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OPINION: The countryside has the best possibilities for creating a new life in Sweden

Life in rural Sweden may have its drawbacks, but the countryside is more welcoming towards immigrants than many people think, writes Ariz Kader in this opinion piece.

OPINION: The countryside has the best possibilities for creating a new life in Sweden
Life in the Swedish countryside is starkly different to life in the city, writes Ariz Kader. Photo: Private

On July 27th, I wrote a short Twitter thread documenting my experiences as an immigrant to Sweden. The thread contrasted my experiences growing up in an immigrant-heavy suburb of Stockholm with my current life in the Swedish countryside and included my thoughts on what this could mean for integration into either community. As the thread seemed to gain a lot of traction online and was widely discussed, the staff at The Local have been kind enough to ask me to write a version of the thread for their publication. Some of the text has been altered for clarity’s sake.

I lived in Stockholm for about 14 years in my childhood and teenage years, and in retrospect, I can’t think of a more segregated experience. Echoing a lot of my friends of the same generation (first generation of immigrants) – to a certain extent – it feels as if the generation that were born here in the suburbs speak Swedish less fluently than we did. To me, this seems natural as it reflects the concentration of non-native speakers creating their own dialect, rather than learning established ones from native speakers.

Schools in these areas also suffered growing up. Many teachers preferred not to be assigned there and kids from troubled backgrounds made teaching difficult for everyone. This was the case in my school as well.

In Sweden, there is a pedagogical culture of parent involvement in teaching with parents being involved heavily in school meetings, collaborating with teachers, and actively participating in other activities. With few Swedes around, teachers who worked in our schools later told me that immigrant parents simply didn’t pick up these cultural habits.

Shops in these areas also reflected both the kinds of communities that exist with immigrant food shops, cafes, and clothing shops mirroring the diverse background of residents, but you typically also got fewer general stores because those businesses didn’t think it was worth the investment to set up shop. This resulted in immigrant suburbs with a good variety of ethnic foods and clothes, but generally not much else, and so limiting the ability of people to have access to jobs locally.

All in all, these areas have a pretty heavy “us vs them” mentality, with immigrants believing the state isn’t doing enough to promote good services and investment, while businesses and services refuse to invest because of a real or perceived unsafe environment.

As a kid growing up there, there was an extreme sense of hopelessness. Society was perceived as being against immigrants in general. My first clear memory/experience of speaking to a Swede my age from a non-immigrant background is from when I was 12.

The stark cultural differences between Swedish families and immigrant families also created huge hurdles for understanding and feeling welcome. In my family, if we had unexpected guests, we would simply cook more food. In many Swedish families, though of course not all, you were expected to go home to eat or even stay in your friend’s room while the family had dinner.

Many Swedish cities are heavily segregated. Photo: Bertil Ericson/TT

Moving back to Sweden after spending a decade abroad, I settled down in the countryside, and it genuinely felt like I had moved to another country entirely to the one I remember from my childhood years. When we moved in, every single neighbour came to welcome us. We were invited to dinner at everyone’s house.

I get questions and comments about my background that may be perceived as a bit naive or even offensive without context, but when you get to know my neighbours, you understand it comes from a genuine desire to know more about where I come from; it’s never a wish to offend.

In the city, I often feel prejudices seem to be held to oneself with the effect being obvious segregation with people in affluent suburbs being “anti-racist” while never setting foot in an immigrant-heavy area. In the country, prejudices are there, but are open to change with a conversation.

‘In northern Sweden we lock our door to shut out the friendly people’

There are drawbacks, of course. There is little to no access to my traditional foods, nor is there a community of immigrants that might speak my language. My kids will also have a harder time learning my language despite my effort to teach them. But since we live in this country, and since it is their home, I consider that a small price to pay for them growing up as an equal and appreciated part of their community, and not some outsider who will never truly fit in.

This probably boils down to the larger question of what becoming a part of a new country really means. How much do we keep of where we came from if we want to successfully live where we have decided to settle down?

