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INTEGRATION

OPINION: Integration is in actions, not words – here’s how Almedalen could be more open

When recent master's graduate in political science Alyssa Bittner-Gibbs had a chance to attend Sweden's Almedalen festival, she jumped at the chance to experience an event calling itself "the democratic meeting place for everyone". But her experience only highlighted some of the main barriers to political integration, she writes.

OPINION: Integration is in actions, not words – here's how Almedalen could be more open
Almedalen claims to be "the democratic meeting place for everyone", but how true is that description? File photo: Henrik Montgomery / TT

I chose to attend events focusing on one of my own hjärtefragor (“issues of the heart”): the disproportionate unemployment of foreign-born women in Sweden. I wanted to hear what the politically engaged understood about the issue and how to address it, and perhaps share my own and acquaintances' experiences. 

I couldn't help but notice that both panelists and audiences were almost exclusively comprised of upper middle-class, native-born Swedes in seminar after seminar.

Almedalen's growth over recent decades has pushed up hotel and travel costs, so that while events are free, it is in practice dominated by the affluent. Compared to Järvavecken, a political festival held in one of Stockholm's suburbs each June, was like comparing Swedish winter darkness to the midnight sun. Järvaveckan was the bazaar, packed with residents of all colours and stripes of Swedish society. Almedalen was the guild house: a rather homogeneous group of well-dressed, well-connected people. 

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It also became clear that this was “hive mind” in action, with little input at any point from the most affected groups. Solutions proposed included internships, mentorship programmes, and UHR (Swedish Council for Higher Education) recognition of non-EU qualifications. I and many others have participated in all three with very mixed outcomes.

From our experiences, many Swedish employers consider education or experience outside of Sweden to be worthless, and many don't consider internships as “real” work experience. Those who achieve regular employment after years often settle for occupations that match neither work experience or education, are assumed by work colleagues as less capable, and critically lack knowledge of their working rights.

The Social Democrats' Almedalen economic seminar, taking place without the party leader and prime minister who chose not to attend the week-long festival. Photo: Henrik Montgomery / TT

The solutions discussed in the seminars failed to address problems such as discrimination against foreign names and the crafting of job listings or tests designed to sift out foreign-born applicants. Sole responsibility for integration was laid entirely on newcomers, with little reference to the responsibilities of Swedes in fighting discrimination and coming up with fresh approaches and mindsets.

Seeing a need for dialogue, I eagerly anticipated the chance to ask questions within the seminars.  Yet, with few exceptions panel members rushed to their next event, leaving no opportunity for audience discussion. 

While the three key premises for foreign-born citizens to succeed (sense of belonging, feeling included, and full agency in shaping their lives) were frequently invoked by panelists, there was little evidence of this being put into place on site. I observed like mingling with like, and often felt like a token foreign-born participant, wondering if I belonged at Almedalen and even in Sweden.

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Crowds walk through the streets of Visby during the event. Photo: Henrik Montgomery / TT

Having the chance to attend did give me an opportunity to see the range of Swedish organizations engaged in addressing these issues – key information that newcomers critically lack. And I made meaningful contacts in one-on-one discussion at mingles, glass of wine in hand. Some validated my own concerns, with one remarking that a seminar we attended had been more of a “political rally” than an attempt to brainstorm solutions. Words, not actions.

Having lived in Sweden for nearly six years, following two earlier student exchanges here, I care deeply about this country and share unreservedly in the Swedish values of equality, collectivism, and egalitarianism.

But I'm also aware of the focus on conformity and Jantelagen — the unwritten social code that emphasizes the importance of 'fitting in' and not trying to teach others — not to mention the general aversion of making oneself or others uncomfortable in social situations. When we discuss topics such as integration, we need to be prepared for this discomfort. 

IN DEPTH: How is Sweden tackling its integration challenge?

A crowd applauds a speech during the Liberal Party's day of Almedalen. Photo: Henrik Montgomery / TT

The second step is to recognize that lives and experiences outside of Sweden are invaluable in the quest to attract global talent, fill work shortages, and market Sweden to the world. I am fortunate to have a multi-cultural and multi-faith group of friends, and feel my life is richer for these relationships. My ultimate hope for Sweden is to meet its challenges, shaping a more cohesive Swedish society through diverse, complete, and truly open dialogue that results in a country where we all feel included, engaged, and that we belong.

So, in the spirit of proposing ideas instead of merely criticism, I suggest that Almedalen:

1. Set the example and showcase the kind of Sweden we want to achieve by including those directly affected most by society's problems. Leaders should lend their influence to frame these narratives while providing their political and business expertise to achieve workable solutions, but extra effort must be taken to invite and include the people directly affected.

2. Always incorporate questions. Citizens directly addressing officials about their lives is what democracy is all about. This could be done by allowing questions to be submitted in advance online, or organizing complimentary events. Care should be taken by moderators to ensure that those from underrepresented groups have the chance to ask questions, so it's not only the loudest voices that are heard.

3. Target some mingles towards politically underrepresented groups. Publicizing exclusive mingles for only the powerful and connected doesn't look great in democratic spaces which claim to be “for everyone”.

