No Longer Just Nordic

No Longer Just Nordic
Oct 22, 2004

Keith B. Richburg

MALMO, Sweden — In one of his most popular songs, Swedish hip-hop
artist Timbuktu sings of two strangers warily eyeing each other on a
Stockholm subway, one a white Swede, the other an immigrant, each with
his own thoughts and prejudices.

“I wonder why he’s eyeing me like this,” the white Swede asks
himself. “Maybe he’s planning to follow me and rob me at knife tip. I
bet he’s a drug user that beats his kids, forces his wife to wear a

Timbuktu knows something about racial prejudice — as a black man born
in Lund, Sweden, whose first language is Swedish, but who for most of
his life has had to deal with the stares, the taunts, the curiosity
and the inevitable question: “But where are you really from?”

>From first grade through sixth, he recalled, he fought frequently
during recess with a group of three boys who taunted him with racial
insults. Even though he’s a celebrity in Malmo, which he calls home,
he says he is still followed by security guards when he enters a
department store. And while his DJ sessions can pack the house, he
finds he is denied entry to some clubs.

“I’m Swedish, definitely, and more and more so now,” said Timbuktu,
whose real name is Jason Diakite. He is the son of a black American
man from Harlem and a white American woman from Scranton, Pa. “But
Sweden still has a very clear picture of what a Swede is. That no
longer exists — the blond, blue-eyed physical traits. That’s
changing. But it still exists in the minds of some people.”

Across Europe, societies that were once solidly white and Christian
are being recast in a multicultural light. The arrival of large
numbers of people from the Middle East, East Asia and Africa — many
European countries now have minority populations of around 10 percent
— is pushing aside old concepts of what it means to be French or
German or Swedish.

In Sweden, nowhere is the change happening faster than in Malmo, the
country’s third-largest city behind Stockholm and Goteborg. It is a
gritty shipyard town of about 265,000 people. Once a major industrial
center that drew people from abroad with the prospect of jobs, Malmo
has lately fallen on hard times as factories have closed.

About 40 percent of Malmo’s population is foreign-born or has at least
one foreign-born parent. The bulk of foreign-born people come from the
former Yugoslavia, Iran, Iraq and the Horn of Africa. Among school-age
children, 50 percent have at least one foreign-born parent, and
analysts project that the number will soon reach 60 percent.

The city’s official Web site boasts that its inhabitants come from 164
countries and speak 100 languages.

A walk through the Mollevangstorget area of Malmo, where Timbuktu
lives, shows how much immigration has changed this city. The Middle
East restaurant sits across the street from a falafel shop, down the
road from an Indian shop and the Tehran Supermarket, which is filled
with nuts, dates, dried fruits and banana-flavored tobacco imported
fresh from Iran.

“Immigrants like being here, because they can find things from their
own country,” said a man working behind the supermarket counter, who
gave his name only as Rahim. “Four thousand Iranians live here. But
there are Swedes shopping here as well.”

The ethnic diversity is part of what drew Timbuktu, 29, here to make
his music. “Malmo is a quite interesting town for the way Sweden may
look in the future,” he said in an interview over coffee at the city’s
Hilton Hotel, as two female fans ogled him from a table nearby.

Almost 12 percent of the roughly 9 million people living in Sweden as
of this summer were foreign-born, government statistics show. Sweden
has long hosted white immigrants from Finland and the Baltic
countries. But according to the latest figures, about 7 percent of the
population comes from outside Europe, most of them nonwhite.

Elsewhere in Europe, immigration has caused significant social
turmoil, giving rise to political parties with anti-immigrant
platforms, such as the National Front in France, the Freedom Party in
Austria and the Pim Fortyn party in the Netherlands. But in Sweden,
the process has flowed more smoothly. Though immigrants here
frequently experience prejudice and rejection, it appears to be less
institutionalized than in other European countries; an anti-immigrant
party in Sweden got just 1.4 percent of the vote in elections two
years ago.

That result occurred partly because the Swedish majority populace has
gone about the business of absorbing the newcomers with the famous
Scandinavian seriousness of purpose. There are programs to help new
arrivals learn Swedish. There are programs to help them find
housing. And there are generous subsidies for those who aren’t

In France, black and brown faces are largely nonexistent in politics,
government, the news media and the top echelons of business —
anywhere outside of sports and music. But in Sweden, immigrants have
assumed a much higher profile.

Foreign-born Swedes hold a significant number of parliamentary
seats. The top Swedish chef, Marcus Samuelsson, is an ethnic
Ethiopian. Some of the most popular comedians on television are
foreign-born, including Ozz Nujen and Shan Atci, both Kurds. One of
Sweden’s top filmmakers, Josef Fares, came to Sweden from Lebanon. And
Sweden’s silver medal-winning Olympic wrestler, Ara Abrahamian, was
born in Armenia.

“We have a news anchor who is mixed, black and white,” noted Timbuktu.

But Sweden’s quiet transformation has not been without problems. In
Malmo, the biggest problem is unemployment. In Rosengard, the most
heavily immigrant district of Malmo, the unemployment rate is around
65 percent, said Jahangir Hosseinkhah, division head of the district’s
employment and training office, and an ethnic Azerbaijani who
emigrated from Iran.

Hosseinkhah said Sweden’s generous welfare system is partially to
blame. “We have a welfare system in Sweden that is usually a help to
people, but it is also a problem,” he said. For some immigrants, he
said, “they don’t need to get a job, because they get an allocation
from the state.” He said his office has handled immigrants who had
lived in Sweden as long as a decade and had never worked.

The influx has also forced the Malmo school system to adapt. At the
Borgarskolan high school, 30 percent of the 1,400 students are from
immigrant families; other public schools have an even higher
percentage. One problem is that the school does not have enough
interpreters available for parent-teacher meetings.

Some students interviewed at Borgarskolan said they felt no
discrimination at the school, because the classes are so heavily
mixed. But in the wider community, they said, they sometimes feel
caught between two worlds.

“They don’t assume me to be Swedish,” said Kamelia Tadjerbashi, 17,
who has lived in Sweden since she was 6 months old, the child of an
Iranian mother and a Turkish father. “Swedish people get impressed
that I speak Swedish so well.”

Another 17-year-old student from Iran, Honey Ghaffari, agreed. “They
look at you and see dark hair and assume you can’t be Swedish,” she
said. Ghaffari has also lived in Sweden almost her entire life.

“Sometimes, in small stores, if there’s an old lady, she’ll look at me
like I’m shoplifting something,” said Charles Anderson, 18, who came
here from Cameroon to play soccer for a Swedish team. “I think people
have a problem with other cultures. It’s a problem of time. People
haven’t been to Africa. They travel to Thailand, and maybe Spain.”

But the biggest problem in Malmo, and in other parts of Sweden, is
what people here call “ghettoization”: White Swedes typically live in
certain areas, in this case the city center, while immigrants are
increasingly clustered on the outskirts in their own communities. As
Hosseinkhah put it: “People physically live in this area, but they
mentally live in their former countries.”

“They don’t feel they are a part of this community,” he said. “They
don’t know this society. They don’t know the codes. . . . There’s that
feeling of ‘we’ and ‘them.’ ” He said he has met refugees who have
traveled thousands of miles to get to Malmo, but once settled, have
never visited the city center.

Ghettoization is a problem that also unsettles Timbuktu.

“Will it be like the United States,” he asked rhetorically, “where all
the Somalis live in one part of town, and all the Koreans in another?”
He added, “I get the feeling that tension is going to increase in
Sweden over the next 25 years.”