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Integration lessons

Richard Orange, MalmöOctober 21, 2015

The challenge of integrating large numbers of refugees from the Middle East is nothing new for Sweden. A dozen years ago, the country opened its doors to Iraqis - with mixed results. Richard Orange reports from Malmö.

A shopping street in Malmö
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/F.Gentsch

There is nowhere in Malmö as ethnically mixed as Möllevaangen square. There is no café in Möllevaangen more integrated than Café Simpan. And there are few better examples of a culturally-adjusted Iraqi than Ram Alnashimi.

The music promoter is sitting alone in the café, with its mix of arty Swedes and intellectual immigrants, a pad and mobile phone in front of him, planning a gig for the legendary Iraqi oud player Jafar Hasan Aboud, who is performing at the end of the month.

For Alnashimi, one of the first wave of Iraqi immigrants when he arrived in 1991, the arrival of more of his countrymen makes his job easier.

"So many famous Iraqis have come to Sweden," he says. "They've changed the country a lot. A lot of the Iraqis who have come here are good at culture. A lot of them are very well-educated."

Aboud, who fled to Sweden in 2007, will be backed by the Masguf Ensemble, a group of ethnic Swedes who were taught to play Iraqi instruments from some of the new arrivals. But while Alnashimi believes Iraqis are "the most established of those from all the other Arab countries," he admits they still lag behind more successful refugee groups.

"You can't compare the Iraqis with the Chileans and Iranians," he says. "They're old here in Sweden, they've already blended into society."

Ram Alnashimi
Alnashimi says the Iraqis haven't settled as well as earlier generations of refugeesImage: DW/R. Orange

Jobs for those who want them

Close to half the people living in Sweden's third-largest city, Malmö - 43 percent - have a foreign background, with those with origins in Iraq making up the largest single group. But relatively few could describe their friendship circle as "completely mixed," as Alnashimi does.

Around the corner and across the square, where fruit and vegetable traders chatter away mostly in Arabic, there's another café, Camoccia Café & Salladsbar, where new arrivals come to meet with other immigrants.

Many live in the suburb of Rosengaard, less than three kilometers away, where between 80 and 90 percent of people have a foreign background, and which has become a symbol for Sweden's problems with integration ever since its 2008 riots.

Median Zannoun, the café's owner and one of the city's more successful Iraqi businessmen, shakes his head when I mention the suburb.

"There are so many people who live in Rosengaard who have educated themselves and become engineers and doctors," he says. "If they want to work, then they can work. Some people just don't want to."

Graphics showing the EU countries that received the most asylum applications per capita, January-June 2015

Zannoun himself came to Sweden from the city of Mosul in 1989, got a job in a glass factory shortly afterwards and used the money he saved to start his first business five years later.

"I was just treated the same as anyone else, the same as Swedish people," he says. "From what my friends in Germany and Britain say, Sweden is a lot better for immigrants: If you are a normal person, you can get a job, a flat and everything else."

Iraqis have proven adept at starting their own small businesses, and many Iraqi doctors and dentists have made their way into the Swedish system.

A question of timing

But according to Tamar Wahid Jassim, a 37-year-old who has found work as an engineer after arriving in Malmö seven years ago, it's tough for older professionals.

"I know a person who has a master's degree in aeronautical engineering, but he hasn't got a job. He just works as a mentor for new arrivals," he complains. "It wasn't easy to get into the work market here. I was forced to study a master's degree for two years. I had someone from the government who told me I should go and get a job in a restaurant."

For those with few skills, the situation is worse, Jassim says. "It's a shame to say it, but as far as I can see, most of the Iraqis, almost 60 percent of them, are not educated, and don't want to be integrated. I don't know what the unemployment rate is, but I think it's a bit high."

The Iranians, he argues, benefitted from better timing.

Median Zannoun
Zannoun started a business in his new home, while others, he says, don't care to workImage: DW/R. Orange

"The Iranians came here 10 to 15 years earlier, when there was a need for jobs, so they established themselves much more easily," he says.

And the Syrians arriving today will also have fewer problems.

"They have been much more open to the rest of the world. It's not like the Iraqis, who were closed off for more than 30 years under Saddam."

Focus on educating immigrants

What Alnashimi is most worried about is that the education level of the Iraqis arriving in Sweden is getting worse.

"You can't compare the people coming now to my parents," says Alnashimi. "In our time it cost perhaps $50,000 a person to come to Sweden, and now it's more like $500, so there's a big difference."

In his night job working at an immigration center, he is seeing a change in the Syrian refugees coming too.

"Those who came three to four years ago were well-educated, but a lot of those who are coming now aren't. It's always like that: Those who flee first are those who are well-educated and have money."

Sweden is attempting to overcome this by throwing yet more money at educating its new arrivals. And if you visit the library in Rosengaard, you can see that it clearly works for some. Studious young men and women - from Arab countries, from Somalia, from Afghanistan - sit hunched over exercise books or attending Swedish conversation classes.

On top of completely free university education, Sweden last year spent 17 billion euros ($19 billion) helping students support themselves, and gave out an additional 15 billion euros in study loans.

A woman approaches an underpass marked with a sign reading Rosengaard
Rosengaard has become a synonym for urban conflict in SwedenImage: picture-alliance/dpa/H. Fohringer

"It's a fantastic thing, that you can take the money from them and study," Jassim says. "It's an opportunity that you can't find in the UK or US or in any other country."

The question is whether the new arrivals exploit it. For that to happen, the lecture halls at the nearby Malmö and Lund Universities will have to become as mixed as Mollevaangen.