All posts by Ladan Weheliye

A Somali-Swede’s reflections on open borders

This is a personal anecdote post and is a continuation of the series started with an earlier post. The opinions here are not necessarily the same as those expressed by the regular blogging staff at Open Borders. However, we think personal experiences of immigration can still offer interesting perspectives to consider within the wider context of the evidence for and against open borders.

In the 80s in Somalia my father financed an opposition organization hoping to unseat the president Siad Barre. As I, being only a child at that time, do not remember any of the happenings, stories were told to me. Sometime in January 1990 my father, a regular business man, along with other business men, was assassinated in a bomb attack commanded by the president. Shortly thereafter a civil war broke where war lords fought each other over power, so naturally, citizens, or at least those who could, had to flee. Many crossed the borders to Ethiopia and Kenya. While some stayed in Ethiopia and Kenya, many continued their journey to Europe, North America and elsewhere. After fleeing from border to border, my family, consisting of me, my mother and four siblings, made it to Sweden.

I remember coming to a refugee camp in Malmö, Skåne, which is in the southern part of Sweden. We got two rooms to share in a corridor where we jointly had access to a kitchen and a common room, even the bathrooms were jointly shared. Like a student corridor only with less partying.

It took some while to find the right place to live, we moved from town to town until we ended up in Örebro where we stayed the longest. I hated having to change school all the time. However, my mother always reminded me that our situations were different from my friends’ situation.

When I think back, I had never had a problem adapting to our new home. I was a child when we came to Sweden, so naturally it was easier for me to adapt than it was for my older brother, and easier for my older brother than it was for my mother. There were some cultural differences as I remember, but nothing that I ever thought of when I was out in the society, at school, with friends and so on. Only when I was at home as my family is Muslim, meaning that the rules at home and school differed greatly. I had no problem combining the two; I had a school identity and a home identity. Two contesting identities so to speak, so in the end I chose one I firmly believe is the correct one for me.

To further my identity anecdote, a year ago at a Poli-Sci seminar we discussed multiculturalism and what it means. Specifically we discussed what should be done in a society of multiculturalism. Should the state do something or not? Previously we were told to read a few philosophers standpoints on the subject. Students started discussing and to keep it brief some argued for a better integration while some argued for assimilation. I myself argued for neither.

We were told to read philosophers representing different viewpoints in the book Contemporary Political Theory: A Reader edited by Colin Farrelly (Amazon paperback). Some of the philosophers argued for state action. Kymlicka argued in favor of group right, meaning that it is the state’s job to preserve every group’s way of life in society. Taylor stressed the importance of recognition, arguing that misrecognition can inflict harm on people. Parekh pragmatically argued in favor of an open discussion with no further agenda. The authors who are in favor of state action failed to convince me how recognizing special group rights were to be done without misrecognizing another. As I was about to lose both hope and interest I started reading the last chapter. There I found someone who had a convincing proposal. Chandran Kukathas. He argued that if the state has liberal institutions, it does not have to do anything.

Here’s why:

The reason why liberalism does not have a problem with multiculturalism is that liberalism is itself, fundamentally, a theory of multiculturalism. This is because liberalism is essentially a theory about pluralism; and multiculturalism, is, in the end, a species of pluralism. Liberalism is one of the modern world’s responses—indeed, its most plausible response—to the fact of moral, religious, and cultural diversity. Its response has been to say that diversity should be accommodated, and differences tolerated; that a more complete social unity, marked by a uniform and common culture that integrates and harmonizes the interests of individual and community, is unattainable and undesirable; that division, conflict and competition would always be present in human society, and the task of political institutions is to always palliate a condition they cannot cure. Political institutions would be liberal institutions if they left people to pursue their own ends, whether separately or in concert with others, under the rule of law. (Kukathas, Contemporary Political Theory, 2004, p.289)

