Immigrants changing face of Sweden

A woman in a printed scarf and long Turkish skirt walks between two stark buildings at Rinkeby, a public housing project on the outskirts of Stockholm. At a nearby cafe, a Greek man explains that he came north to find work and money. Is he happy? He shakes his head, "Money isn't everything."

These people seem oddly out of place in Sweden, the land of blond hair and fair skin, a country that has long been known for its homogeneity. And Rinkeby, home for several thousand immigrants here, has broken windows and a barren look that seem out of step with the stately buildings of Stockholm, a city that has virtually no slums.

Rinkeby symbolizes what may be Sweden's most challenging social problem: Of a total population of 8.3 million, almost 1 in 8 residents today is an immigrant or a member of a family with close immigrant ties.

During the industrial boom of the 1950s and '60s Sweden opened its doors to foreign workers to help build its prosperous economy. Few Swedens opposed the idea. "The thought was that they'll come here a few years and then go back," says Leif Hallberg, information director for the Immigration and Naturalization Board. "What happened was they stayed."

For Swedes who have long prided themselves on their liberalism, the newcomers have brought soul-searching now that the industrial boom has been eclipsed by the oil crisis. Some are quietly asking if immigration is still a good thing.And while no political leader would dare speak against immigrants, some of the immigrants say that they feel racism in Swedish society.

Swedes are not quick to dismiss the charge. "We have to look out for signs of racism," says Mr. Hallberg. Street fighting broke out four years ago between Swedish youths and Middle Eastern immigrants, but it has not recurred.

The changes have come quickly in a Swedish population that once looked so much alike, says Mr. Hallberg. "This is not exactly the meeting place of world, " he says. "It's a corner of the world." And Swedes have trouble adjusting to the new diversity.

Even so, the Swedish government has attacked its immigrant problem just as it has other social issues, with massive studies and some of the most progressive laws in the world.

Although immigrants in West Germany have been labeled "guest workers" and have been expected to leave their families at home, Sweden gives its immigrants a full share of its generous social welfare system.

Newcomers can take time off work, with pay, for free lessons in the Swedish language. If they have children, the national insurance system pays about $700 (2800 krona) a year for each. If they have a new child, either mother or father can stay home from work for one year and receive a parental allowance.

Becoming a citizen is relatively easy, but even those who do not become naturalized have recently been allowed to vote in local elections and take part in committee work for schools. The Swedish parliament is now arguing over whether to give immigrants a vote in national elections as well.

And perhaps most important to the many national groups living in Sweden, immigrant children are promised instruction in their home language. Some 60 languages are now taught in Swedish schools, ranging from Finnish (the largest immigrant group) to Serbo-Croatian, Hindi, Pakistani, and Arabic. Even if only a few youngsters from one language group attend a school, instruction is offered.

Wages are high, and thus the immigrants fare well financially. A study made five years ago found that because both immigrant husbands and wives work full time to support large families in Sweden and relatives at home, they averaged higher incomes than Swedes.

Still, immigrants have a difficult time in Swedish society. "The people are so different," says a Chilean woman.

"To come to Sweden is like to fly 100 years forward in time," says Gabriel Afram, an Assyrian who moved to Sweden 13 years ago to escape religious persecution of his people, who are Christians living in the Middle East.

Assyrians, who represent 12,000 Swedish immigrants, are accustomed to large, close-knit families, he says. When problems arise, they depend on each other. In Sweden, however, it is the social insurance system that cares for people. Mr. Afram says that he feels racism in his new home. "They believe that to be Swedish is something which is very high," he says. "They don't say that, but we are feeling it."

Mr. Hallberg, the immigration board spokesman, concedes that "immigrants come from cultures where the people are more lively. Up here the Swedes are calm and silent. no matter what happens, they look the same." Some newcomers interpret the Swedish reserve as being directed toward them, but in fact, he says, "Swedes are very bad when it somes to contact with other Swedes."

Perhaps the most satisfied of the immigrant groups is the Finnish, who comprise about 45 percent of the newcomers. Although language and culture presents a problem even for Finns, they are at least Nordic like the Swedes. "This country is one of the best" to immigrants, says Jouko Laroma, a reporter for Stockholm's weekly Finnish newspaper, which, like most other Swedish papers, receives government funding.

"I feel welcome here," he says, but adds that he sees an undercurrent among those in industry who "may be afraid that we take their jobs."

Nevertheless, Mr. Hallberg says that "It could be easily proved that immigrants take jobs that the rest of us don't want -- such as cleaning, serving in restaurants, and backbreaking jobs in heavy industry."

Swedish law forbids publishing statements that would incite hostility toward any particular nationals, he says, so that even the tiny splinter groups that oppose immigrants can speak out only in general terms.

Meanwhile, some groups are working to bring more harmony among the Swedes and newcomers. One Swede, who is member of an international women's association for immigrants, says that her group is working to "avoid conflicts we have seen in other countries."

A young Swede who lives at the Rinkeby housing project, which is 50 percent foreigners, says she has no hard feelings for the immigrants. She points out, "our high standard in Sweden was built on the work of these immigrants. You can't just throw them out when you don't want them any more."

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