Coming Up For Air
The following conversation is one between myself, and two North American expats, Nelson Neville and Jenna Lee Iwanchuk. This chat was in response to several of the recent articles I had written regarding foreign educated immigrants and Sweden’s learning curve on multiculturalism. Nelson is a resident of Sweden, presently living and working in Borås. He has lived in Sweden for 19 years and originally comes from Baltimore, Maryland. Jenna Lee Iwanchuk has lived and studied in Göteborg for the last two years. Her home country is Canada. She has recently started her own business.
Lisa Mikulski: We all come from countries and environments where open opinions and ideas are very much valued. It is still my whole hearted belief that conversation, and the exchange of ideas, is a good and true start toward any given problem and its ultimate solution. Recently the Gothenburg Daily called into question as to whether Gothenburg is a “Dead City.” The article was based upon a recent report published by Västsvenska Handelskammaren, entitled Tron på Göteborg. Västsvenska Handelskammaren’s report sights many issues which plague the harbor city in terms of immigration, infrastructure, housing, and a general lack of openness to new ideas, people, and cultures.
Nelson Neville: Lisa, I agree with the issues you have raised in your articles and have been saying the same for months. Despite Sweden’s good intentions, there are some fundamental issues which I see as having gone awry here in Sweden.
The first thing is that Swedes really don’t want to talk about anything that can turn emotional or into a disagreement. There is simply an unwillingness to discuss an issue to acknowledge its existence or what can be done, as individuals, to help in a larger movement.
Secondly, race and multiculturalism are two separate things and both are foreign to even the most liberal of native caucasian Swedes. They have not been exposed personally to either of these things because they have had such a homogeneous population for untold generations. This is all new for them. And in all things unfamiliar, you can only speak from a third-party perspective until you are involved in the life and exposed to multicultural environments.
The open door policy for permanent residency is a very bad idea. I see many expats who are struggling with their budgets, challenged with the language, in finding affordable housing, and obtaining employment suitable to their education or skill set. I also see time after time immigrants saying they feel they don’t fit in and feel segregated.
Swedes can not see that their holistic intentions are in no way connected to their individual duty. They want to be seen as helping but they are not open to hiring or housing those they say their hearts bleed for. This is because they don’t know how to relate, communicate, or commit to being involved with “outsiders”. The identity of communities are under threat, not because the new Swedes are imposing but because the old Swedes don’t recognize the need for foreigners to be able to hold onto their own cultural mores.
Lisa Mikulski: Integration verses assimilation.
Nelson Neville: I love living in this country but I don’t think we should continue to say we will help so many others until we have our home in order (both Swedes and migrants), and then we can afford to take on more hungry mouths.
Jenna Lee Iwanchuk: I agree that Swedes have enormous hearts but unfortunately they are trying to make their country into something that it isn’t. The foundation of the majority of the complaints is directly bedded with the fact that Sweden is trying their hardest to be generous to suffering people (whose families are literally being blown up) while also making their nation multicultural.
The problem is that people from the west come from nations which were built upon multiculturalism. We know what proper integration feels like. Our countries and our governments were quite literally built on people immigrating to them. Our integration systems are highly developed.
Lisa Mikulski: I think there is an intrinsic misunderstanding here in Sweden as to what exactly multiculturalism is. It’s definitely a learning curve but the learning has to be embraced. I had a conversation the other night with a young man who is a student here in Göteborg. He also comes from Borås. He insisted that Sweden was a multicultural society because “We have so many immigrants”. But what he failed to understand was the way in which people deal with each other in a multicultural society. There must be interaction between the people and an appreciation for the varying cultures. This road runs both ways.
Jenna Lee Iwanchuk: Sweden needs a developed integration system. Assimilation system, yes there is that; but an integration system, no. This is why the people who have come here often feel pain on the inside, feel like an alien, and become depressed whether they came here for love or seeking asylum. One girl who was in SFI with me told me she cried for her first three months here. Some expats never actually get used to it here and end up moving back home.
It is a beautiful country filled with absolutely loving and charming people, but on the outside looking in, we definitely have a right to be concerned for their sake.
As far as Lisa and I go, we both took huge steps forward in the love department in moving here and our men had some serious balls to ask us to move across the pond to come live with them. In our huge steps forward, we also took many steps backwards. There is nothing quite like feeling like a four-year-old in an adult’s body. We can’t fully express ourselves. We can’t BE ourselves. We can’t drive. We left our credit scores behind in our old countries … This is just to name a few of the backward steps.
Imagine rebuilding your language again. Imagine being a 16-year-old again and retaking your driver’s license. Imagine your independent self, who once lived in a environment where you flourished, now being confined to your new four-year-old self with your four-year-old language having to live off of someone else because it’s nearly impossible find work here. Try imagining, for a second, just how hard it is not to even have a small bit of your own money and having to ask your significant other for bits of theirs so you can purchase a couple of things. Try getting yourself a cell phone over here with an absent credit score. Now imagine all this for the people who have come here, on their own, without the help of love.
Growing a new self isn’t easy and it’s not a topic to be taken lightly. We are all trying our best here.
