Sweden, immigration and a lack of smiles

I just wrote a short essay for Quartz on being an immigrant in Sweden.  I got a little nervous in the writing – since I*m such a privileged American – but I’ve had some feedback on Twitter which confirmed I was on the right track …

Here it is.  Since this gets to directly to what I write about here, I’m posting the whole thing:

To see the new Sweden, go to the mall in Kista in the late afternoon. Kista is a neighborhood far north of Stockholm’s historic center on the “blue” subway line, and it is both a world-renown tech cluster, known as Sweden’s Silicon Valley, and an immigrant neighborhood only one stop from Husby, where police shot a 69-year-old man a few weeks ago, sparking a week of rioting across certain Stockholm neighborhoods.

It used to be that the tech guys and the immigrants would trade off possession of the once-desolate, now glitzy mall through the day—at lunch it was thronged with middle-aged men in pressed jeans and blue blazers, while at night it was occupied by women in chadors, old men clustered on benches and diverse groups of teens laughing and bouncing where business deals were struck just hours before. Now it’s more of a diverse mix: the mall is so nice, it draws people from all over Stockholm, but you can still see the old patterns right at lunch time and on some evenings.

These are the two streams of the new Sweden: the innovative tech world and the incredible blend of immigrants from Iraq to Somalia, Bosnia to South America.  There is no conflict between the two groups, but there is also little positive interaction. It’s in this atmosphere that the kids from Husby hang out, in the shadows of glittering hotels and rising luxury apartments.

Maybe I pay special attention to Kista because I also live on a border of new and old Sweden, two blocks on the “right” side of a big street separating “us” from a series of gargantuan apartment blocks built in the 1960s and 1970s as part of the Million Programme, a much maligned effort to provide a million new apartments for working class Swedes, now largely housing immigrants and refugees.

My daughter goes to school right under the blocks, which, during the riots, were on a list of places to avoid sent out by the US Embassy. I love the school and sing its praises in our neighborhood, which has drawn more than a few quizzical looks, as if people didn’t even know it was possible for kids from our middle-class neighborhood to go to that school. Everyone knows—just knows—it’s horrible but can never explain exactly why.

Or maybe I’m fascinated by Kista because I’m an immigrant, albeit the most privileged sort. I’m American, married to a Swede and get to work at a white collar job in my native tongue. I’ve taken around 18 months of paid paternity leave, at seemingly no cost to my career (in fact, I’d say it’s helped). I’ve had Sweden at its best.

But, still, I get hints. I have a foreign sounding last name and look or sound neither obviously American nor obviously Swedish. While on all that paternity leave, I spent a lot of quiet moments being ignored by other Swedish parents, and my closest acquaintances from my first paternity leave came from the US, Iran and East Africa respectively.

They made fun of this Swedish reticence at the recent Eurovision Song Contest, hosted in Sweden. During a very funny song and dance, the host, Petra Mede, sangthese words:

Proper and polite and private is our style / Never, ever talk on a train / And if we see a stranger throw us a smile / He’s either a drunk or insane.

Being an immigrant is hard, and no society can have 15% of its population foreign born without friction. And when it comes to the integration “question,” there’s the welfare state, the Swedish job market, and the tight urban housing market to address. But I think the root of the problem goes beyond all that.

In my experience, Swedes want to be friendly; they want you to like living in their country; and they want to support refugees fleeing the worst places on earth.  And they are willing to put their votes and their tax money behind these beliefs. This is why Husby looks nothing like Detroit, but instead, a pleasant, if oddly isolated housing complex set quite close to some beautiful forest. This is why the schools there get extra funding and why the city of Stockholm just announced it would move many of its municipal offices out of the city center and into the suburbs.

But as a society, Swedes aren’t yet willing to renegotiate what “Swedishness” means, and they aren’t willing to break up a stable social structure built on close-knit groups of family and old friends. Sweden gives the immigrants and refugees of Husby an adequate place to live. But it doesn’t give them any Swedish neighbors or any Swedish jobs. And it certainly doesn’t give them many smiles, which sounds silly until you live in a place where no one smiles at you or your children.

My daughter’s school had a little spring festival this week, and as I stood there watching kids, with roots reaching into every corner of the earth, chatter in Swedish in utterly blended groups, I could only think about what all the Swedes who avoid the neighborhood, as well as Husby and the residential half of Kista, are missing: their future.


how arizona and immigration look from sweden

The Arizona Illegal Immigration Law: Beyond Boycotts, Brewer and the Border Patrol

One of my Faster Times posts from last week:

The internet gets so loud sometimes – especially on a topic like the controversial immigration bill in Arizona scheduled to take effect in late July.  I tried ear plugs.  But I could still read.  I tried closing my eyes, but my typing was a mess.  Then I tried another type of filter – nonpartisan reporting.

