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social change

Södertälje: immigration the Swedish way

Published onsdag 26 december 2012 kl 09.00
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Boel Godner, mayor of Södertälje, says the system is at breaking point. Photo: Bertil Enevåg Ericson / SCANPIX
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Sweden Democrat councillor Tommy Hanson wants Sweden to reduce immigration. Photo: Loukas Christodoulou/Swedish Radio
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The centre of the Hovsjö estate, Södertälje. Photo: Loukas Christodoulou/Swedish Radio
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Hovsjö estate, Södertälje. Photo: Loukas Christodoulou/Swedish Radio

Today is a half-hour special programme on the city of Södertälje, that became known to the world, after it became the home for a very large number of refugees from Iraq, after the 2003 invasion. More Iraqis fled to Södertälje, than to the whole of the USA, and Canada.

And this, plus an older tradition of immigration, means that this town of 90,000 is almost half made up of people born outside Sweden, or with two parents born outside.

So what does this major change mean for the town - and what can Sweden, and Europe in general, learn from what's happening in Södertälje? Some people say that this town cannot really cope.

The mayor of Södertälje is Boel Godner, of the Social Democrat party. This is a traditionally industrial town, where Scania makes its trucks, and the Social Democrats are in charge, together with the Left party and the Greens.

Boel Godner says to Radio Sweden that she is in favour of helping people who want to escape war and persecution. But that her city is not able to cope with so many refugees. For one thing, she thinks the refugees don't have enough space to live.

The mayor says that serious overcrowding is happening, especially in certain areas of the town. Her main wish is that the government stops refugees from coming to Södertälje.

Currently people who have been recognised as refugees can stay in Sweden. As can people who've got permission due to family already being here. In both cases people are free to choose where to live. And very many want to live close to people they know, who speak their language.

And who share their religion. The majority of the recent refugees to Södertälje are christians from the middle east. Some define themselves based on the Syrian Orthodox church, while others see themselves part of a nation that traces its roots back to the ancient Assyrians.

In both cases, this group comes from an area overlapping current state borders. Many fled from Iraq, and more are coming from Syria.

When I went into the Syrian Orthodox church in the centre of Södertälje a volunteer told me that it is the head church for this religion, for the whole of Scandinavia. Likewise the Assyrian association's football team, based in Södertälje is sometimes known as the national team, for Assyrians. Syrianska football team is another Södertälje team doing well.

Mayor Boel Godner says that she is not worried about running a town that is developing such a strong Middle Eastern character.

But a Swedish political party that says there is too much immigration, in general, is the Sweden Democrats. They say that people who come to Sweden must fit in with their idea of a pre-existing Swedish culture.

On Södertälje council there are five Sweden democrats elected, with another two coming from a breakaway party, the National Democrats, who say integration isn't possible, and immigrants need to leave.

From the Sweden Democrats I talked to Tommy Hanson. He says that the refugees to Södertälje are putting a strain on things like housing, and that more should instead be spent on things like elderly care.

He also says that areas with many immigrants are suffering from crime. But looking at crime in Södertälje there is no sign that it is particularly high, or going up - figures going back over 15 years show the number of reported crimes staying roughly the same. And the rate for Södertälje is well over the national average, but roughly the same as many other medium-sized Swedish towns.

Talking to Sweden Democrat Tommy Hanson, he says that there's little problem with violence and harassment due to racism or racial tension in Södertälje.

It is certainly true, though, that areas of Södertälje do have a reputation as being places with many recent immigrants, and as also having a problem with general crime, or antisocial behaviour.

These areas are the clusters of housing that lie somewhat outside the main city. Places like Ronna, or Hovsjö, where the municipality says on its website that a few years ago cars were set on fire, and stones were thrown at busses.

Mayor Boel Godner says that she wants to build on the open areas between central Södertälje and these outlying areas, to create a single urban zone. But she says that, so far, there's no funding in sight, and plans are all they have.

The bus ride to Hovsjö is not long, through the wooded areas that the mayor would like to see built into housing.

The area is built of slabs of honey-coloured housing, with a small central shopping area on the other side of a large expanse of grass.

The housing blocks date back to the early 1970s. It looks like any other place made up of Swedish state housing. Clean, well maintained and with trees and flowers trying to balance the large stark buildings.

Hovsjö's reputation for immigration from the middle east is confirmed by the way so many people can be heard talking Arabic, by the smell of smoke from a nargila water-pipe in a community room, and by the name of sone of the shops - for example on is called after the ancient mesopotamina city of Edessa.

