Finding community – and intolerance – among immigrants in Sweden

Finding the emotional support system of fellow immigrants in a new country is important, but there might be a flip side, writes Victoria Martínez in her monthly family column on The Local.

Finding community – and intolerance – among immigrants in Sweden
File photo of friends in Malmö. Photo: Karolina Friberg/

When I met the Spaniard who is now my husband while we were both living in England, I had just returned from my first trip to Spain, where I stayed in the home of some English friends. After about an hour of great conversation over dinner, I realized that I had never actually met or talked at length with any Spaniards while I was in that country. It was the unfortunate downside of spending a week within the confines of an “expat” community, and it cemented in my mind that it wasn’t how I wanted to experience life in any country, whether as a visitor or a resident.

Fourteen years and several countries later, I feel with an equal amount of certainty that connection with other immigrants is, for me, as important to establishing a sense of community as avoiding connecting solely with immigrants is to integrating into a physical community. Although I don’t wish to live exclusively among “expats”, fellow immigrants are part of an emotional support system that is vital when the challenges and frustrations unique to my situation become overwhelming. This has been especially important for me here in Sweden – the first country I’ve lived in where I wasn’t already rooted through language, culture, or family ties.

After a year in this country, I feel very fortunate to have found not only the support and friendship of native Swedes within my own community, but also from a diverse group of fellow immigrants who further enrich my sense of community and belonging. Many of these friendships are virtual and have come as the result of writing this column and participation in online immigrant groups. But, like most virtual communities, there is a flip side. One that – at the risk of sounding like a babe in the woods – has surprised me: the petty and, at times, malicious way that immigrants criticize and verbally attack other immigrants when they express anything other than perfect contentment in Sweden. Worse still is when the target of this abuse is refugees.

It’s not that this phenomenon applies only among immigrants. Without a doubt, the internet has spawned a virtual army of people who, cloaked in relative anonymity, feel safe spewing bile at people they don’t know. There’s no reason I can conceive of that this shouldn’t also apply to immigrants, who are, after all, human. What surprises me, however, is when the perpetrators and the targets essentially belong to the same community, in this case, immigrants and refugees.

What I have seen usually involves people demonstrating that they have little tolerance for differences of opinion or experience, and even less inclination to live and let live. At its worst, it manifests itself as the ugly expression of “If you don’t like it, go back to where you came from.” Speaking as an American who is ashamed of the increase of just this kind of rhetoric coming from my native country, I find it difficult to fathom how anyone – never mind a non-native Swede – could say such a thing while living in a country that embodies the ideological opposite.

For some, it seems there’s no sense of empathy, never mind community, that compels them to reach out in support of individuals who are essentially in a similar situation, even if the specifics are not in alignment. Are these people so eager to be considered fully-integrated members of Swedish society that they won’t forebear any less-than-glowing assessments or opinions of their adopted country? If so, they would appear to be misguided, because the native Swedes in my community have and express their own frustrations and disappointments with Sweden and its systems. They also have no problem when I express mine.

Albert Einstein wrote, “…laws alone cannot secure freedom of expression; in order that every man may present his views without penalty there must be a spirit of tolerance in the entire population.”

Back when my immigrant journey was new, I realized just how limiting a shuttered existence could be. Now I appreciate that the principle applies equally as well to living solely among your “own kind” as it does to divorcing yourself from their numbers. Both require the same thing: intolerance.

Maybe it’s just me, but that’s not the way I want to experience life in any country. And it’s certainly not the way I would wish for anyone else to experience it.

Victoria Martínez is an American historical researcher, writer and author of three historical non-fiction books. She lives in Småland county, Sweden, with her Spanish husband and their two children.

Read more from her family column on The Local here.


Baby, it’s mörv outside: Sweden’s 13th month is here

The cold snap is over and now the month of mörv is back: darker, wetter, windier, and with even more work that you haven’t done, says David Crouch.

Baby, it’s mörv outside: Sweden’s 13th month is here

It is a fact little known outside Scandinavia that the year consists not of twelve months, but thirteen. The thirteenth month is sandwiched between November and December, and is known as mörv. (No capital letter for the months in Sweden.)

Mörv expresses the feeling that November is bleak, dark, and seems to go on and on forever. Suddenly there is no daylight. That hour we lost at the end of October seems to have plunged us all into permanent night. What sunlight there is is weak, grey and miserable. You go to work in the dark, you go for lunch in the twilight, and you come home in the pitch black. Your Scandi outdoor life is over – unless you’re a masochist, or perhaps a duck. Every surface is permanently damp and will remain so for the next six months.

This year’s first mörv moment for me came a couple of weeks ago when we took our daughter to a popular playground. Because my wife and child took so long to get ready we underestimated how early it gets dark these days, we arrived with daylight fading fast. The other kids had gone home already, so everything was silent but for the splashing of Poppy’s boots in the mud. The wooden playthings were covered in a treacherous layer of slime. Ugh. Mörv.

Mörv is a word originally coined by Jan Berglin, cartoonist for Svenska Dagbladet. Mörv arrives when the nice part of autumn is over but proper winter is still somewhere in the distant future. Living in a country that has four well-defined seasons is a pleasure, but during mörv the joys of the old season are gone while those of the new have not yet begun.

No more can you harvest berries and mushrooms in forests burnished red and gold – it’s all turned to muck underfoot and the trees are bare. But nor can you go sledging or skiing, enjoy the crunch of snow and the crisp, sparkling air. “There is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes,” goes the Swedish adage. Warning – this does not apply in mörv. You could dress from head to toe in sealskin but you still wouldn’t want to go outside.

Denmark has something similar, but there the month of November just repeats itself like groundhog day. A Danish poet summed it up very well. You haven’t read much Danish poetry? I have so you don’t have to. In a verse entitled “The year has 16 months”, Henrik Nordbrandt wrote:

“Året har 16 måneder: November
december, januar, februar, marts, april
maj, juni, juli, august, september
oktober, november, november, november, november.”

You get the picture. But in Swedish one word will do. Mörv.

This is the month of ghastly and unspecified viruses that flourish until the frost arrives to kill them off. It is the month of working like a dog to get everything done before Christmas. And to help you with this, in November there are no “röda dagar”, bank holidays or long weekends. In fact, Sweden moved the only national holiday – Alla helgons dag, or All Hallows Day – to a Saturday, just so you can work a full week either side.

Mörv is also the month when you can’t put off dull but necessary things any longer. That dental appointment you postponed because the weather was too nice. That itchy mole on your back that really should be seen by a doctor. That bit of DIY you never got around to. You are so busy with mörv that friends go unseen and your social life disintegrates.

This year, the weather tricked us by bringing southern Sweden a taste of winter a few weeks earlier than usual. For a fleeting moment the temperature dropped and we experienced that wonderful icy stillness that comes with a fresh snowfall after dark.

But even that sub-zero blast caught us unawares in the depth of our mörv-induced paralysis. Had you put winter wheels on the car? Of course not, it never freezes in November. Had you replenished your supply of grit and salt for the entrance to your home? Nej. Could you cope? Ingen chans. Knowing this, the kindly Stockholm authorities suggested we all stay at home and sit it out.

They knew it wouldn’t last. The deceitful cold snap is over and now mörv is back, darker, wetter, windier, and with even more work that you haven’t done. Between now and Lucia, mörv. Between now and saffron and candles and fairylights and glögg, only mörv. (With maybe a little Advent baking if you like that kind of thing.)

Cheer up, it won’t last forever. And it could be worse: it could be February. Now that is a truly horrible month.

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.