Students Not Stats

Teaching Immigrant Kids in Sweden Was an Eye-Opening Education

He’s enjoyed teaching the children of Middle Eastern refugees for three years in Sweden, and just about the only things they don’t talk about are radicalization and religion.

David Ramos

Like most Swedes I have been astonished by the prominent place my nation has assumed in the U.S. political debate in recent weeks. Unfortunately, I am not astonished by the content of the debate that has followed. The U.S. discussion is just another installment in the same depressing trench warfare that Sweden and many other nations have been locked in over the last few years.

The same mix of half-truths, half facts, and opinions. The same outraged voices. The same genuine uninterest in how migration actually affects societies. The same nostalgic, false notion that our nations are static. And, perhaps most prominently, the same deep and genuine ignorance of the people who are at the heart of this issue and the areas where they live.

As I was writing my latest novel, I became involved with a writing project in the predominantly immigrant suburb of Rosengård in the southern Swedish city of Malmö. Brash, poor, and brutish, Malmö is the natural gateway to continental Europe and with its dusty corner shops, its falafel joints, and open-air markets, it has always reminded me more of Brussels than of cool, clean Stockholm.

Rosengård is famous for two things: It is the birthplace of the only Swedish soccer superstar, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and it is the go-to punching bag for those who are eager to demonstrate the failures of Sweden’s relatively generous immigration laws. That the area has huge problems with unemployment, poverty, and violent crime is beyond doubt. But the way Rosengård is often described makes it sound as if it exists in a Hobbesian state of anarchy, populated by a mixture of radicalized youth and brutalized criminals.

Just before I entered the classroom on my first day with the altogether over one hundred students in the eighth grade of the only public school in the area, Martin, the young man-bunned Swedish teacher with whom I was running the project, told me “not to be afraid of the students.” He said some people who came to visit, including the occasional journalist, expected violence and chaos. But the thought that I would be afraid of eighth graders had not even entered my mind.

Situated on the water, on a clear day within easy sight of Copenhagen, Malmö has always been the first stop for those entering Sweden from the south. This geography means that in recent years it was placed at the very forefront of the European refugee crisis, as hundreds of thousands of refugees streamed across the bridge from Copenhagen. Until a year ago, that is, when the government in an act of desperation essentially closed the border to refugees, after an autumn that had seen almost 150,000 people making the almost impossible journey from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. By then Sweden was by far the largest per capita recipient of refugees anywhere in the West.

As I introduced myself to the students in Rosengård, I was treated the same way writers often are among teenagers; as a vaguely glamorous visitor from Adult Land, cloaked in an uncertain celebrity whose scope and impact are difficult to gauge.

“Are you rich?” they asked. “What kind of car do you drive?”

I could see their spirits sink as I told them about my 10-year-old, grey bureaucrat Volkswagen hatchback.

“Have you met Zlatan?” they asked, but the question was pro forma, no one who drives that kind of car has ever met Zlatan.

The first thing the students were asked to do was read a chapter of the book that I was writing, The Believer, which partly takes place in a fictional suburb not unlike the one where they were living. As they picked up the hand-outs I felt suddenly terrified. Here I was, a 40-year-old white man who had tried to write about their reality. It now seemed like a preposterous thing to have attempted.

“I am only writing about this because no one else is,” I tried.

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But the students turned out to be generous, polite, and appreciative. More than anything they were elated by the fact that I had used swear words, both in Swedish and Arabic.

“Is that allowed?” they asked. “Can you write like that?”

“Yes!” I said, relieved, excited, and full of Dead Poet’s Society-elan. “You can write any way you like, that’s the whole point.

“Well…” said Martin, the teacher, and he shot me a stern look. “Within reason.”

Given its reputation for violence and crime, Rosengård is surprisingly calm, green, and orderly. There are community gardens among the desolate public housing high-rises and unlike many other similar neighborhoods in other European cities, it is centrally located, just outside the city center. At the same time, it is a world entirely of its own. Not one of the students in the eighth grade had Swedish as their mother tongue—every single one was of immigrant background.

I told the kids about a year I spent as a teenager in Damascus, when my father worked for the United Nations on the Golan Heights. I realized as I was talking about it that I was their age when I lived there, an immigrant of sorts myself then, but of an infinitely more privileged disposition. A few kids had family in Damascus and they were excited.

“Where did you live?” they asked. “Did you like it?”

It didn’t matter to them that 25 years had passed since I lived there, Syria was as lost to them as it was to me.

That spring, I spent a few afternoons every week with the students. I would walk around the classroom as they sat writing that most difficult of assignments: a short story about anything they wanted, and I would talk to them about their writing and their lives. Not quite a teacher, not quite a friend, I was something of a glorified cheerleader, a motivator firmly stuck at the sidelines of their existence. Their stories were wild and beautiful, misspelled, ugly, and sometimes boring. They touched on soccer, sick parents, and suicides. Some of them were about crime, peer pressure, and gangs. All of them were about being a teenager. One theme kept popping up, over and over again in the stories: borders. Physical borders, of course. Someone had to get a sick parent back to the homeland; someone had to escape a war; someone had to go across the bridge to Denmark to buy weed. But also mental and cultural borders—the pull between family and friends, between school and soccer, between right and wrong.

However, as I am preparing to start the project for the third year this spring I realize there are a few themes that I have never encountered in the hundreds of short stories written by the children of immigrants that I have read. Although the majority of the kids are Muslims in secular Sweden, I have never read a story that even tangentially touches on religion or radicalization. I have never read a story about politics. The discrepancy between the concerns and day-to-day lives of these kids and the topics discussed in politics and media is striking.

As the debate surrounding migration and how it affects Western societies rages, only the extreme is a relevant currency. The truth is crowded out until we no longer see that for every kid who is radicalized there are tens of thousands who are not. For every petty crime committed, there are endless numbers of homeworks completed, soccer goals scored, lives improved. In this repetitive chorus, the only voices who are never heard are those of whom we are talking. The people inhabiting the areas that we discuss are only relevant as statistics, as ammunition in an artificial war of civilizations. In the process, we are willingly choosing to ignore that both human beings and societies are infinitely more complex than media narratives and early morning tweets allow.

Joakim Zander was born in Stockholm, has lived in Syria and Israel, and graduated from high school in the United States. He earned a Ph.D. in law from Maastricht University in the Netherlands and has worked as a lawyer for the European Union in Brussels and Helsinki. Rights to his debut novel, The Swimmer were sold in 30 countries. Zander lives and works in southern Sweden.