Sweden: What’s the problem?

OPINION: Jim Walch, an American living in Sweden, reflects on immigration and his adopted country.

Sweden: What's the problem?
File photo of people in Sweden. Photo: Jessica Gow/TT

In Sweden, as elsewhere, defining a problem can be problematic.

In 2015, when some 160,000 refugees sought asylum in Sweden, the small town of Norberg was asked to do their part. When asked by a reporter if taking in a few hundred refugees in a town of only 7,000 wouldn't be a big problem, the mayor replied: “A few years ago we managed to stop the big forest fire just two hundred yards from the town. Now THAT was a problem. Managing a few hundred new arrivals is a challenge, not a problem.” She was also using the new term “new arrivals” or “newly arrived”.

I hope you don't have a problem with a little math: 300 is 4.3 percent in a population of seven thousand. 160,000 is 1.6 percent in a population of ten million. 1.6 percent of the US population is 5.2 million.

The local newspaper just arrived. Free, since it's mostly ads, but its local news is almost as good as social media. The conservative mayor has proclaimed that our little city, a suburb of Stockholm, is going to be number one in the country in integration. So the council is launching a programme for all new arrivals – or should we call them arrivees? Not just language training and general civics, but some real local information about Sollentuna: from Viking graves to hi-tech businesses and how we're already number one, really great, in environmental protection. A competition in humanity.

I also see in the local paper that a minor problem has been resolved. Our local cobbler, son of a Lebanese war refugee who taught him the trade, has finally found a better shop, right in the middle of our very own show-case shopping center. His motto seems to be: buy good shoes and keep them in repair. Good for you and good for the environment. Seems to make sense, even though some of the buy-and-discard shops he neighbours may not agree.

Home ownership is not always fun, so many things crop up that need to be done on the ever-growing project list. So I'm happy that I don't have to repaint this summer. The last repainting, done by refugees from war-torn Bosnia, was well done. They also run a father-son business.

Sorry if this epistle got a little erratic. I had to break off to feed a conglomerate of grandkids who suddenly announced that they had to be off early for another one of their many activities they forgot to tell us about. One of them, in eighth grade, told us about her new science teacher. “He seems nice. A little nervous. But is was his first day in our class.” She's in an advanced math and science programme. “He's from Ethiopia, so that's cool.”

In the middle of dinner preparations, my wife had to excuse herself. She's legal guardian for an Afghan boy. His father was murdered by the Taliban, his family scattered in Pakistan and Iran. He managed his way to Sweden. His civil rights lawyer, originally from Armenia and Iran, has fallen ill so the wife has to spend several hours on the phone today, and tomorrow, to re-schedule his long-awaited interview with the migration authorities. So I guess she'll be coming along as usual to our tutoring session at the local high school with new arrivees.

Oops. I see by my prized pocket-watch, refurbished by an Armenian who had fled first to Lebanon and then to Sweden, that it's time for the news. Maybe some more things on problems in Sweden.

Jim Walch is a retired university teacher. Originally from Wisconsin, he has been living in Sweden since 1965. Besides numerous grandchildren, he makes and repairs musical instruments.

Do you live in Sweden and want to share your views? E-mail [email protected].


‘Chemical crayfish’: Why does the Swedish media love killjoy festive news?

It's time for this year's "kräftskivor", Swedish crayfish-eating parties! A cause for celebration? Not if the Swedish media has its way.

'Chemical crayfish': Why does the Swedish media love killjoy festive news?

Sweden’s main newswire this week ran a story warning that an analysis of the eight brands of Swedish crayfish available in the country’s supermarkets contained elevated levels of PFAS, a persistent pollutant which can damage your liver and kidneys, disrupt your hormones, and even cause cancer. 

But don’t worry. If you weigh 70kg or more, you can still safely eat as many as six of the outsized prawn-like crustaceans a week without being in the risk zone. 

While I’m sure the news story, which was covered by pretty much every paper, is accurate, it is also part of a grand Swedish media tradition: running miserable, killjoy news stories whenever there’s a sign that people might be planning to have a bit of festive fun. 

The two public service broadcasters, Swedish Radio (SR) and Swedish Television (SVT) are by far the worst offenders, their reporters unusually skilled at finding a downbeat, depressing angle for every public celebration. 

To give readers a sense of the genre, we’ve spent half an hour or so searching through the archives. 

‘This is how dangerous your Christmas tree is’ (and other yuletide cheer)

Source: Screenshot/SR

Christmas is a time for good food, drinking a little too much, and cheery decorations to ward away the winter darkness. But have you considered the risks?

