Rob Corcoran spent a week in Stockholm leading a workshop and meeting with community leaders.
Last year 160,000 people sought asylum in Sweden, which has welcomed more refugees and migrants in proportion to its population than any other country in Europe. Stockholm is the fastest growing city in Europe. But despite its generous provision of housing, education and health care for new arrivals, Sweden ranks low for integration and social cohesion. Violent disturbances broke out in 2013 in a Stockholm suburb.
Inspired by Hope in the Cities’ work in the US, Initiatives of Change Sweden launched Hope in Järva, a suburb with a large immigrant population, in order to identify the issues and to explore ways to build trust. I recently spent a week in Stockholm in support of this effort. The day after I arrived, a diverse group of 30 people gathered at the IofC Center for a Diwali celebration. A highlight of the evening was a video of the Swedish national anthem performed hip-hop style by Swedes of many racial and ethnic backgrounds produced by a Ugandan immigrant.
Hassan Mohamud is one of the co-founders of Hope in Järva. When he arrived from Somalia in 1982 he could not find an apartment near where he worked but was "steered" to a locality where immigrants were concentrated. He says, “After the 2013 disturbances, I had to ask myself why I had not done more to prevent the violence. As immigrants we have a choice: become angry and depressed, or work for positive change.”
Hassan and his colleagues set out to map the resources that were already in place and to find partners. Another leader of the initiative is Rishabh Kahanna who came from India to live in Sweden three years ago. He and his Russian wife, Tatiana, host the IofC home and center. Rishabh told me, “There is not enough listening. There is mistrust between citizens and the authorities and there is also a generational division.” He and Hassan are building a multi-generational network of people of different racial and ethnic groups.
I shared Hope in the Cities’ experiences, principles and methodologies for building trust and healing history and wounded memory during a morning workshop with a diverse group of 65 people, including many from Somalia and Eritrea. The event was held in a school located in a suburb populated by immigrants. Case studies and lively table conversations highlighted several key components of trustbuilding: self-awareness, understanding of white privilege and the need for personal responsibility; healing history through community rituals and listening to stories; strategies to engage everyone in honest conversation; and the importance of building and sustaining networks of trust and mutual accountability.
A Sunday service at an evangelical church which also serves Egyptian Coptic and Syrian Orthodox Christians, featured young people singing American-style praise songs. The pastor, who has family roots in Arkansas, publicly recognized Hassan Mohamud as his friend and ally.
Following the service, a panel of young Swedes of different ethnicities talked about the challenges of overcoming stereotypes and the need for intergenerational dialogue. A retired doctor responded, “I have lived here for 50 years and seen you all arrive. I don't talk about immigrants but about new Swedes.”
We stopped for lunch one day at a cafe owned by an Ethiopian who sells Ethiopian coffee (“the best in the world!”). He said, “I live in Sweden but I don’t know any Swedes.” His description of being pulled over by police while driving mirrored the experience of black Americans. I also met with a small group of business people and entrepreneurs who meet regularly to reflect and share their life journeys.
I met with local government officials in the Spåga-Tensta district, which includes an affluent suburb and an area where 50 percent of children live in poverty. The group is tasked with local development in housing, education and jobs, as well as building trust. “We don't need more studies! People are exhausted with studies,” one of them told me. Another said, “People are not just passive recipients of help. They don’t want to just follow our agenda.” They were intrigued by some of the methodologies employed in Richmond, such as the use of a historical time line as a way of sharing the different “sacred stories” of a community, and our project that connected data on poverty with specific examples of past policies and actions that excluded and discriminated. Above all, they recognized the need to create a space where people could come together in honest conversation: a container in which trust can be built and change can occur.
We are now in discussion about how to continue the Sweden-US collaboration on trustbuilding. Sweden is facing huge challenges, but it also has the opportunity to demonstrate a new Europe not based on race, ethnicity or national origin, where all are welcome and all feel responsible for building a healthy and inclusive democracy.