Going round and talking to people in the centre, no one had a bad word to say about this neighbourhood.

A shopkeeper says to Radio Sweden that the area is lovely, everything is good, and if anyone wants to move in, he says welcome

How does it feel to live in Hovsjö? It feels good, says another shopkeeper, Sam. It's a great area, he says, and that he's lived there for 23 years.

Another person, called Ousha, says she is a recent immigrant who came from Lithuania two years ago, to teach sports at the local school.

She says that she thinks this area offers great possibilities. For personal development. That there is a football field, a racing track, places for children to play. It is a nice area. She likes it.

Some of her pupils are walking by. "Hovsjö is the best!" says one. "Better than Ronna, anyway", adds another.

The local Hovsjö school, where Ousha teaches sport is very new, and very modern. A huge colourful hallway at the entrance meets visitors.

The head teacher of Hovsjö school is Meta Hyllen. She is also enthusiastic about Hovsjö.

She says to Radio Sweden that it is a big challenge working in Hovsjö, but that right now it feels hopeful. They have a new school, and a new organisation, and that she is getting lots of support from her bosses in the Södertälje schools department.

She says that they know they have to focus on helping people to learn Swedish, and they also have groups now who's job it is to engage with children who are newly arrived.

But does she have the financial support she needs? Meta Hylen says that the funding for Hovsjö school is probably higher than for many other schools in Södertälje, but even so, it takes a lot of resources, and also very well-trained staff, and getting the two at the same time isn't easy. Even if they hire enough teachers, they might not have the right people with expertise in the right areas.

She says that the situation at home affects how well her pupils learn, that many of the school kids have parents who are out of work, who feel sidelined by Swedish society.

She also agree with the mayor, that some pupils are suffering because of overcrowding at home. "There are many large families, in many small apartments," she says.

But she also says that she's worked at many worse school, and that there's no problem with violence, or with unwanted trouble from big kids coming in, at Hovsjö school.

This new-built school in Södertälje's Hovsjö district replaces an large, older building complex, which is now being turned into a community centre for the local community, including a zone for people who want to set up small businesses.

Jens is an architect from Denmark involved in the rebuilding of this centre. He showed Radio Sweden around the building site. He is not too impressed with the way Sweden built up this area in the 1970s, using the cheapest possible design, which he says resulted in an ugly development. But he also says that the old structures are perfectly sound, and that with some new fittings inside they will look a lot better.

Gülseren Büyukbalik is the manager of this project. The company she works for is Telge, an energy and housing firm owned by the Södertälje local government.

She says to Radio Sweden that many immigrants from the Middle East have an idea for how they can start up a business, and she hopes that this new centre will give them a chance.

Gülseren Büyukbalik says that she herself comes from the Middle East, from an Assyrian christian village called Midyat, in south-eastern Turkey, so she shares the same background as very many of the people in Södertälje.

Heading back into the city, and to a cafe in the centre, one which is itself a business run by middle eastern immigrants, and to a meeting with Ninve Dallalchi. She was born in Sweden, of Assyrian parents who moved here from Turkey. She now works for the local municipality, working with long-term unemployed people, helping them to find work.

She says that it's not easy for the refugees who come to Södertälje to get start a new life, and that language is one of the major problems - that it often take ten years for someone to learn Swedish well enough to get a job in a Swedish-speaking workplace.

Ninve Dallalchi also says that even for the most active job-seeker, Södertälje simply does not have enough work to offer. She says that people fleeing to Södertälje should see this city as a first step - and realise that they can have a better life if they move to another town.

The story of Södertälje is a story about a Swedish city that is part of an unusually intense mass migration. But its story is not unique; many parts of Europe are seeing major movements of people.

There are signs that Södertälje's housing and other infrastructure is over-stretched due to recent immigration. But it is unlikely that people will stop arriving in this town; and even if they do, there are already tens of thousands of people who have recently made it their new home.

From talking to people working hard in Södertälje there are clearly hopeful signs, because of tolerant attitudes, and because of the relatively rich resources that are available for the Swedish school system, and for the rest of the social infrastructure.

Södertälje has a good chance to be an immigration success story, one that the rest of Europe should keep an eye on.

However, the situation that Södertälje's political leaders are going through is not something that other towns' politicians are eager to volunteer for.

Mayor Godner says that she's tried to get her local colleagues to shoulder some of the work, but that the ones who do want to help have no housing on offer, and that most local leaders just think "I don't want it to be my problem".

Our journalism is based on credibility and impartiality. Swedish Radio is independent and not affiliated to any political, religious, financial, public or private interests.
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