SR has.

In “This is how dangerous your Christmas tree is”, a local reporter in Kronoberg looked into the possibility that your tree might have been sprayed with pesticide, or if not, might be covered in pests you will then bring into your house. 

By far the most common recurring Christmas story reflects Sweden’s guilt-loaded relationship with alcohol. 

You might enjoy a few drinks at Christmas, but what about the trauma you are inflicting on your children?

In this typically festive report from SVT in Uppsala, a doctor asks, ‘why wait for the New Year to give up alcohol? Why not start before Christmas?’, while the reporter notes that according to the children’s rights charity BRIS, one in five children in Sweden has a parent with an alcohol problem, with many finding drunk adults both “alarming and unpleasant”. 

God Jul! 

The Swedish media finds ways to make you feel guilty about the food you eat at Christmas too. You might enjoy a slap-up Christmas dinner, but what about those who suffer from an eating disorder? SVT asked in this important, but less than cheery, story published in the run-up to the big day. “This is the worst time of the year,” Johanna Ahlsten, who suffered from an eating disorder for ten years, told the reporter. 

Don’t you just love a cosy Christmas fire? Well, perhaps you shouldn’t. A seasonal favourite in Sweden’s media is to run warnings from the local fire services on the risk of Christmas house fires. Here’s some advice from SVT in Blekinge on how to avoid burning your house down. 
Those Christmas lights. So mysigt. But have you ever added up how much those decorations might be adding to your electricity bill? SVT has. Read about it all here
Finally, isn’t it wonderful that people in Sweden get the chance to go and visit their relatives and loved ones over Christmas.
Well, it’s wonderful if you’re a burglar! Here’s SVT Jämtland on the risk of house break-ins over the Christmas period. 
Eat cheese to protect your teeth! and other Easter advice 
“Eat cheese after soda”. Good advice from Swedish Radio. Photo: Screenshot/Richard Orange
For the Swedish media, Easter is a fantastic opportunity to roll out all the same stories about the risks of open fires and alcohol abuse, and that they do. But the Easter celebration has an additional thing to be worried about: excess consumption of chocolate and sweets. 
Here’s Swedish Radio, with a helpful piece of advice to protect your teeth from all that sugary ‘påskmust’, Sweden’s Easter soft drink. “Eat cheese!”. 
Yes, you and your children might enjoy eating all those pick-and-mix sweets packed into a decorated cardboard egg, but have you thought who else has had their grubby hands on them? SVT has. In this less than joyous Easter article  a reporter gives viewers the lowdown on “how hygienic are pick-and-mix sweets?” (According to the doctor they interview, sugar acts as an antibacterial agent, so they are in fact less dangerous than the newsroom probably hoped). 
Perhaps though, it’s better to avoid those unhealthy sweets altogether, and instead cram your mouth with healthy raw food alternatives, as SVT advises in this Easter report
Aren’t daffodils lovely? Well they’re not if you’re a dog. They’re deadly, according to this Easter report from Swedish Radio on all the “dangers lurking for pets over Easter“.
Glad Påsk!
Midsommar drowning  
Midsommar, again, has all the same possibilities for worried articles about excess drinking etc, but in the summer there’s the added risk of drowning. 
From Midsummer until the start of August, the temp reporters who take over Sweden’s newsrooms as everyone else goes on their summer holidays churn out a steady stream of drowning stories, all of them with a slightly censorious tone. After all, most of these accidents are really about excess drinking.
Here’s SVT Västmanland tallying up the Midsummer weekend’s death toll in a typical story of Midsommar misery. 
So, what is the reason for the Swedish media’s taste for removing as much mirth from festivities as possible?
It’s partly because Sweden’s media, unlike that of many other countries, sees its public information role as at least as important as entertaining or interesting readers, so an editor is likely to choose a potentially useful story over a heart-warming one. 
This is the aspect of the Swedish media beautifully captured by the singer Lou Reed when talking about how he’s more scared in Sweden than in New York in the film Blue in the Face
“You turn on the TV, there’s an ear operation. These things scare me. New York, no.” 
But it is also reflects the puritanical streak that runs straight through Swedish society, leading to a powerful temperance movement, which meant that by 1908, a staggering 85 percent of Socialist parliamentarians in Sweden were teetotallers.
Sweden is now a liberal country where you can get good food and drink, and enjoy a decent nightlife, but sometimes that old puritanism bubbles up.