But, in case you really do want to live and be part of the place you decide to call home, I honestly believe the countryside has the best possibilities for creating that new life, and not turning you into a third, fourth, or even fifth generation “immigrant”.

Ariz Kader is a research assistant at Uppsala University’s Peace and Conflict Research Institute. Follow him on Twitter HERE.

Ariz Kader. Photo: Private

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

Swedish clichés: Is the alcohol monopoly really a sign of an all-controlling state?

In this new series, The Local's reader Alexander de Nerée seeks to challenge some of the clichés about Sweden.

Swedish clichés: Is the alcohol monopoly really a sign of an all-controlling state?

There are some undeniable truths about Sweden (lots of Volvos, lots of trees) but when asked, most people don’t get far past the usual clichés. And nor did I. 

A well-organized country full of high tax paying, IKEA flatpack-loving, slightly distant Fika fanatics, all happily queuing to buy some much-needed state-controlled booze to get through the never-ending cold and dark winters.

In this series, I give my take on some of the more commonly heard assumptions about life in Sweden and how I experience them.

When you are visiting family back home after your move to Sweden, you will note that nothing seems to get a tipsy uncle quite as riled up as your story about the state-controlled alcohol market. It’s also something that comes up surprisingly often when you tell people you live in Sweden. The mere mention of having to go to a special shop to purchase alcohol seems to set people off in a certain way.

That the shops are called Systembolaget, like some Soviet-era holdover obviously does little to calm your uncle down.

To start with the concept itself. Having grown up in The Netherlands, I was not bowled over with indignation at the idea of having to go to a separate shop to purchase my poison. Although supermarkets in the Netherlands do sell alcohol, it is pretty common to buy your wine, as well as any stronger stuff, at what Australians call a ‘bottle shop’  (which rather misses the point of what’s actually for sale).

READ ALSO: Like having sex in a church: Sweden’s uptight attitude to alcohol

Apart from having a larger assortment than supermarkets, these shops also have specialized staff that can recommend wines with your food. 

But with plenty of well-stocked and reasonably priced Systembolagets around and one right outside my local supermarket, I don’t think the airtime this topic gets when people talk about life in Sweden is actually justified.

For the now properly drunk uncle at your family dinner, the Systembolaget is of course a sign of a bigger problem with Sweden: the all-controlling state. The outrageous combination of high taxes, free healthcare and schooling and state-controlled alcohol must mean that the government has a finger in every aspect of life.

It turns out your uncle is engaging in a long-standing tradition that has been dubbed ‘Sweden bashing’. It started with Eisenhower, but in more recent years lesser statesmen dabbled in it as well. Although there is no clear definition, it seems to involve cherry-picking facts about Sweden – or alternatively just making them up – in order to ridicule the Swedish model. It’s a model that, according to the ideology of the bashers, should fail miserably but somehow stubbornly refuses to do so.

Despite the long-standing tradition of Sweden bashing, I think anyone who lives here will agree that in everyday life there is nothing particularly invasive about enjoying free education and healthcare in exchange for higher taxes. Come to think of it, that is pretty much the model applied in the Netherlands and they never got stuck with a reputation for an overbearing government. On the other hand, Holland does get bashed for easy access to drugs and euthanasia, so I guess you have to be careful what you wish for.

Considering it now really only functions as a lightning rod for politicians, it may not be a bad idea to let go of the state monopoly on alcohol sales.

As for the bashing itself, I think the current Swedish response to it works just fine: a light shrug of the shoulders and let the system speak for itself.

Alexander de Nerée moved to Stockholm with his husband in October 2020. He is Dutch, but moved from Zürich, Switzerland, after having lived in Hong Kong for 10 years. Not having been to Sweden before the move, Alexander had some broad assumptions about what life in Sweden would be like. In this series, he revisits these assumptions and gives his take.  Alexander wrote for series for The Local before about his “firsts” in Sweden.

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