I was reading the Evening Standard last week coming back on the train from central London. A columnist asserted though Sweden liked to portray that it was an emblem of equality and charm. The columnist wrote that this was a false rumour and Sweden was a fractured country now in full view thanks to the elections and Sweden Democrats (Sverigedemokraterna). I didn’t totally agree and tweeted back saying Sweden was in fact naively perceived as perfect by us abroad. Rarely was Sweden so outwardly self confident albeit, it had achieved much success in the past 40 years.
Between 2011-13, I lived and worked in Sweden in a Swedish school, managed by Swedes and started immediately learning the language and examining each evening news media inside the country. I used the state broadcaster SVT and national newspapers, but I scoured also for international media and their comments and reports on all things Swedish from the likes of the BBC and AlJazeera English.
I worked for an international school, teaching mostly Swedes plus some internationals. Some children had Swedish passports and Swedish parents. Many were dual nationals and parents came from abroad. Some children were born in Sweden, some in their parent’s home country.
The school was situated between two areas. One area had a large number of immigrant families living in a low socio-economic area with challenging crime issues. The other area had a large number of immigrants working for the University or professionals who commuted to Stockholm. Both areas and beyond provided the students we taught at the school. By 2011 – one in ten Swedes were either born outside of Sweden or had parents from outside Sweden.
We as a school believed in internationalism. We were colour blind and always tried to look at the world view and not one from a nationalist angle. There were too many staff from different countries to be look mono-culturally anyhow. Norway, Ireland, UK, Canada, Sweden, the US, Hungary and more represented on the staff body (in no particular order).
In many ways, perhaps it seemed on the outside possibly that this was a social engineering project. Mix the socio-economic groups via children – through the education of the offspring of the white collar workers, the blue collared and the unemployed together. It wasn’t – it was accidental. We used an old university building for the school that was re-converted and it was targeted because of the availability of square feet and price, not because of it’s geographical location. Neither were migrant demographics any particular target. The school was part of a successful organisation that felt that a British style of education was successful and the free school model in Sweden would allow for that. Green space was plentiful and we were lucky. The progressive values of Sweden were very much employed. Gender equality, open discussions on social issues, tolerance and celebration of the world was the mission of the school. It felt amazingly liberating and positive from the outset.
It wasn’t all roses however. The pupils weren’t always excellently behaved. We had some real issues: One girl attempted to set fire to the school. Exclusion from lessons was a daily occurrence amongst some difficult to manage youngsters. A lot of pupils were exceptional academics and they resented the disruption and that in itself was a pressure. Not least the parents were expecting great things and pressured us in return to ensure the behaviour across the board was exemplary. The disruption and behavioural complexities seemed negative and counter-cultural to the many great things we were actually achieving – despite the above difficulties.
Race issues sometimes came up. One class for instance I taught had a mix of fourteen nationalities in one classroom so perhaps it tragically inevitable. In my world view it was thrilling to have people of so many ethnic origins. As a music teacher, I could find out about so many world traditions in one place. It was a moment to explore life beyond the symbolism of flags and politics and the deep culture within. Sadly, for some of the pupils, the flags and the political situation was the stuff of violent rebuff. Students fought in the playground because they, for instance, had allegiance to being Turkish or Kurdish and they violently opposed the opposite viewpoint. Racist insults sometimes came out of mouths like black tar. It could be tough for our pupils and a shock for us who believed we were instilling something other. Sometimes sadly the ignorant racism came from home.
Outside of the school grounds, Sweden was beautifully rural for the large part. On bus trips home in my second year when I lived out of town, the Swedish flags flew vibrantly over farm houses – the wide landscapes and great expanse of sky in Uppland flashed by. Green spaces stretched for mile after mile. The small roads tidy and clean and life seemed idyllic.
The cities were a massive metropolitan mix. There were so many nationalities in Uppsala where I worked. Housing estates had a vast mix of nationalities amongst the stark, plain apartment blocks. The city centre was largely safe, albeit drunken behaviour but racist attacks were non-existent. Beautiful buildings, eco-green buses and cyclists buzzed around whilst you could enjoyed coffee and watch time pass by. I admired this progressive multi-cultural nation. On the surface, a seemingly connected society, comfortable with a shifting identity – one that seemed largely uncritical. Demonstrations happened but were rare and people genuinely seemed free to move around. National and local politics were not large in the workplace. There was also sometimes a carefree attitude – you didn’t have to talk through everything. Sometimes you could ‘just be’ and people were happy about and didn’t judge. I loved that.
