01 November, 2010

Eating kebab in Malmo

Longtime readers of the blog may remember me mentioning Torbjörn, a Swedish dormitory-mate who became a close friend. When in June we parted, i knew i'd see him again someday, despite an ocean between us - but i had no idea i'd see him again so soon. Torbjörn studies at Malmö University in southern Skåne province, which happens to be forty minutes from Copenhagen; trains cross the Øresund, bridging the two cities, thrice each hour. 

on the city bus at 6 AM: Mr. T after a night of dancing

In Odense, Kolding, and Copenhagen i'd hunted up places to eat falafel and shawarma (another name for kebap), a task not that difficult. Middle-eastern food is to Scandinavia what Mexican cuisine is to the USA: immigrant food become an inexpensive, fast-food staple, and often served alongside pizza and burgers. In an Odense kebab-and-pizza shop i chatted halting Turkish, while in Kolding the Iraqi youth who served me grasped English barely enough to communicate. (Not bad, considering it would be at least his third language; i find it ironic when monolingual Americans expect US immigrants to "speak g-ddamn English!" and inspiring when i meet young, perhaps even foreign-born EU service-sector employees fluent in four or more tongues.)

What does kebab have to do with Torbjörn, though? Well, my friend's academic field is international migration, and there could be no better place to observe the challenges of the ensuing integration than Malmö. This industrial city, third-largest in Sweden, swelled with labor immigrants from Europe between the second world war and 1973, then after a year thanks to Sweden's sympathetic policies, family reunification brought a second wave. A third accompanied 1990s ethnic violence in the Balkans and more recent conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan combined with more open borders within Europe, and today in Malmö's Rosengard neighborhood one can hear many different languages. Of the 270,000 people in Malmö, 34% are foreign born; within Rosengard, 86%. 

Today, however, Rosengard's ethnic diversity stands as a question: do Swedes embrace multiculturalism as a value only from a distance? To what extent have ethnic minorities become a collective "them" to the "us" of Swedish society, and vice versa? Similar questions have arisen across Øresund, where in the past week, Danish officials unveiled an ambitious plan to rehabilitate 'ghetto' neighborhoods with "no connection to the surrounding society". In both countries, nationalist parties - Folketing and Sweden Democrats - have found popular support swell along with anti-immigrant sentiments. This BBC article describes the situation in 2006, but as tensions swell, Malmö has seen a spate of riots and (ethnically motivated?) violence, with eighteen shootings, one fatal, targeting immigrants in the past year. Seven, according to the Copenhagen Post, occurred in October alone. 

That unrest is fueled by several interacting factors, many of which collectively contribute to Rosengard's high unemployment rate: language barriers, an absence of social capital (in particular social networks). Since much of the hiring in Sweden proceeds through informal contact, immigrants who know no one in the Swedish labor system have difficulty finding work. Even highly educated individuals from, say, Iran, lack the Sweden-specific education employers seek; for others, previous work references may be difficult to check into. Discrimination plays a small role, as people who assume Swedish-sounding surnames have shown increased likelihood of employment. Torbjorn points out that the third wave of immigration came largely from non-western cultures, suggesting this widened the gap between immigrant and Swedish values and introduced more fear and paranoia to the mix. "No one cared about Islam," he told me, "as long as it came from Bosnia or Kosovo, and not from arab states or Somalia."

Perhaps i was on edge, or perhaps their really was a tension in the air. When i snapped a photograph of a pizza shop (to illustrate the signage in multiple languages), the owner emerged and reprimanded me. Rosengard has, to some, become a case study in the failure of multiculturalism, and maybe he didn't want his business being associated with the place's negative image. 

As i try to make one argument or another, i am left mute. I don't know enough about the place, though i wish i lived in this festering ground of Otherness, wish i could understand and help to bridge the cultural chasms that form when parallel societies, insulated from each other, emerge unable to dialogue. Torbjorn tells me the citizens have worked to increase integration, but their efforts are often unnoticed by media outlets. "If you hear only bad news of an area, you start to think it is true, which also affects the people who live there." One wonders how many moments of tolerance, how much common ground is overshadowed by a single violent act.