Sweden – All Our Passports Are The Same Color

With similar terrorist attacks happening in Germany, France and England in the last few years, it was only a matter of time before another major city fell victim to this form of terrorism (using a truck/car); this month it was Stockholm, Sweden – a city I lived in for 6 years. Five people are dead from a man (an immigrant) who drove a truck into pedestrians on one of Stockholm’s busiest streets. Maybe this was our wake-up call to be more open-minded, along with embracing awareness and preparation in the future. Additionally, we (Swedish citizens) need to be more demanding of our government.

Even though we’ve had two high profile assassinations in Stockholm, along with ample warning signs, this tragedy was a shock to many of the city’s residents. Some Swedes are outraged, angry and find it hard to swallow that our capitol city has lost its purity. The CEO of Stockholm’s Chamber of Commerce, Maria Rankka wrote this:

It’s another reminder that Sweden, with its many positive sides and — from a mainstream international perspective — also some cultural peculiarities, is a European country among others. For better and worse.

We are not immune to terror and violence even though we haven’t been at war since 1814. On the other hand, Sweden has experienced the murders of one prime minister and a foreign minister within my life time. So we shouldn’t be totally naive.

Life is definitely getting back to normal, but it will never be the same.

When I heard a Swede (those born in Sweden) living in Stockholm say “I don’t want to hear about this ‘just be accepting’ crap” (referring to refugees) in response to this attack, that gave me cause for concern. Yes, his feelings are understandable with our myriad of immigration issues, although I wonder if he was as outraged when a Swede with a sword targeted an immigrant school in 2015, killing 2 teachers and a student – this also was a terrorist act.

We know we need to act now in forging more togetherness, which is evidenced by the outpouring of love and solidarity, including a touching gathering of thousands in central Stockholm in the days after the tragedy. The big question is whether we will continue to act with love. This is our chance to look in the mirror and be more accepting of one another.

I wish there was a stronger reaction 10 years ago when tensions were beginning to scratch the surface between those born here and those who came for a better life. I wrote this in 2010:

A few weeks back, I was talking to an 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.

It was clear to me that tensions would start to bubble high, which I tried to get across with my words. I’ve rarely seen that aforementioned rage from an immigrant. The comments below my article made me feel that I didn’t succeed with my intended purpose. “Learn the language” was a common theme in those comments, yet the vast majority of immigrants I’ve talked to are fluent in Swedish.

It seemed as if my readers didn’t want to address the elephant in the room ( to act on or at least talk about immigration and how to improve it), although the anti-immigrant Swedish Democrats were more than willing to speak about it - and people listened, thus the significant rise in their party since that time. 

Sweden’s fidelity to humanitarian values resulted in its accepting more than 80,000 asylum seekers in 2014 and more than 160,000 in 2015, before tightened procedures led the number to fall to fewer than 30,000 last year. It has not been easy for a nation of 10 million to accommodate such a large number of refugees — many with little education and hailing from vastly different societies — in such a short time. Well before Friday’s attack, a vigorous debate was underway on the best way forward, and not all Swedes are happy: Support for the anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats grew from just under 3 percent of the vote in 2006 parliamentary elections to just under 13 percent in the 2014 elections.

Our collective inaction let the party who wants to do away with all integration win and gain support…at least in the short term. If we don’t act now, their influence will continue to ascend. 

What does give me hope is the way Swedes and Immigrants of all colors and cultures opened up their hearts and homes to those in need, as many people were stuck in Stockholm in the aftermath of that chaotic Friday. That was a beautiful gesture to read and hear about. We can’t forget about those important acts of giving.

We need that kind of support if we hope to see a bright and thriving Sweden in the future. I’ve heard from numerous people who believe that Sweden will be a shell of itself in 15-20 years. Below is a message from one of them:

“G.. I can tell you all that Swedish way stuff has lost its appeal... I've heard more than a few Swedes ask what the hell is the Government thinking with such lax terrorist laws.. people are fed up now!  These acts of terrorism, open boarders, riots in the suburbs, friendly social welfare system and increase drug use has people feeling they've lost their country...  it will be felt at the voters ballet box. I can almost guarantee you. Major shift is on the way...”
(Citizen who has lived in Stockholm almost 20 years)

I’m more optimistic than the words above, but I’m not na├»ve. In order to flourish in the future, we need to see an abundance of unifying energy and comradery in our local communities weekly, not just during the aftermath of a tragedy. There are Swedes and Immigrants who have shown that spirit of togetherness in their daily lives and I’ve heard heartwarming stories about the way both groups have worked to help one another adjust to the heavy influx of 300,000+ refugees into Sweden in the last 5 years, yet most of us need to do more or simply begin the process of doing something.

