‘Swedes are polarized on refugees – it’s either the welcome mat or the exit door’

'Swedes are polarized on refugees - it's either the welcome mat or the exit door'
Ingrid Sillen, a 68-year-old retired graphic designer, invited 70 refugees to her home for Christmas dinner. She tells The Local Voices why she's battling to break down barriers in an increasingly polarized Sweden.

Last summer, at the time of the refugee influx, I was watching the news and felt very upset and irritated by the situation. Me and my friend decided to do something to help refugees. For me it was unacceptable, seeing people drowning in the sea in numbers that were just inconceivable. 

I wanted to protest, and spontaneously went to Medborgarplatsen in Stockholm. I rushed to the street to express my rejection of the situation, and found that it wasn’t only me. There were many people already gathering to raise their voices in support for refugees. Everybody wanted to help.

Me, my friend and many others volunteered: we collected food and clothes, and handed them to refugees at asylum centres.

The dinner invitation 

I live in a collective household where a lot of us share a communal kitchen and have dinner together four times a week. At Christmas I wanted to invite newcomers to share the moment with us and try Christmas food.  

The biggest problem we had was finding halal meat and ensuring transport for the guests. They had no train cards and couldn’t afford the trip on their own. But the transport company SL gave them tickets and helped make it happen.

For the halal meat, we were able to find a shop in Tensta, where we bought many kilos.

We welcomed 70 refugees for Christmas dinner and, together with the residents, there were 100 of us in total. The guests were happy and helped out with the cooking. 

That night I decided to seat refugees next to Swedes so people could break the ice, interact, and talk to each other.

Ingrid also invited new friends to her holiday home in Skåne. 

Swedes are polarized on refugees 

I think it’s not that easy for refugees to get out of their camps. Where can they go? Many might not be motivated and might feel desperate, and it’s not always easy to find activities that could really interest refugees and actually motivate them. 

I feel like I got totally involved, physically and emotionally, and now I have great friends in the form of a very nice refugee family.

I know many Swedes who have already done a lot, way more than me. 

I see the community as being polarized: Swedes seem to be either very passionate and committed to helping refugees, or view the newcomers as a threat and are totally reluctant to accept them.

Be proud of secular Sweden – but respect people's faith 

Young men in Sweden seem less open towards refugees than older people. Poorly educated or unemployed young men on the outskirts of big cities can especially perceive refugees as a threat to them, and their future – as if the refugees are going to undermine them. But Sweden is a large country with a small population; there are opportunities for everybody. 

The best pathway to integration is respect – for each other, for law and for society’s mores. I still believe that Sweden’s society should remain secular. It has become less religious and more open, and I think that’s something we should be proud of.

But still, people’s ideologies and faiths should be respected, for example when it comes to wearing hijab or burqinis, or any other aspect of people's freedom of choice.

I never want to see what we saw in France: that woman who was ordered to take off her clothes on the beach by policemen. That scene was ridiculous and silly – it was utterly disrespectful. I can’t imagine this happening in Sweden.

Refugees are very open and actually motivated to learn the language and get involved, but Swedes sometimes have double standards. I know many Brits who have been living in Sweden for a long time and no Swede would raise an eyebrow if they didn't speak our language. Swedes socialize with this group, and welcome them with open arms.

But when it comes to Middle Eastern ‘migrants’ it's suddenly an issue, a very big one. Refugees can expect to be bombarded with criticism for not speaking Swedish. 

I still believe we have a lot to learn from each other, and I think eventually we will.