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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A chilly, windy first of May. Last night the end of winter was celebrated in traditional style with bonfires and fireworks and songs to welcome the coming of Spring, light, warmth and life. At the end of a bitterly cold winter (which has been nevertheless amazingly beautiful under its white blanket) such a celebration makes sense even to me, who has grown up in a land where the passing of seasons does not have the same dramatic effect on the psyche. The leaf trees outside, which seem to have been bare and grey for ever, are budding, about to burst to life. Further south in Europe, even in the UK, Spring is well established, but here it is still just on the verge.

Are you going out to demonstrate? Leif asked me this morning. Which reminded me of another aspect of May the first in Sweden. But what, in this securest and most socially progressive society, is there to demonstrate about. Democracy is well established. Equal rights for all. More has been done to eradicate inequality and poverty in this country than just about anywhere on the globe. What have we to complain about? What should we shake our fist at? What place is there for the angry young man (or woman, lets not be sexist!) to march in the streets for?

I vaguely heard a radio program this morning as a folded the washing; it was about “engagemang.” An odd word which can perhaps best be translated as “engagement”. What sort of things should one be “engaged in” in this day and age, the presenter asked various guests. The discussion I heard seemed to revolve around ecological food. How much time, she asked, do you spend checking out the ecological value of the foods you buy in the supermarket? None, said one guy. Its not that important, said a young woman who explained that she was a vegetarian and that what she bought was always environmentally friendly.

Its a good question. What is worth believing in these days, in a society where we already have so much? What is worth fighting for. There was a time when people were willing to die for what they believed in, but in Sweden, as in so much of the western world which has moved beyond the belief in another life, that is perhaps a bit much. This life is everything. What can there possibly be worth dying for? That kind of engagement is perhaps a little extreme.

If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.


Change is difficult, and painful. Even when the change is for the better. Twice now I have met patients who have described their problem as “spring depression”. How can that be, I wonder, gazing out the window at a blue sky and glorious sunshine? One woman I spoke with today told me how she dislikes summer. She was not the first. Expectations associated with better weather and longer days seem to weigh heavily on some people in Sweden.

We have recently moved to a house, with more space and a nicer outlook. This move too has been difficult, although I almost feel guilty saying so. We sometimes find ourselves longing for the flat we left, up in Brickebacken. Less to do, less expectations…

Thousands of people move to Sweden every year, as migrants or refugees. For many it is a move to escape a miserable past. They should be happy here. What country offers more to the migrant than Sweden? If they are lucky enough to arrive in summer it must surely seem like paradise.

Yet when they arrive they are still miserable. They are aliens in a strange land. They don’t understand the culture, the language. Sadly, it is not always summer. Today I met a 51 year old Bosnian woman who is struggling to adjust. We struggled to communicate in what was the second language for us both. After 4 years she still feels like a stranger. She moved because she married a fellow Bosnian who already lived here. Yet despite being here much longer he still speaks little Swedish, and is still very much an outsider.

Dealing with the pain of change is one of the challenges of life, because even for the most settled of us changes come, often unexpected and uninvited. There is a tendency to always look back, to remember how good things used to be. But it is impossible to go back to the way things were. Perhaps that is what makes the past so glorious – the impossibility of going there. The challenge is to live in the here and now and see the possibilities and hope of the future.

Spring is beautiful. Quite simply. The depression people feel now must surely be the struggle of change, not something intrinsically negative with sunshine, blue skies and flowers. And none of us immune from change.

Poor old George

The world is angry at George W. Bush. Iraq and climate issues are the main grievances, it seems. But US foreign policy in general, and US refusal to be a part of the climate change party, insisting on standing alone, in a sense, against the world, are the underlying issues. The Iraq war, has, in my mind been a sad affair. Necessary, same may say. Others, of course, say immoral and unethical. But whatever stance is taken on its rightness or wrongness, it has been another sad chapter in that nation’s recent history. Thousands have been killed, both Iraqis and foreigners. Thousands, no millions, have been displaced from their homes and country. Cities and towns have been wrecked. Billions of dollars have been spent. But how much progress toward peace and stability in the region has been made?