If you are a Swede, when was the last time you had an immigrant in your home? Have you ever had an immigrant (family not included) in your home?

I would ask the same two questions to an immigrant who has lived in Sweden for a significant period of time? Do you spend quality time with any Swedish born person?

One Swede told me recently that his son plays sports with immigrants, yet all his friends are Swedish born. In addition, I’ve heard from plenty of immigrants who have no desire to get to know Swedes on a personal level.  We have to improve upon this, particularly with our youth.

I’ve been accepted fairly well as an American, although I’ve been to a surprisingly high number of events throughout my 11 years in Sweden where I was the only immigrant.

If we are going to help mend our Swedish society, both Swedes and Immigrants have to learn to embrace each other in a more productive way and get to know one another more deeply, which will require spending quality time together. 

We need folks of all backgrounds to open your minds and hearts and change the way you interact.

How about making it a point to have lunch or coffee with someone who doesn’t look like you and/or comes from a different culture? That person could be the one in your office who you like, yet never considered having a private conversation with.

Instead of hiring the Swede that makes you comfortable, how about considering an immigrant who is just as qualified, and will add diversity and a different voice to the business? I never thought I would have the following 2004 interview anywhere in my life, but it was one of my first impressions of Sweden and occurred before my wife and I moved to Scandinavia. I hope we are in a better place today.
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.

On the positive flip side of that disappointing day, a Swede hired me in Stockholm in 2007 for what I have done (merit) and could do at Pearson, and not once did I feel that she evaluated me for things I was lacking. I’m thankful for her courage. I went on to have 9 wonderful years, which I wrote about after I left the company.
I’m full of gratitude for my almost 9 years at Pearson. Our Nordic team had a boatload of success, but I realize that it wouldn’t have been as good (or fun) without the support and care of numerous EMA colleagues that I was fortunate to work with since 2007.

Imagine what would have been lost for me and Pearson had she not hired me because I wasn’t Swedish and/or didn’t speak fluent Swedish. 

Sweden has been good to me and I’m a happy citizen. My family is moving back this summer after two years in Tokyo. Even though I’ve done my fair share of integration (with both Swedes and Immigrants), I need to do more and I will.

My basketball program (13th year) has flourished and we’ve had the privilege of working with, teaching and learning from a wide variety of youth and coaches at several Swedish (and Japanese) basketball clubs. We can’t settle for things we might have done in the past though, as our efforts of outreach and interaction need to be consistent from week to week or month to month.

Finally, awareness and preparation is something we can all improve upon. As citizens, we must keep our eyes open and antennas up, especially if something doesn’t look right or feel right or seem right.  Awareness is vital for our own safety. When you find yourself in popular tourist areas, big crowds or ones where cars have easy access to a large group of people, you should be on the lookout for anything or anyone out of the ordinary. 

That doesn’t mean we need to be paranoid or fearful to go out, although avoiding awareness leaves one vulnerable…like a sitting duck. We need to live our lives to the fullest, but we also have to keep a constant check on our surroundings. We can’t be happy go lucky anymore as we go through life in Sweden or elsewhere. With awareness, at least there is a chance of reacting to help someone or for one’s own survival.

Preparation is a key element as well. It’s not enough for citizens to be aware and prepared if our politicians are not. To have and maintain our best safety efforts, we need to be more demanding of our Government. We have to insist that they step up their counter-terrorism efforts in the area of research, surveillance, education, and cooperation with other countries or whatever else is needed in the fight against those who want to do us harm. Laws may also need to be re-evaluated or made tougher, along with ensuring our generous social welfare system is utilized effectively.

By the way, the truck that was used in the Stockholm tragedy was stolen. With similar attacks in other countries, that theft should have forced a high alert in Stockholm and other towns in Sweden. Maybe that did occur, although I doubt it.

I implore all citizens and residents of Sweden to not slip back into the comfortable flow of thinking that our lives can be ‘business as usual’. There is nothing usual or typical or easy about the state of our country or the world. If we keep doing the same things we did before this tragedy, we can’t blame anyone but ourselves if we are an incohesive, unaware and unprepared society when terrorism rears its ugly head again.

We are all in this together. 

Our country was once the envy of the world. We have a chance to rise back to that occasion. Let’s not allow Sweden to slip into the darkness of anti-integration, fear, segregation, apathy or terrorism as the norm. This is our moment to shine, but it will take a majority of individuals vowing to act, in ways big or small, and making a meaningful difference in their communities, jobs and spare time.

Be Open-Minded. Be Compassionate. Be Loving. Be Accepting. Be Giving.

Be Open to a Conversation on Immigration.

Be Aware. Be Prepared. Be Demanding.

The choice is yours. What will you do?

Happy Gswede Sunday!