Thursday, June 6, 2019

It’s Sweden’s National Day. And this is how Sweden Keeps me Un-Swedish.

On this day, in 2016, I was given a certificate during a big celebration, affirming my “becoming” a Swede. It was a nice gesture but for me, it was like a starting point of me joining the struggle of “svartskalle” (discriminatory term in Sweden to describe people with dark-haired heads, meaning black skull) in this country.

Before you keep on reading, please do understand that I am not aiming to bash or glorify Sweden. I am simply sharing my experience of living in Sweden since mid-2011. As a journalist from Yemen, I have seen how it’s been difficult to convince the world that there are good things about Yemen beside the bad; same problem I find when I try to convince the world that there are bad things about Sweden beside the good. So, please put all the stereotypes aside for a moment.

Sweden is a great country, and like anywhere else, it has the good and the bad. It’s never perfect, just like nowhere else is perfect. There are many issues about Sweden that are so true but we never talk about, especially among the international media; such as racism, discrimination, poverty, Sweden’s Arms Industry, etc. I tried a couple of times to write about Sweden in English and Arabic. I was shocked by the level of hatred and threats I received online by Sweden’s far-right wing.

“Go back to your home in Yemen”, “You should have been in Yemen and married off when you were a child”, “Go back to your Al Qaeda country, you terrorist”, these are some of the comments or messages I used to receive when I “dared” to speak about Sweden.

So, I kept quiet, while knowing that my silence won’t protect me, as Audre Lorde once said.

I was very inspired when a group of Swedish writers and journalists made an online campaign denouncing the hateful and death-threats they were receiving online. I recognized that the problem was massive.

After being a political refugee in Sweden for about four years, by July 2015, I became a Swedish citizen. It was the same time the war broke out in my home country, Yemen. I had a mixed feeling of happiness and sadness. I was dying for that moment to come - of having the Swedish passport so I could fly to Yemen to see my family, but I couldn’t because of the war and the blockade imposed on the country. I had to postpone my plan indefinitely. Meanwhile, I was happy that I was a Swedish citizen and finally can vote. On this day, in 2016, I was given a certificate during a big celebration, affirming my “becoming” a Swede. It was a nice gesture but for me, it was like a starting point of me joining the struggle of “svartskalle” (discriminatory term in Sweden to describe people with dark-haired heads, meaning black skull) in this country.
Google celebrating the National Day of Sweden, today.

The far-right, anti-immigration Sweden Democrats political party has been gaining popularity over the years. When I first arrived in Sweden, they used to be a small group. Today, they are the third-biggest party in the Swedish parliament. I used to underestimate the rising climate of racism in Sweden until I saw how one of my own close friends from Yemen, who came to Sweden seeking refuge, has joined the white-supremacist Sweden Democrats. He’s been promoting all their fascist propaganda without reflecting of how he himself is everything that group doesn’t want to see in Sweden.

The rise of white-supremacist, far-right, populist, fascist tends is global.

Sweden is part of the globe.

I appreciate all the friendships I have made in Sweden with Swedish, Ethiopian, Syrian, Kurdish, Iraqi, Turkish, Somalian, French, Serbian, German, Iranian, Roman, Eritrean, El Salvador, Spanish, Portuguese, Afghani, Egyptian, Palestinian and many other nationalities. It’s like the whole world lives in Sweden. Statistically, about 25% of Sweden’s 10 million population has a total or partial birth-connection with another country besides Sweden, but I would go as far and estimate that it’s almost half of the country.

Sweden is so diverse culturally and I love it!

Then, there’s the problem of integration vs. assimilation. I try not to care much about that — all I care about is to live in Sweden in the way I want to live, with freedom and dignity. I am experienced in that, as I had my Ethiopian roots with me while growing up in Yemen.

Naturally, anywhere you live in, you’d need to speak the language of the place. So I was enrolled in the free-of-charge Swedish language class, what we call in Sweden as “SFI”. The SFI class is an interesting experience for many expats, immigrants and others. Since day one, I noticed how ill-structured the classes were. From putting students with widely different academic backgrounds (like B.A. degree holders and illiterate individuals) to teachers wasting time on things irrelevant to teaching Swedish language. During my four years in the SFI school, I only had one excellent teacher who focused on teaching us pedagogically the Swedish language. The rest were somehow obsessed with assimilation topics. For instance, we had one teacher who kept asking us about feminism and women’s issues in the Arab and Muslim world.

“You do hit women in your region, but we don’t do that in Sweden,” she would tell us in the class.

Well, I am a feminist but I don’t see the use of taking a pedagogic session time about the Swedish language to lecture us about feminism.

Most importantly, the teacher’s attitude was so condescending.

I have learnt more Swedish language from reading Tove Jansson’s children books, speaking to drunk old men at bus stations or TV and radio, than at the SFI classes.

Believe it or not, it is difficult to speak Swedish with Swedes. Once they notice you speak broken Swedish, they switch to English which they love to do as it allows them to practice their English. They think English is so cool. They speak English fluently. However, at job interviews, Swedes don’t find the English language so cool.

It is so difficult to find a job in Sweden — with basic or even advanced Swedish, it doesn’t matter really. What matters is how much working experience you have in Sweden. But how am I going to have working experience if you, Sweden, doesn’t allow me to have an opportunity to get that experience in the first place?

I have submitted countless job applications and almost all the time I don’t even hear back from them with any feedback — even the rejection. I remember one woman taxi driver from Iran who drove me once to a TV interview I made in the Swedish TV building. She told me how she has a degree in engineering from Iran but taxi driving was the only job she could find in Sweden. This made me remove from my CV all the details about all the Swedish and international awards I’ve received for my journalism work. I even started to consider working as a taxi driver or waitress. I have tremendous respect for all taxi drivers and waitresses — and, surely, these jobs are nothing to be ashamed of.

I know my potential and I keep asking myself, why in Sweden am I feeling this unworthiness? Why am I constantly economically struggling? Why the Swedish system doesn’t allow me to fulfil my fullest potentials, find a job and feel settled? Something about the system keeps you as an outsider. Dating in Sweden? I've given up a long time ago.

One of my last attempts to feel that I fit in Sweden, I contacted the Swedish public service, SVT, inquiring if they’d be interested in an op-ed by me about my experience with the Swedish language. They politely told me they weren’t interested.

It is my fourth time to celebrate the Swedish National Day as a Swedish citizen and I am still struggling to fit in and feel Swedish and, most importantly, be seen as a full Swedish citizen.