Volunteer Annica Ullhag loves meeting and talking to newcomers, but wonders why so many of her Swedish friends do not.
“I just feel better when I help people.”
A seemingly simple sentiment that this 52-year-old volunteer can’t help but live by, and one she believes most people share, even if they don’t always act on it.
“I don’t like to stand aside and watch from a distance. I just can't do that – I need to be involved.”
And so it was natural for Ullhag to rise to the occasion in October 2015 when she heard an asylum centre was opening near her home south of Stockholm in Hanninge municipality.
'Refugees are just like Swedes'
“To be honest, it was a bit scary at first,” she recalls.
But it didn’t take long for Ullhag, who started volunteering by preparing beds at the centre, to get past her fear of the “unknown”.
“Refugees are just like Swedes; there are good ones and bad ones. And skin color isn’t really an issue if we open our eyes and minds. It’s who you are as a person that matters,” she says.
Ullhag firmly believes that it’s “Swedes' responsibility to help people integrate”.
She recalls how she and other volunteers tried to help women who isolated themselves at the asylum center to better understand Swedish customs regarding gender equality.
“We were very clear in telling the women that they were free, and no one had the right to control them,” she says.
“We can’t accept seeing women being controlled by men…or seeing minors getting married – that doesn’t work here.”
While she speaks warmly about how her work with refugees and asylum seekers has broadened her horizons, Ullhag fears that not enough Swedes share her attitude.
“Swedes love travelling to new places and meeting new people, but when it comes to meeting people in their own country, they don’t do so,” she explains.
Swedes simply “need to be more welcoming”, she believes.
“Many do not understand how critical it is to socialize with people who come to this country,” she adds. “We need to include refugees in society sooner rather than later, and to help them do so.”
Ullhag also doesn’t understand concerns expressed by many Swedes about being unable to preserve Swedish traditions.
“Just what are those traditions anyway? We don’t even stick to our traditions that much. Most of us don’t go to church any more, for example,” she explains.
“Many Swedes say that they want to keep Sweden Swedish, but what does that mean really? Welcoming refugees doesn’t mean we won’t have Midsummer celebrations anymore!”
At the same time, Ullhag fears that Sweden may lose something extremely important in the often heated debate about immigration.
“I believe the most Swedish thing we have is openness, but I can’t see that anymore. We are not open minded,” she says.
“Many of us relishes openness, but the truth as I see it nowadays is that we are not an open society.”
'Immigrants are vital'
Ullhag cites “the unexpected passivity of other EU countries” as one of the main causes of the current strain in Sweden.
“Most of them closed their doors. If they had opened their doors, there wouldn’t have been a problem for Sweden,” she explains.
And while Sweden may be struggling to accommodate such a large number of new arrivals, Ullhag explains that immigrants are vital for the country’s growth as they often fill jobs that Swedes are reluctant to take or can meet growing demand in sectors where Sweden needs more workers.
“Take care for the elderly for example, or nursing – in most of these jobs you won’t find Swedes, and that is a fact,” she explains. “Who is going to fill the shortage there? If immigrants leave Sweden, that would be a catastrophe for the country, despite what the xenophobes may insist with their intolerance and ignorance.”
While Ullhag’s time at the asylum center came to a close when the facility closed earlier this spring due to falling numbers of new asylum seekers, she is looking forward to her opportunity to volunteer, hopefully with many of the nearly 300 other volunteers in her area, many of whom she is still in touch with.
“I’ve heard Hanninge municipality will be receiving more refugees who have finally received asylum,” she says. “And I’m looking forward to once again helping organize activities for them.”