A dear American friend sent me an article not long ago about immigrants in Sweden. It captured the essence of many immigrants I know or have spoken with – an experience in stark contrast to the pleasant life enjoyed by most Swedes.
This friend is married to a Swedish woman and lives in the USA. If he once considered moving to Sweden, I doubt it would ever happen now after hearing and reading over the years about what he could expect. Since he rarely sends me anything, I knew the article hit a nerve.
The article was informative yet provided no surprises for me as I have lived and learned in Sweden for nearly 8 years – first in Stockholm and now in a smaller town in southern Sweden. My experience after 5 years can be found on the following link.
Since arriving in 2004, I’ve made it a priority to speak to people I’ve encountered (including almost every immigrant) on my frequent travels around Sweden. It’s been a wonderful way to learn more about the culture from Swedes and the challenges from immigrants.
The immigrants who spoke with me came from various countries. Some were friends and clients while others were academics entrepreneurs, business people or strangers. A significant portion of stories I heard came from taxi drivers.
Interestingly, most were underemployed or unemployed. “Frozen” out of the job market was something the aforementioned article highlighted although it’s old news to me. Before I arrived in Sweden, I was fortunate to be told how difficult the job market would be.
Most immigrants were eager to speak with me. I got the sense that some never had the chance to “exhale” and tell their story to a welcoming ear. The experiences were vastly different and often compelling although eerily similar in two ways:
1) The majority were glad and thankful that they had a comfortable life in Sweden – an existence most confessed would be more challenging (and in some cases harsh) if they had remained in their birth countries.
2) Whether they had lived in Sweden for 2, 10 or 30 years, most were satisfied with life yet not happy.
The dismay about job conditions for immigrants that I mentioned earlier came from my conversations with ex-pats in Sweden before my wife and I moved here. EACH person told me similar stories about how hard it would be to obtain quality employment along with other cultural challenges. Satisfaction reigned supreme in their voices about Sweden not happiness.
Due to their forthright nature, I was prepared for the obstacles I would face. That made my transition much easier. I’ve known others who were told the opposite (easy to find a job) before moving although they spoke with Swedes beforehand not immigrants. You can imagine their disappointment when they thought it would be a “Cinderella” work experience.
There are exceptions to the rule in my inner circle – immigrants who are happy in Sweden although I hope that number will increase in future years. Most of the happy ones are blessed to have quality jobs and are very positive.
Fortunately, I’m happy. I was able to find that rare employer willing to judge me on my merits and not the fact that I’m not Swedish. Before I landed my job, it was tough on me as there were many jobs I was interested in yet never had the opportunity to have an interview Despite my tough beginning years in Sweden, I’m grateful for my lovely life.
Here’s one of my interview experiences before I moved to Sweden:
I was excited even though I had those ex-pat voices spinning in my head. I had the interview when my wife and I visited one month before our move. It was pleasant, enjoyable and obvious that I was the most qualified candidate. The VD (CEO) of this very well known organization said after, “You have more experience than all of the other six candidates combined”, which was nice to hear. He later said, “I can’t hire you because the employees wouldn’t be comfortable with a non-Swedish speaker”. Keep in mind that everyone spoke English. That was a bitter pill to swallow as I could have helped them immensely despite the language discomfort but they were more concerned with what I call “Comfort over Improvement” in hiring; something that occurs far too often here in regards to employing foreigners.
Life is VERY good for a majority of the people living in Sweden – a Paradise especially if one compares it with other parts of the world. Our economy is strong and we are the envy of the business world due to our strong recovery from the financial crises.
For many immigrants, the word “Paradise” would never enter into the conversation if they were describing their life in Sweden.
A few weeks back, I was talking to a intelligent immigrant taxi driver (9 years here) who was fighting the tears as he spoke of his journey. He informed me of his insane monthly hours and the meager pay he received for his driving efforts – shocking to say the least. According to him, it was the only job he was able to get.
Other malicious things flowed out of his mouth as well – words that were frighteningly harsh. He’s a bitter man and displayed a rage I had never seen before; a rage that should worry Sweden.
After our 15 minute conversation, he said to me, “all of the immigrants in Sweden are strangers. Some are treated better as I am sure you are coming from the USA or those from the UK. People like me (Middle East) or Muslims have a much tougher road to navigate. But, remember, we are all strangers.”
Let’s hope we can all come closer together in future years as Sweden has so many positives (i.e. a great place to raise kids, safe, beautiful nature) although the black eye will always be present as long as qualified immigrants don’t have the chance to compete for jobs or feel as if they are “Strangers in Paradise”.
Happy Gswede Sunday!