A voice for newcomers in Sweden

Opinion: 'Having a Middle Eastern name makes life in Sweden hard'


Published: 29.Jun.2016 11:55 hrs

Former teacher and philosophy graduate, Omar Atrash from Syria, says he has been treated differently by potential friends, landlords and employers since he moved to Sweden in 2012. He believes it is down to his Middle Eastern name and stereotypes about refugees.

Most Swedes don’t accept us. They welcome refugees, but don’t actually interact with them.

Sweden as a state is distinguished and advanced, with a great system, respect for laws and social justice; there are lots of upsides when it comes to political life in Sweden. But there is no social life.

I know I might sound very negative but we need to address these issues, which people usually avoid talking about.

In Sundbyberg, north of Stockholm, the municipality organized a programme called Svensk kompis (Swedish friend) to bring newcomers and Swedes together. I participated and asked to be connected with someone of my age with the same interests in sociology and/or philosophy.

They matched me up with a girl, and before we met she sent the organizer an email saying, “we [Omar and I] can only be friends, he shouldn’t expect anything else!” That shocked me.

She also said that she only wanted to meet me once to check me out, then she would decide if we could continue being friends or not, which I found degrading.

I never said or implied that I was trying to find a date. I just wanted a friend with similar interests to mine, so they could help and guide me as to how I could continue my studies and find a job in my profession.

The incident gave me a really negative glimpse into how people might see us here. I got the impression this girl sees all refugees as savage rapists. The employee at the municipality said that it was just the girl’s conditions for those who she might be matched with. But it was clear what she meant!

This is a problem that we humans can’t get rid of: the stereotypical, unjust portrayal of others.

And nowadays, the media intensifies our bias to a great extent. The media plays a very crucial role in changing people’s attitudes – and as I can see, it presents all refugees as having sexual problems.

But refugees come from all kinds of backgrounds. You can’t generalize or judge all people by putting them in one box.

Back in Syria we had cities, buildings, and friends; we used to hang out and live normal lives. I had access to the Internet and studied at a university. We had girlfriends, boyfriends, our life was cool and normal. People here might not realize that about us.

Eventually I found that the best way to get by in Sweden is to stay on your own and not bother spending time trying to build relationships. As I perceive it, looking for friendships is a strenuous pursuit and in many cases might be in vain.

You won’t be able to build friendships here easily like in other countries – even the Swedes live alone. I used to work in elderly care here, making weekly visits to elderly people. When I asked how I could help and what they needed, most of them replied: “Just sit and talk to us." That's all they wanted.

Another example is the ‘name’ issue. If I post something on [classifieds site] Blocket, responding to an ad, no one contacts or replies to me. I believe it’s because of my name: Omar.

I’ve tried numerous times, and in rare cases I get one or two answers - which always turn out to be from non-Swedes, or else they tell you the room has already been rented out.

And there’s another trend now, renting apartments for newcomers in doubled prices compared to Swedes. I’ve seen landlords say clearly: “We want to charge double (or a higher price) because we’re renting out to non-Swedes."

Now I understand why most people turn to the black market and under the table contracts to get apartments, for example.

Bearing a Middle Eastern name in Sweden makes one’s life harder.

The issue of stereotyping in this society and the failure to accept others is critical. I am not saying it’s totally bleak here, but to a great extent, I see the situation negatively.

So far I haven’t been able to work in my profession. They recognized my qualifications in Sweden and gave me a certificate, but I haven’t been able to find work so far. I don’t know why and I don’t know what I can do about it.

Note: Omar's story is also featured in MIG Talks, a a joint communications effort initiated by the Swedish Migration Agency. Read more here (in Swedish)

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