Maybe not stick up for, but stick to. That’s the least you can demand from yourself.

Does it pay off? Maybe for your soul.

Does it pay off for your every day life? No.

Does it pay off for your social life? No.

Does it pay off for your relationships? No.

At the other end of sticking to your values in a time when most people don’t, comes this: loneliness.

I Still Believe in You Sweden, My Country

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The beach in Åhus, southern Sweden, in October

I have fond memories of my native country, a country that I believe is one of the best countries in the world. Here’s a sample of my memories:

I the summers I participated in summer camps hosted by the local municipality, offered to all teenagers in the municipality and the fee based on a sliding scale according to the parents income, where families on welfare paid nothing. In the camps we got to practice creative writing and drama during a few weeks. The youth leaders were young and enthusiastic, we often went swimming, created new bonds of friendship. The summer camps made is feel important, that we deserved these amazing weeks in the countryside together.

In middle school during election time our teacher encouraged us to form our own political parties, with different agendas, creating posters where we formed slogans and after presenting them all we got to vote on the ones we thought were the best. The posters then decorated the classroom for the rest of the school semester, reminding us about the power being in our hands.

My parents often spoke to us children on justice and how it was important to support each other. One Saturday morning when going down to the garage in our building, we saw a young but weathered man sleeping on the ground floor, outside the lift that we stepped out of. Me and my sisters got agitated and said that he shouldn’t sleep there – we had never seen such a sight before – because it wasn’t his home and it was disgusting. Our mom then explained that we shouldn’t say that because the man probably had nowhere else to sleep, and we shouldn’t speak so loud, so that we wouldn’t wake him up. A small thing but it made a strong impression on me, the constant reinforcement of empathy for others.

This country taught me amazing things and made me who I am today. I still believe in you, my country, Sweden. We are still a country that cares about others, where it’s possible to coexist. Let it remain like this, Sweden. Please don’t let me down.

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.

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.

Swedish Muslim Students Responds to Hate With Baklava

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.