4. Prioritize fighting affordability and accessibility issues. These have been noted over the years, even by Sweden's prime minister who did not attend Almedalen this year, but remain unaddressed. Instead of politicians turning their backs on Almedalen, why not simply help more groups to attend? One way of doing this would be to have a new Swedish city host Almedalen each summer. 

By taking these four steps, we can bring more of Sweden into the conversation. It will require some discomfort and engagement with lived experience outside of statistical data. It will mean that panelists and speakers will sometimes have to give up their microphone and instead listen as engaged citizens. This is what being an ally to affected groups is all about. 

One day, I hope to return to Almedalen. I take heart from my conversations that some of Almedalen's core, native demographic understands these needs as well, and uses their influence to drive concrete efforts to bring the needed changes in our democracy. Their engagement will be crucial to helping Sweden meet its democratic challenges in the coming years, during which we can all learn a great deal from each other.

Alyssa Bittner-Gibbs first came to Sweden in 1998 as an impressionable 17-year-old high school exchange student. She recently earned a master's in political science following an internship at democracy think-tank International IDEA, and resides with her American husband and daughters in Bromma. 

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

Baby, it’s mörv outside: Sweden’s 13th month is here

The cold snap is over and now the month of mörv is back: darker, wetter, windier, and with even more work that you haven’t done, says David Crouch.

Baby, it’s mörv outside: Sweden’s 13th month is here

It is a fact little known outside Scandinavia that the year consists not of twelve months, but thirteen. The thirteenth month is sandwiched between November and December, and is known as mörv. (No capital letter for the months in Sweden.)

Mörv expresses the feeling that November is bleak, dark, and seems to go on and on forever. Suddenly there is no daylight. That hour we lost at the end of October seems to have plunged us all into permanent night. What sunlight there is is weak, grey and miserable. You go to work in the dark, you go for lunch in the twilight, and you come home in the pitch black. Your Scandi outdoor life is over – unless you’re a masochist, or perhaps a duck. Every surface is permanently damp and will remain so for the next six months.

This year’s first mörv moment for me came a couple of weeks ago when we took our daughter to a popular playground. Because my wife and child took so long to get ready we underestimated how early it gets dark these days, we arrived with daylight fading fast. The other kids had gone home already, so everything was silent but for the splashing of Poppy’s boots in the mud. The wooden playthings were covered in a treacherous layer of slime. Ugh. Mörv.

Mörv is a word originally coined by Jan Berglin, cartoonist for Svenska Dagbladet. Mörv arrives when the nice part of autumn is over but proper winter is still somewhere in the distant future. Living in a country that has four well-defined seasons is a pleasure, but during mörv the joys of the old season are gone while those of the new have not yet begun.

No more can you harvest berries and mushrooms in forests burnished red and gold – it’s all turned to muck underfoot and the trees are bare. But nor can you go sledging or skiing, enjoy the crunch of snow and the crisp, sparkling air. “There is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes,” goes the Swedish adage. Warning – this does not apply in mörv. You could dress from head to toe in sealskin but you still wouldn’t want to go outside.

Denmark has something similar, but there the month of November just repeats itself like groundhog day. A Danish poet summed it up very well. You haven’t read much Danish poetry? I have so you don’t have to. In a verse entitled “The year has 16 months”, Henrik Nordbrandt wrote:

“Året har 16 måneder: November
december, januar, februar, marts, april
maj, juni, juli, august, september
oktober, november, november, november, november.”

You get the picture. But in Swedish one word will do. Mörv.

This is the month of ghastly and unspecified viruses that flourish until the frost arrives to kill them off. It is the month of working like a dog to get everything done before Christmas. And to help you with this, in November there are no “röda dagar”, bank holidays or long weekends. In fact, Sweden moved the only national holiday – Alla helgons dag, or All Hallows Day – to a Saturday, just so you can work a full week either side.

Mörv is also the month when you can’t put off dull but necessary things any longer. That dental appointment you postponed because the weather was too nice. That itchy mole on your back that really should be seen by a doctor. That bit of DIY you never got around to. You are so busy with mörv that friends go unseen and your social life disintegrates.

This year, the weather tricked us by bringing southern Sweden a taste of winter a few weeks earlier than usual. For a fleeting moment the temperature dropped and we experienced that wonderful icy stillness that comes with a fresh snowfall after dark.

But even that sub-zero blast caught us unawares in the depth of our mörv-induced paralysis. Had you put winter wheels on the car? Of course not, it never freezes in November. Had you replenished your supply of grit and salt for the entrance to your home? Nej. Could you cope? Ingen chans. Knowing this, the kindly Stockholm authorities suggested we all stay at home and sit it out.

They knew it wouldn’t last. The deceitful cold snap is over and now mörv is back, darker, wetter, windier, and with even more work that you haven’t done. Between now and Lucia, mörv. Between now and saffron and candles and fairylights and glögg, only mörv. (With maybe a little Advent baking if you like that kind of thing.)

Cheer up, it won’t last forever. And it could be worse: it could be February. Now that is a truly horrible month.

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.

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