I also think that opinions are meant to be shared. Any great management and/or governing body would and should be grateful for outside opinions and constructive criticism, alongside suggestions on how they might make things better.
Jenna Lee Iwanchuck: Nelson, you said loads of fantastic things and expressed yourself quite eloquently. I would love to hear more of what you’ve got to say about the system here.
Nelson Neville: Thanks Jenna, I know from where you speak. I came here for love and stay for love. I remember once when my ex Mother-in-Law gave me 200 kronor. I didn’t know what to say other than thank you. I was 29 years old at that time and I suddenly felt like a five-year-old. I asked why she had provided me with this money. She said she wanted me to have some in case I wanted to go somewhere. I was internally bruised by the awareness that I had become dependent on others. For me, there was this stark loss of how I could support my wife, the baby on the way, and myself. Would this be my existence? Would I have to live off others or move back?
Sweden does have more of an assimilation culture. It is not a country prepared for the diversity they seek to embrace. Although most migrants have a strong education and means to return home at some point, it does not make their success in this country nonetheless difficult.
For immigrants seeking asylum, or fleeing destruction, wrongful prosecution, and sexual mutilations, this is a course of no return. They are forced to learn the language faster and more proficiently. They are forced to live on whatever means are provided for them because they don’t have the resources to create their own revenue. Knowing this, the Swedish immigration service would do them a much better service by having community integration programs. Programs that enable the immigrants to voice their concerns and questions about all matters of how to arrange their lives. Have discussions and resources available for them so that something as simple as going to the market, how the public transportations system works, where goods of general and specific types are sold, what to expect from health care and social workers, and most importantly, how to communicate distress.
Lisa Mikulski: There is, in fact, a community integration program online. However, from the people I’ve spoken to, its effectiveness is challenged. Many people aren’t even aware of its existence.
Nelson Neville: So many people feel trapped here. You must fight hard to want to stay here. People should be able to establish themselves no matter the reason behind their coming here. There must be employment, opportunities, and a demand to sustain everyone. I think often it is the attitude of many native born people to anticipate that it is easier for the foreigner to make the first move because the foreigner is the one out of place. And there is a lack of understanding that when Sweden shines a beacon of light through a storm, they are obligated to steer the foreigner to safer shores and attend to them to so that they can survive.
Jenna Lee Iwanchuk: You are completely right, Nelson.
What did you end up doing to sustain yourself here? I have a university degree but it is virtually unusable here unless I do more schooling (in Sweden), or acquire another form of education. Did you do some education? How is your Swedish now?
Lisa Mikulski: It never occurred to me that my college education would be considered worthless in Sweden. There are so many of us who have spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a college education only to be told that our degrees mean virtually nothing here.
Jenna Lee Iwanchuk: I think it would be fantastic to find a way to allow constructive criticism to get through to the people who develop programs for expats who come here. Even still, I can see that changes have been made since I first came here so I know that somewhere along the line they are trying. Especially Migrationsverket.
I think Lisa’s articles are important because instead of us all sitting here hoping for a change, her voice becomes a spoken outlet which allows for awareness, and more awareness allows for valuable suggestions to start flowing.
I am well past the hardships of being a newcomer in the system here but the voices of other newcomers speak loud and clear to me, and all the others who have been through the same circumstances. My soul, however, is not past the everlasting hardships that have come with living here. I am one of the ones who sits here, hopes, and ponders for a way to make it better for the next people who arrive. I haven’t come up with anything good yet, but there’s got to be a way. I think having group discussions with plausible/possible suggestions for how to make things better for the next folks who arrive would be really great.
Nelson Neville: I have no college degrees. I attended several universities in the USA, but never felt compelled to get a degree. Mostly because schools approached me, or I had economic hardships. However, I started off when the Internet was new, making web sites and online business strategies in the late 90’s. I took Swedish classes and also had employers that provided additional classes for me. I speak Swedish fluently and read at about the same level. I don’t have the same luck with writing.
Whenever I meet a new arrival, no matter the origin or reason, I say to them:
1. Learn the language and never say you understand if you don’t. 2. Until you learn the language remember that it takes time, you are doing something new and difficult, obstacles are assured, but not a certainty. So, stick with it. 3. Allow Swedes more room for growth when speaking with them. They may have not heard your type of ideas before and might find them uncomfortable. It’s not you, it’s a cultural gap. 4. Life in Sweden is made for Swedes. If you expect the long & hard committed work ethic, you won’t find it here. You won’t find easy access to alcohol, stores open around the clock, or polite service. This is their way of life, adjust without temperament. 5. This society, for the most part works. The system is better than the people who made it. Swedes are good people, some are extraordinary human beings. But they have a emotional and communicative wall that is part of their culture. Don’t take their actions personal, it’s due to the cookie cutter lifestyle. It’s a good cookie. 6. Making friends is like group sex, everyone talks about it, but no one ever really makes the first move. So when a genuine opportunity presents itself, take it. Ask a Swede their advice about making friends, and that Swede will most likely become your friend.