Yet, in all of this Sverigedemokraterna or ‘Sweden Democrats’ – the party that’s been of so much focus recently – lurked like a dark shadow on debates at times and questioned the very identity of Sweden’s politics in the news media. Reports circulated that the party was a legitimised front for unacceptably racist attitudes. TV news and dramas, some sold abroad demonstrated that integration was actually more at the fore-front of peoples minds than my casual city walk-abouts had me believe. News media reported worrying crime at times that involved people of ethnic origin. Malmo suburbs were not safe in 2011. Shootings and gang related murder were and are reported on with alarming regularity and there were questions why a largely migrant community seemed to be near this trouble (albeit victims and perpetrators were a mix of ethnicities, including Swedes themselves). The world has heard now of Malmo, but it wasn’t seen as a safe city even when I was there… (2011-13: before Syria descended into it’s monumental self destruction and the refugees came to Europe and Sweden.)
Politicians and citizens talked about immigration when I was there. Affordable housing shortages were reported and commentated on. Sverigesdemokraterna (Sweden Democrats) were responding and vocally and gaining votes and prominence quickly. The newspapers, TV media and watchful eyes questioned and followed them closely.
I encountered in the streets of Uppsala a real mix. The polite café worker from Turkey by the river. The Roma gang member that begged for money outside the train station. University students from different ethnicities on buses chatting and laughing. Sweden Democrats cross-examined on the TV on a BBC World News programme called ‘Hardtalk’
My school’s local Uppsala suburb of ‘Gottsunda’ had a higher than average migrant demographic and consisted of mostly low socio-economic families. Regularly a police visibly present, particularly at night. On my own visits, the threat of crime, created a certain atmosphere at times. It was talked about. It wasn’t totally oppressive however. Some of my teacher colleagues lived there and it was largely fine. They never talked of feeling they couldn’t go outside, but I know at times, their guard was up.
So Sweden then and now is comprised of a multi-faceted community of people. Our school was a microcosm of the complexity of society. Not everyone felt fully happy and at one with the society, but a lot did. A sense of ‘belonging’ was never really measured or studied as truthfully, it varied hugely. Many of our students were dual nationality. Their ethnic origin roots on one hand – Swedish roots on the other. It wasn’t black and white and there weren’t clear delineations on what part of them ‘felt’ Swedish or otherwise and no – they weren’t asked to justify this. The multi-national Swede was something that in fact gave a cultural window to the world that kept me fascinated. I wanted to travel to these places of ethnic origin and know more. I did and moved to India in the August of 2013 and from there travelled extensively.
Politicians in the press could at times present things in neat boxes. Society problems were easily explained in short paragraphs. Single words swallowed up the description of large and diverse groups: ‘Muslim, migrant, EU worker, Scandianavian, Christian, secular, second-generation, integrated’ and so on. It was often without nuance and it left more questions than it did answers.
I never felt Sweden was to be honest entirely ‘fractured’ during the time I was there. There wasn’t those who are Swedish and those who are not and neither did I hear people express themselves in that way. It was a society in transition, although from area to area this transition felt different and couldn’t be easily summed up.
No doubt, some people found that problematic and wanted quick answers to what was happening as society shifted. Perhaps more do now hence why votes went up for parties that were able to sum up a supposed ‘national feeling’ about the fear of immigration in a few lines. My observations however were that ‘transition’ didn’t then provide quick answers and I doubt it does now. Migration came then to Sweden in many forms and still does. Even in the classroom migration, identity and perceptions of what it was to ‘be Swedish’ couldn’t be summed up over years and terms. Let alone in sort election broadcasts and five minute interviews on the main news programmes.
Perhaps then that is why, moderates, far left, centre left and vice versa struggle to define the politics for today when forensically cross examined. Perhaps why there are seemingly no coherent short answers. That the Sweden Democrats have tapped into providing slick, rehearsed responses is one thing. But it doesn’t satisfy the majority of politicians, media commentators and citizens questions and misgivings (over 4 out of 5 Swedes didn’t cast their vote for Sverigedemokraterna). Defining ‘migrants and immigration’ proved in truth to be complex and divisive. The opposition struggles to succinctly respond – perhaps because two sentences to a time pushed radio and TV audience cannot do that on such challenging and multi-angled issues.
Sweden is still on a journey as is all of the western world. What was the 1970 is not 2018 and the country has indeed shifted and that surely is not debatable. The swing to the far right has been developing for a while and no surprise as much as it hasn’t been a surprise in the rest of Europe. The aftermath of this election that proves the road ahead is neither short nor easy too.