All Hearts Can Change

Sitting at Arlanda airport, speaking on the phone with my partner, I notice an older lady walking towards me. I move my jacket and backpack to make more room for her. She mutters something in Swedish, politely I pause my conversation and say: I beg your pardon? 

Ola Saleh gives presentation at Leaders for Interreligious Understanding

She lashes out at me: ‘’You come here and destroy everything!’’  Shocked with the uninvited hostility, I hang up and give my attention to my fellow human‘’We?’’

The old lady responds: ‘’Yes, you! Where are you from?  I reply calmly that I am from Syria.  She yells: ‘’You destroyed your country and you want to destroy mine! You want to force us to live your way’’. 

I say: I understand that you are angry. Have you had such an experience with Syrians? She says: ‘’No, but it’s all in the news.’’ 

I engage with her on her fears and prejudice. She challenges me, asks me personal questions and in the end tells me her story. She is an old, retired school counsellor, who has to care for her much older husband, and mentally ill sister, with little support from the state. It is easy to believe the propaganda.  

As I am telling her a bit of what is going on in Syria, my experience, and how this compares if it happened in Sweden, I see her face change. With a warm smile on her face, she says: ‘’I’m very glad I met you today and learnt something different about your people and your country. You take care of yourself young lady.’’

No, I don’t speak good Swedish. I’ve been too busy working and investing in my wellbeing. So let me tell you Jimmie, [the leader of Sverigedemokraterna, a Swedish national-conservative party, editors note] you are right: I have fooled the system. I never enrolled in the Swedish society integration course, perhaps I would have learnt that bringing home-baked muffins to colleagues is “un-Swedish, as a former colleague once told me. 

I have the perseverance of a cactus: more than three attempts for master’s degree got interrupted for reasons such as the university neighbourhood being bombed, besieged, rendered inaccessible and other reasons that won’t interest you. I persist. This time I’m in Sweden, I must finish this master’s business to break this vicious cycle of interrupted life. I worked and studied full time the first two years and finished with a master’s degree, not with honours, but B level and landed at a fulltime job where I still work today. Good enough.

I have paid taxes in this country for seven years and I’m happy if some of it went to the education of your son or the healthcare of your elderly parents, as much as I hope some of it will go to welcome the refugees at the Greek borders. 

Sweden is full. You are right, Jimmie, ‘’Sweden is full’’ of money from sales of weapons all around the world. Sweden is full of ideas that it is a peace broker, which it is, as well. Sweden is full of well-informed, open minded and warm-hearted citizens who see you, me, and the refugees at the borders as people with full and equal human rights. 

I am refugee 2013. All hearts can change, including yours and mine. 

This is the last of four blogposts by Ola Saleh addressing the theme of change, drawing from her experiences and encounters as a refugee in Sweden. 
Earlier posts:
The Ex:es: Neo-Nazis and Ex-Criminal Friends
A Muslim in the House
A Jewish Guest

Ola Saleh

Ola Saleh, an Arab with Islamic background, accidentally found the meaning of home between a Palestinian host and a Jewish guest. 

She has extensive experience in programme design, management, mediation and leadership in conflict and post-conflict contexts. She works as the peacebuilding advisor at the Kvinna till Kvinna foundation in Sweden. She came to Sweden as a refugee in 2013.