The migrant experience

We can hardly compare ourselves with other migrants to Sweden, even less to refugees. Migrants usually move to a new country looking for a better life, if not for themselves then for their children. Refugees move because they are forced to, usually as a result of armed conflict. We do not fit into either of these categories. We came to live in Sweden because we are half Swedish. Maria was born here. Her family lives here. This is her homeland.

However, there are shared experiences for all those who try to re-establish themselves in a new country. Maria had those experiences in Australia. I have those experiences in Sweden. We are different from migrants and refugees because whenever either of us is in the other’s country only one of us has the experience of not belonging. Generally migrants, if they come with their families, have the same experience of outsideness as the rest of the family. A family like ours belongs here more than that of a migrant, but less than that of a local Swedish family.

Our experiences are, however, different to the experience of the tourist, or the person who moves for professional reasons. It is different even to the experience of the missionary. Tourists are there out of interest, to see, to explore, to enjoy. They never try to assimilate. They are passing through. Professionals come with an identity already firmly established. They start, in a sense, at the top of society. They come because they are asked, because they are needed. They are usually appreciated from day one. Contemporary missionaries are similar, since unlike their historical forbears who came with the specific (and then socially acceptable) purpose of converting non-believers to Christianity, they usually come nowadays with a professional skill which is highly needed and appreciated.

Migrants and refugees are not needed, and are often not appreciated. They do not start at the top, but at the bottom. They may be professionals, but rather than being recognised for their expertise and experience they are asked to prove themselves before they are accepted. Migrants come often because in their old home the conditions are not as good as they are perceived to be in their new home. Refugees come because there is often no alternative. And whereas the host country is often thankful for the imported professional, the expectation is quite the opposite for migrants and refugees. They are the ones who are supposed to be thankful for the graciousness and generosity of the host country.

I personally have had a mixture of these experiences. On the one hand I have a profession which is highly sought after in Sweden. But I was not asked to come here. I just arrived. I was not given any special treatment. Part of the problem for me was that I come from outside the EU. As such I am expected to prove myself. Although I have been recognised as a specialist GP in Australia since the mid 90s I was informed that that recognition was not applicable here because I did not have a formal specialist qualification. I would have to do the same five year training program as newly qualified doctors.

But perhaps the hardest has been the experience of getting a Swedish driver’s license. Although I have been driving for thirty years and have never been involved in a serous accident I have been expected to go through the same process for getting a license as a non driver. Thus far it has cost me over a thousand Australian dollars and I still have no license. I have done the compulsory risk education, at considerable cost, covering the same material that I learnt when I was 16 years old and lived in the USA. I have passed the theory test. I have twice attempted the driving test and failed both times, for reasons which I would regard as fairly ridiculous. But then I suppose most people who fail think that it is unjust.

The irritating thing is that if I came from the UK or Holland, or any other country in the EU, I could have just traded in my license for a Swedish one, for a nominal fee of perhaps $AU100. A number of my foreign friends have done just that. As it is I am currently not allowed to drive in Sweden. I was allowed to drive for the first year on my Australian license, but after that I was expected to get a Swedish one. I drove for two years more on my Australian license before I realised that I was breaking the rules. But when I discovered the rules I stopped driving and started the process of getting a Swedish license. The fact that I have driven three years in Sweden without being in an accident or getting a speeding fine does not matter. At this moment I am regarded as not being good enough to drive.

This is the migrant experience. The feeling of being outside. The feeling of not being good enough. The feeling of having to prove oneself to be accepted. At the same time as the feeling that one should be forever grateful for the privilege of living in a society as progressive and wonderful as the host country, the new homeland. I have felt this in Sweden. Maria felt it in Australia, at least for the first few years. The experience is not specific to a few countries. Certainly it has been a lot easier for us than for most migrants and refugees. But I do think we understand a little of what they feel.

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