I include the Associated Press in this.  You may not, but I do.  And the AP – using good sources – has been doing some really good work out of Mexico City – less good out of Arizona – with direct impact on the immigration debate.   So let’s take a tour of the facts, which are, of course, filtered by my own world view and preconceived notions.

How dangerous is the U.S. – Mexico border?  It must be really dangerous, right?

Uh, no.  From an AP story off an FBI report run by FoxNews:

It’s one of the safest parts of America, and it’s getting safer …

The top four big cities in America with the lowest rates of violent crime are all in border states: San Diego, Phoenix, El Paso and Austin, according to a new FBI report. And an in-house Customs and Border Protection report shows that Border Patrol agents face far less danger than street cops in most U.S. cities.

The study … shows 3 percent of Border Patrol agents and officers were assaulted last year, mostly when assailants threw rocks at them. That compares with 11 percent of police officers and sheriff’s deputies assaulted during the same period, usually with guns or knives.

OK, not that dangerous to be in Arizona.  What about the economy?  Those darn illegals must be killing the economy!

Uh, no.  Another story from Fox, this one an original on FoxBusiness.com:

Putting the law and morality of illegal entry aside, several studies have shown the illegal immigrant population is more of an economic contributor to state and local economies than politicians like to tell an angry electorate. The numbers can be broken down into the fiscal cost (or gain) of illegal immigrants to states, along with the economic contribution of the population.

The most thorough study on the fiscal and economic impact of immigration was done by the non-partisan Texas Comptrollers’ Office in 2006, which showed Texas earned more in taxes and economic output from illegal immigrants than governments spent to provide services.

What is going on here?  A Fox reporter wrote that?  They are supposed to be putting out data by border line hate groups, like in this Fox story, which shows apocalyptic economic damage from illegal immigrants.

What is more, the FoxBusiness reporter then went and found all these business groups in Arizona that want workers from Mexico.  This makes sense to me.  When I covered farm country in New York, the farmers loved their Mexican workers, even if many were illegal.  And only part of that was the fact that the farmers could pay them less.

To be fair, in dismissing right wing crap, I will now dismiss this story on six UN human rights experts calling the Arizona law a violation of international standards.

Left wing hippies!

OK, so Arizona has lots of company in this fight against illegal immigration, right?

Uh, no.  Even as other states move to emulate it, border states could not run away faster.  From the AP again, via, who else, FoxNews:

New Mexico’s governor says it is a step backward. Texas isn’t touching it. And California? Never again.

Arizona’s sweeping new law empowering police to question and arrest anyone they suspect is in the U.S. illegally is finding little support in the other states along the Mexican border.

Among the reasons given: California, New Mexico and Texas have long-established, politically powerful Hispanic communities; they have deeper cultural ties to Mexico that influence their attitudes toward immigrants; and they have little appetite for a polarizing battle over immigration like one that played out in California in the 1990s.

I think the lack of a Hispanic community is important here.  Look at the Tea Party.  You can never deny the impact of latent white racism.  Actually, now that I think about it, this is the story. More from the AP:

Arizona didn’t draw large numbers of Hispanics until more recently, and the bonds of affection to Mexico may have been weakened by the huge influx of retirees and others from the North and the Midwest in recent decades.

“In some ways, these are people who don’t want to deal with this,” said Lisa Magana, associate professor of transborder studies at Arizona State University.

Now, to be fair, Arizona has become the capital of illegal immigration and that is not fun.  Perhaps this is because the state did not want to deal with immigration while other border states came to terms with their geopolitical reality?

The AP catalogs all the supposed pressures that pushed the state to this point in a story here – the violence, the kidnappings, the huge numbers of arrests – except that the deeper stories seem to contradict all that.  In fact, I could look at that as simple white fright.

I would argue that, if anything, Arizonans should be enraged over the War on Drugs, which has dragged much of Latin America down for decades and turned northern Mexico into a war zone, hindering the region from sustained economic growth, the type that would mean poor Mexicans would not have to leave home for life in, say, Iowa.  From the AP, once again:

In 1970, proponents said beefed-up law enforcement could effectively seal the southern U.S. border and stop drugs from coming in. Since then, the U.S. used patrols, checkpoints, sniffer dogs, cameras, motion detectors, heat sensors, drone aircraft — and even put up more than 1,000 miles of steel beam, concrete walls and heavy mesh stretching from California to Texas.

None of that has stopped the drugs. The Office of National Drug Control Policy says about 330 tons of cocaine, 20 tons of heroin and 110 tons of methamphetamine are sold in the United States every year — almost all of it brought in across the borders

disappointed in both arizona and trader joe’s in sweden

We have this bag hanging on a hook in our hallway.  It is a Trader Joe’s shopping bag, and it says “Arizona” on it in big letters.

We don’t use it right now, and the Arizona bugs me, because of all the immigration ridiculousness going on there right now.

