Archive for October 23, 2015

Can we talk about racism yet, Sweden?

I’ve been here long enough to know confronting things head-on is not the done thing, but it’s already too late.

We need to talk about racism, Sweden.

Not just the big-picture, Jimmie-and-the-bootboys racism of the Sweden Democrats, or the lurch to the right of the not-so-Christian Democrats and the small-l liberals.

We need to talk about the everyday racism that means that we talk about “immigrant suburbs,” and not just suburbs.

We need to talk about the silent racism that leads to “schools with a high percentage of pupils from non-Swedish backgrounds,” and not just schools.

We need to talk, not of immigration, but of integration.

Because the first will happen anyway.

The second is up to us all.

On a day when Ahmed Hassan’s mother spoke of her love for her slain son, and Lavin Eskander’s friends spoke of his love for his job as an assistant at the school in Trollhättan where he was murdered, it’s about time we started talking about racism.

Anton Lundin Pettersson murdered both of them simply because they weren’t white.

It doesn’t get more racist than that.

But it doesn’t stop there.

How this crime is being reported to the world drips with racism – maybe not the aggressive kind that led Pettersson to kill, but racism all the same.

It is the kind of racism that sets the tone and the agenda, and that writes the first – and often the only – draft of history.

The kind of racism that calls him a “lone wolf”, when a brown person would have been called a “terrorist”.

The kind of racism that says he was dressed as Darth Vader, and not as a Nazi stormtrooper.

The kind of racism that fails to mention his military march around the school looking for victims.

It is the kind of racism that makes people in media and politics appeal for calm when they themselves, by their ethnicity, are safe in the knowledge that they are not, and never will be, the target of such attacks.

It is the kind of racism that sees no connection between the burning-down of planned refugee centres, the government’s change of heart in terms of granting temporary rather than permanent asylum, and the murder of schoolchildren.

It’s all connected.

In 2011, Jens Stoltenberg’s memorable answer to Breivik’s terror was “more openness, more democracy.”

But Norway’s answer was to vote him out of power and instead replace him with the “right-wing populist” – or, in simple terms, racists – of Fremskrittspartiet.

In Denmark and Finland, the race towards racism continued untrammelled by Breivik’s bad press. Even Denmark’s Social Democrats tried on the brown shirt, but to no avail, as they desperately tried to cling to power.

And in Sweden it happened too, as Jimmie and his party, born of the neo-Nazi movement, grew inexorably to the point where almost one in five could consider voting for his merry band of besuited fascist thugs.

We have to talk about racism. We have to talk about immigration. We have to talk about fear.

But to do so we have to stop talking about immigrants as threats and start seeing them as people.

We have to challenge the narratives created in the dark belly of the Internet, where hatred germinates out of lies and memes.

Because it is the dehumanising of individuals, the grouping-together so beloved of racists that leads young men to arm themselves with swords and kill based on skin colour.

I live in a multicultural area, but Pettersson would not have stabbed me or my children, simply because we are white.

But he would have stabbed some of my friends and some of my children’s friends, because they are not.

We bear no collective guilt for the actions of Pettersson, but we owe it to those who died to confront the elephant in the the room that is everyday racism – even if it is our own racism.

Because it is that – and not extremism – that makes Sweden one of the world’s most segregated places.

 

Home, God willing

The original shelter in Akalla By, where Laith and his friends were guests on the first night.

Laith has been told that I am taking him to a shelter, but I could be taking him anywhere.

It wouldn’t be the first time someone told him he was headed somewhere, only to find himself somewhere else entirely.

Like when the people smugglers told him that he would be getting on a plane to Sweden, where he would be whisked away and given a place to live, and his family would be brought to him.

With his excellent English – learned working with the Americans as a policeman during the occupation of Baghdad – he would easily get a job.

Or so the smugglers said.

The plane was mysteriously cancelled.

Instead, he wound up in a boat packed with people, making the journey from Turkey to Greece.

The motor died.

So did some of the people.

Most panicked.

The women with children panicked more.

Laith thought it was natural. They were the ones with the most to lose.

He and some of the other strong young men tried to swim ahead and pull the boat.

Some of them died too.

So too did a little bit of Laith.

Swimming for his life and the lives of others, and those of his nine-month old child and his wife hidden in her parents’ house in Iraq, sheer pig-headedness would keep him going.

He made it.

First to Greece, then to Copenhagen and Malmö and Stockholm.

At the first shelter in Stockholm there was a disagreement over space with some Syrians.

Laith and his friends were asked to leave. When you have nothing, you protect it fiercely, even if it costs you.

Laith left and came to Akalla with his friends, where he spent the night. I drove them there.

The next day, someone else drove him back to the Central Station.

All he wanted to do was go home to Iraq, but for now he would have to keep going – to Finland, probably – until he found somewhere safe for his wife and child.

The tension – especially when strengthened by the lack of a common language – when in the car with people like Laith is palpable.

They have a story to tell.

It is a story of a life left behind, with no idea when or where or if it will be picked up again.

For some, it works out OK. For others, not.

Many of them don’t want to tell that story.

Some have no choice.

Today, we closed the shelter. A few cars gathered to take the last dozen or so guests to different places.

Some headed to the Central Station, to follow Laith’s path towards Finland, the trip getting colder and darker the further north they came.

Others had given up.

Lonely for their families, told that they had little chance of being granted asylum, or just put off by the cold and the dark and exhausted by the grinding fucking drudgery of being on the run, they gave in.

Some agreed to return to a home they risked so much to leave.

This morning they would fly back there.

I drove them to the terminal.

“Al-matar?”

The airport?

“Yalla!”

Let’s go!

There were more bodies than bags or suitcases. One man asked if he could have a rucksack to take with him. His friends laughed at him.

“You don’t have anything to put in it!”

The tension wasn’t as palpable on the journey to the airport, but it was still there.

At least now they knew where they were going.

But where they are going is the very reason why they left.

As they took what little they had out of the van, they convinced themselves and each other that this is what they wanted all along.

“Al-bayt, al bayt.”

Home.

Home.

“Insh’allah”

God willing.

——————————————————————————————-

Today the last guests at the temporary shelter in Husby set up by local residents left, and the doors closed for the last time. 

Having had to move premises twice while catering for hundreds of refugees over three weeks, it is no longer possible for the shelter to carry on – the resources in terms of time and money are just not there.

The “refugee crisis”, as it has become known, will continue, and we will continue to help in any other way we can. 

This essay is dedicated to Leo Ahmed, Sonja Dousa and to everyone who gave anything during the last three weeks – all over Scandinavia, people sleep tonight on a pillow of your kindness.