"They give you a false smile and pretend that they care about you. The only thing they like and care about are themselves. Swedes are the worst racists in the world."
Those were the words uttered in a conversation between four asylum seekers who were awaiting word from the Swedish authorities while living in a migrant housing facility in Alstermo, southern Sweden. The date was Thursday, March 10th, 2011.
When I lived at the residence I met very few Swedes. I started to believe that what I was hearing was true and I wondered if I'd committed the worst mistake of my life by travelling to such a racist country. Yet when I met Swedish staff at the residence facility, they were always very friendly. Why would the Swedes have to play-act pleasantries and pretend they cared about asylum seekers?
I didn't know what to believe. I only heard negative opinions about the Swedes, never anything positive. In April 2011, I was granted asylum and readied myself to go out and experience how racist the people in my new country were.
I asked others who had been granted permanent residency (permanent uppehållstillstånd – PUT) why Swedes, if they were so racist, allowed people from other countries to stay in their country and become part of their society? They said: "Just because Swedes give us a residence permit doesn't mean they are not racists! They had to give us residency because our asylum stories were so good and Sweden doesn't want to be called a racist country."
I have now lived three years in Sweden and have a completely different image of the Swedes than the one held by most other asylum immigrants that I have met and spoken with. For the past year, I have had a good job as a teacher and I support myself. From my first day in a state-funded Swedish For Immigrants (SFI) class with Swedish teachers; travelling on buses and trains; in shops and cafés; at the homes of Swedish families I have gotten to know — in all these places I have observed how Swedes behave. So far, I have not once met anyone who comes close to displaying racism.
Unfortunately, many of my countrymen and others who have immigrated feel both hatred and contempt in their hearts for Swedes. They don't want to adapt and integrate in the land that gave them opportunities. If their social insurance payment comes one day late, they call it racism. When the bus driver asks them to show their ticket, he is a racist. If the doctor doesn't give them the medicines they want, the doctor is a racist. And so on.
The Swedish asylum process has to become strict, clear, and consistent, and the Swedes should not accept being called racists on such flimsy grounds. If they do, they will become hostages in their own country, and the contempt that refugees feel risks growing.
Most refugees are used to public servants and teachers in their home countries being authoritarian, rather than nearly self-effacing, which is an approach many of them encounter here. The Swedish kindness, the way it is expressed in how Sweden handles refugees and integration, confuses many new arrivals and creates a bad foundation for building mutual trust and respect.
Zulmay Afzali worked for the government in Afghanistan before seeking asylum in Sweden three years ago. He is a teacher and author. His forthcoming book, Hederlighetens pris ('The price of honesty') will be published in February by Mummelförlaget publishers. This article originally appeared in Swedish in the Svenska Dagbladet (SvD) newspaper on January 26th, 2013. English translation by The Local.