And now the Trader Joe’s doesn’t feel so good either.  As the investigations editor for The Faster Times, I am working on a “Reader Investigation” on private label and organic food. (For more on our investigations, check out this story on us in Columbia Journalism Review).

Our writer, Amy Westervelt, has come up with some great stuff … especially on Trader Joe’s.

From the post (read the whole thing here):

Nobody wants to hear anything bad about Trader Joe’s, and in a lot of ways it’s a great store. But it’s also a business that operates in the shadows. About 80 percent of Trader Joe’s food is private label, a trick it picked up when it was purchased by German superstore Aldi in the late 1970s …

“You’d hear stories about it all the time, this small producer who was basically putting all their eggs in the Trader Joe’s basket and then they wouldn’t be able to shave another penny or two off their price and the order would be pulled and the company would be ruined,” says Jeff Porter, a former buyer for Andronico’s Markets [a local chain of gourmet food stores in Northern California] and current Wine Director for Mario Battali’s Osteria Mozza in L.A.

“But it’s hard for companies to sell to Trader Joe’s and anybody else,” Porter continues. “First, Trader Joe’s doesn’t like them to, and second, other stores didn’t like them to either. They know they can’t compete with Trader Joe’s prices.”

What am I going to do with that bag?!?!

an Old West utopia in the Swedish countryside

In the little playhouse in our backyard there hang bear curtains, Old West bear curtains. They are the only truly non-Swedish touch to the red and white replica of a quintessential Swedish farm house, part of our own little Bullerbyn (see Astrid Lindgren books and movie).

At first glance, I groaned at the curtains. Not again. Not another tone deaf moment in Sweden, another thing that we have to rip down around here even though NK saw me eyeing the curtains and grabbed them and said, “My curtains! Not Daddy’s curtains!”

But then I took a closer look, and I saw bear cowboys and bear blacksmiths and bear saloon keepers, and, of course, bear Indians. And the bear Indians rode their horses proudly among the others, just another type of bear on the bear street. A female Indian bear carried her bear cub in a sling on her back as she walked past the store.

Hey! Attachment parenting! We have three slings!

These dated Swedish curtains actually presented something new to me – a vision of a Western utopia, of what could have been, of European immigrants and Native Americans coexisting peacefully.

We almost never see that in America, any sense of lost chances. We see plenty about the horrors but not even a daydream of how it might have worked (Thanksgiving the exception to prove the rule). We get alternative histories on the Revolution, on the Civil War, on World War II. We never get alternative histories on “we did not slaughter the Indians.”

That is sad. To think disaster was inevitable, or at least so complete that we can not even imagine an America without wars and broken treaties and a violent taking of a vast land.

the flat world outside stockholm

You want to see what Thomas Friedman calls “the flat world?” You want to see a post-American world not dependent on any one center? You want to see the breakdown of the European idea of the nation, of the “folk”?

Come to lunch with me.

I work on the farthest outskirts of Stockholm where maybe 30 years ago they built expanses of apartments for the working class. They built out the subway too, coming out of the ground past the inner suburbs through the forest finally to Kista, which used to be a farm, I think. They also built a really big mall.

Like most of these outer suburbs across Europe, Kista quickly filled with immigrants, with Somalis and Iraqis and Turks and Kurds. Usually, these suburbs languish, either boiling over like in France or stagnating or become a rather lively incubator for a new Sweden. Whatever happens, it is out of sight.

But then Ericsson ran out of space south of town, looked around and settled on Kista. Bam, hello Sweden’s “telecom valley.” Now on one side of the tracks, you have all the immigrants in their apartments, and on the other side, you have an army of men and women in black suits working in telecom and IT and whatnot. And not just for Ericsson. Kista is a sprawling moniker now for working in the tech industry, for any number of companies. Stockholm’s tallest building is there, and it is not an Ericsson building.

I had lunch with my wife in that building today. Sitting in pink chairs on a pink shag carpet looking at exposed steel beams and mood lighting, she compared it to something out of Star Wars. But the real action, we agreed, is in the mall. For there, the two worlds meet. Every day, the masses of mostly white businessmen and women merge with older unshaven immigrants sitting in circles, with Somail women covered save for their faces, with running children of every possible color.

There is no real interaction, everyone in true Swedish fashion gliding around each other, paying no attention, tolerant but not really engaged. There is no tension, for the mall is nice for both, for the housing has been renovated and immigrants in Sweden seem to do pretty well. And the tech suits love the food court with its Persian, Indian, Thai, Japanese, Chinese, Mexican, Spanish, Italian, American, Swedish, Middle Eastern, fast food restaurants.

Kista is immigration from the south to the north. It is the interconnected world of telecom. It is sprawl but with buses and trains. It is isolation and mingling.

Oddly, in the end, it gets boring. Nothing really happens.