Just got back from Spain and Scandinavia last week, traveling on business with a little bit of pleasure thrown in.
During my travels it was easy to observe the steady influx of Arab refugees and other immigrants into Western Europe, which continues rapidly amidst backlash from many Europeans. I had the opportunity to meet several immigrants as well as “native” Europeans who shared with me their perspectives of a diversifying Europe.
In Madrid I saw a banner hanging on the Palacio de Cibeles saying “Refugees Welcome.” (see photo) Later that day I saw a procession of Somalis carrying similar signs. In Barcelona I met a very friendly Pakistani man in Plaça Nova selling castanets for two Euros a pop—you know, those clickers used by Flamenco dancers. The guy was beaming as he enthusiastically peddled his goods. In excellent English he talked about all the interesting tourists he had met from around the world, including a wealthy American woman who he had a love affair with. He was not a refugee, just a Pakistani man who moved to Europe to find a better life. I asked if he had felt hostility from the people in Spain, a country that is considered one of the more welcoming destinations for immigrants. He said that the Spanish people had been very polite to him, but he could still feel that they wished he was not there. He said that people said subtle things to him like, “Don’t you think you would feel happier back in Pakistan with your family?” His long-term goal is to get a job as a waiter in a restaurant in Barcelona, a respectable legal job where he could utilize his language and social skills. For now he spends each day ably bouncing around Barcelona’s plazas scooping up his merchandise in a mere 30 seconds when the authorities look like they are threatening to bust him and his colleagues.
On the plane to Denmark I met a Swedish woman from the city of Malmö, right across the bridge from Denmark. She said she had mixed feelings about the refugees. She said Sweden has been trying to make immigration more difficult, but she also said that the Swedish government has started a new program in which it invests resources in immigrants who have professional medical or science backgrounds. The government provides them with additional training and tries to place them in jobs parallel to those they had in their former countries. This way immigrant doctors and engineers can enrich the country’s economy rather than be wasted cleaning toilets.
I took the train from Denmark to Sweden. Thousands of people commute between the two countries daily for work like Americans do between states like Illinois and Indiana or New York and New Jersey. Since 2016 when commuters enter Sweden from Denmark officials check their passports or identity cards, however when commuters return to Denmark their documents are not checked. Denmark is in the European Union where people can travel freely between countries so it cannot monitor everyone who enters. Sweden is not in the EU, which gives it the freedom to monitor who comes in with document checks.
On the train I met a 40-year-old Somali man who had been living in Sweden for 20 years. He was friendly to me but reserved and was conservatively dressed in a grey sweater vest. He told me that he was a bus driver in Malmö. On a stop he got out to smoke and shared a lighter with a large Polish man from the train. He seemed fully assimilated both in his attire and his stereotypical Scandinavian reserved friendliness.
The last immigrant I met was at the Helsinki, Finland, airport on my five-hour layover going back to Chicago. I talked to Karine, an Armenian, professed lesbian, with dreadlocks who grew up in Russia. Her personality was an intriguing mix of hippy granola, Scandinavian socialism, and raw, aggressive, “survival of the fittest” Russian/Armenian blood. She beamed as she talked about the socialist Finish system which supplied her with a decent apartment and stipend when she lost her job, even though she wasn’t even a Finish citizen at the time. She talked about her lesbian civil union as a path to Finish citizenship. She said that it is difficult to become rich in Finland because the average income tax rate is around 50% but says she is content because the standard of living is good for everyone with the country’s free healthcare, excellent free education and a generous safety net.
When I asked about life in Russia she immediately became animated. She portrayed it as the complete opposite of Finland. She said that in Russia it is possible to achieve great wealth but life there is aggressive and cutthroat. She said to survive in Russia you have to be strong, aggressive and watch your back because you never know who will be gunning for you. Everyone will stomp on the next person to get ahead in a system that revolves around theft, bribery and blackmail. According to Karine if a person wants to do well in a Russian school, bribery with money or sex is a given. Starting in childhood, on the first day of class students bring the teacher candy to try to be in his or her good graces. Karine tried to go to a special theatre school when she was 16 but the teacher told her dad that he would require sexual favors for her to enter. She said her sister who remains in Russia can’t advance professionally because she refuses to give in to the sexual advances of her superiors. The Russian police and legal system also cannot be trusted and require bribes from everyone.
Despite her depiction of Russia’s bleak, ruthless economic way of life, Karine says that Russian people have a profound warmth and show love for each other in a way other cultures cannot match. She misses the warmth and the passion of the Russian people but she is willing to sacrifice it to be in a safe, pleasant, Scandinavian country. I was surprised when she told me there are not that many Russians who emigrate to Finland when the countries border one another. Perhaps this is because the cultures of the two countries are so different.
The French Presidential election was held the day I left Europe, pitting the Pro European Union Emmanuel Macron verses the xenophobic Anti-EU Marine Le Pen. On the journey I pondered the future of Europe’s welcome mat for immigrants. Would I be able to travel from country to country as easily in the future or would there be more passport checkpoints like the one I encountered at the Swedish border? Macron’s victory points to the status quo surviving for the time being, but the ethnic and political future of Europe is certainly murky.
Question: Has President Trump been too hard on immigration?