While that sounds completely rational, here’s what frightens most people. “It [Liberal institution] offers the opportunity, under a state indifferent to the ways or the goals of the different peoples living under the law, for people to coexist and for their different arts and letters and sciences to flourish (or die out) with them.” (Kukathas, Contemporary Political Theory, 2004, p. 294) What frightens people, I suspect, is the possibility of their culture dying out. To get back to my identity anecdote, not preserving our culture is what made my mother the coercive mother she has been throughout my entire upbringing in Sweden. She did her best to remind that we are Somalis and that our culture is Somali. After school she refused to let me play with my friends, I stayed home, and she arranged Somali playmates for me. Only the problem was that I knew my friends at school better than I did my forced playmates, so naturally I did not enjoy playing with them. Preserving my Somali identity was more important to my mother than letting me have a sense of individuality. Recently as the nationalist party, Swedish democrats, grew in popularity, it struck me how similar their views are to my mother’s; they, in favor of preserving the Swedish culture, and my mother, the Somali culture. Out of fear of others, groups tend to alienate themselves. Not much can be done about my mother or Swedish democrats except for asking them to expand their horizons. It is therefore my firm belief that the state should do nothing but to let each group or individual pursue their ends separately, under the rule of law, as Kukathas suggested.

There are two frequently discussed topics related to immigrants in Sweden, apart from blowing crimes committed by immigrants out of proportion through media, which I will not discuss here. The two are the so called generous welfare system and segregation.

Let’s discuss the welfare system first. I am against the welfare system for moral reasons as I do not endorse coerced redistribution of wealth (just to be clear). One day at one of my poli-sci seminars, I went out to the smoking area, for a cigarette, at the same time as my classmate, a Swedish guy from the southern suburbs of Stockholm. Out of curiosity, I asked him why he never spoke during our seminars. He told me that his views are not welcome as is he is not the political correct type. I jokingly said, “You’re not a weird neo-nazi, are you?” He said, “no, but I would want immigrants to assimilate to my culture or to kindly leave my country.” I had never heard people say such a thing before. I did not get upset, people say all sorts of infantile things. I tried talking to him about diversity in individuals instead of cultures. He did not argue against individual diversity so that gave me the chance to explain that it isn’t that different from multiculturalism. He then admitted that he had no problems with multiculturalism per se, but that he did not want immigrants to come here and cheat off the welfare system. Once that was clear for both of us, we discussed whether he thought that cheating off the system was inherently immigrant behavior. We googled a few scandals (thank God for Google) and saw that many who cheated were also Swedish. He tried to excuse the Swedes who cheated, but the sound of his voice was not as convincing as he stuttered throughout the excuses. I then told him that, yes, some immigrants cheat the system, but so do some Swedes. Bad people can be found in all cultures, there’s nothing inherently bad with one culture. If anything, the welfare system should be abolished or at least significantly reduced, so that those who cheat do not get the chance to cheat, and those who desperately need it can be funded by private donations.

Segregation is not such a big deal. People live in different areas. That’s all. Among those who oppose certain people living in certain areas, seek for one group to influence the other group, often the group they perceive as successful. I’ll let you decide whether that sounds good or not.

Segregation causes people to know more about a certain culture and less about another. It’s not that different from a book you read and book you did not read. So if someone refers to the book you did not read you just stand there clueless. While people often admit that they don’t know a thing about a book they didn’t read, they often speak of other cultures in a polarizing way and this even more because they read certain aspects in media, where they report about an immigrant committing a petty crime. Media is supposed to report unusual happenings and not every day life stories, so I’m not accusing media of polarizing (that may happen among weird journals). This is not something that happens only among Swedes, it happens among immigrants too.

A while ago I lived in Rinkeby, a place where the inhabitants are almost 90 per cent immigrants. I had been at school with some Swedish friends and asked them to tag along to my place. Everyone started excusing themselves and while I understood why, I just laughed about it. One of the guys said, “well, Ladan, it’s okay to hang out with you because you’re not like a typical immigrant, you’re like us, but we’d rather not go to that place.” At a later time in Rinkeby I was hanging out with my foreign friends and people started discussing differences between Swedes and immigrants. They were all joking and laughing about it, saying things like, “oh Swedes are boring, I don’t get their humor. One of their childhood friend is Swedish. So I asked them, why they didn’t find her boring and everyone agreed that Johanna is different, “she’s not like the typical Swede, and she is more like us”.

So in the end people seemed, according to my observation, to be much more relaxed around people they know or can use social references with. Even among my friends who study different fields do not get it each other entirely. I often hear someone who studies politics complaining about how boring it is to talk with someone who studies mechanical engineering, because that person did not get him or her when they tried to discuss Skinner’s theory on Republicanism.

People are different in many ways, and while they should remain different we should all work on being tolerant towards those who are different from us. Diversity is great; it means that we are all free to pursue our own ends. Even if we all lived in one big area, erased borders, domestically or internationally, we’d still be different. Diversity should not worry us, once we become too alike, that should worry us.