Climate change is a confusing and scary issue. Daily the press prints stories of impending doom from the prophets of our age, the climate change scientists. Doomsayers have always been popular. There seems to be something in our human consciousness which is drawn to predictions of catastrophe. Al Gore has capitalised on the whole thing, making his millions our of his modestly named, “inconvenient truth.” The Nobel Institute has got in on the act with its awarding of the Peace Prize this year to the IPCC (and Al), for their efforts in alerting the world to this disaster in the making, thus elevating the science and its prophet to the level of serious, international respectability.

Meanwhile, poor old George has become the scapegoat of the Western world. Up until last week, John Howard, the now deposed leader of the Australian people, was also seen as a scapegoat. But that is history now. The US stands alone. The new Australian prime minister has promised to get Australia out of Iraq. He has promised to ratify the Kyoto treaty. Australia, to the relief of many in Australia and abroad, seems to be finally coming in line with the enlightened ones, while George and the USA stands alone as the thorn in the flesh of the West.

An article from Reuters today highlights the drop in US carbon emissions (1.5% in 2006) recently. But this is clearly no cause for rejoicing. The credit for this drop is given to climate variation (a cool summer and a warm winter) and to the rise in fuel prices. Not to any intentional action on the part of the USA to respond intelligently to the problem. The credit goes to other things. George remains a problem. Read this statement from Reuters, for example:

The United States, which since the beginning of the oil age has emitted more of the gases than any other country, does not regulate the gases scientists say could spark an increase in deadly storms, droughts and floods. Bush pulled the country out of the Kyoto pact, saying it would hurt the economy and unfairly leave rapidly developing countries without limits.

Instead, Bush set a goal in 2002 of cutting greenhouse gas intensity 18 percent by 2012. The intensity fell last year by 4.2 percent, or more than double the average 2 percent decline since 1990, and has fallen about 10 percent from 2002 to 2006, the EIA said.

There seems to be a contradiction in there somehow. First the writer says that the USA does not regulate greenhouse gases. Then he says that Bush has set goals of reducing greenhouse gas intensity. Which suggests to me that the USA does mean business when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Bush just doesn’t believe in the Kyoto Protocol, the creed of the climate change movement.

Anyway, Bush’s days are numbered. He will soon be just history as Howard is. I assume the next US government will ratify Kyoto, as Mr Rudd will in Australia. I assume the next US government will pull the US out of Iraq, as Mr Rudd says he will Australia.

The problem is, who will we have to blame then? Iraq will not be fixed. Greenhouse gas emissions will continue to rise. And in only five years Kyoto will have expired, having made very little difference (which of course is the USA’s fault) with the world still on track to catastrophe. Al Gore has refused to stand as president. He knows it is much easier to make a (very profitable) living on climate change prophecy than by leading a country. Perhaps the next UN secretary general should be a scientist, since science is the Western world’s new religion, the source, it would seem, of ultimate truth.

Making money from climate change

The following paragraph in Wikipedia caught my attention. The comment about the fee is referenced to The Smoking Gun website.

In recent years, Gore has remained busy traveling the world speaking and participating in events mainly aimed towards global warming awareness and prevention. His keynote presentation on global warming has received standing ovations, and he has presented it at least 1,000 times according to his monologue in An Inconvenient Truth. His speaking fee is $100,000.

So Al Gore has made a million dollars just from speaking about global warming, giving the same apparently well copyrighted keynote speech to over 1000 audiences. His income from film royalties probably exceeds that. And this from a man who was wealthy to begin with.

It is an illustration of the capitalist dream. Find a product that people want, that sells well, copyright it, and then flog it to death, selling it as many times as possible. Gore is clearly not averse to personal prosperity. But he is obviously opposed to the Bush Administration’s stand on the Kyoto Protocol, which seems to be based on a similar desire to maintain his nation’s prosperity. Much as Howard’s following of the American example seems to be based on a desire to maintain Australia’s economic prosperity.

The question is, if Gore was to become president of the USA, as many have called for, what would be his template for maintaining American prosperity and economic ascendency? He has made his fortune out of the climate change debate. Would he be able to make a similar fortune for his country out of the climate crisis? Could he translate his own personal windfall from the climate crisis to a windfall for the common person in the USA?

Of course he is steadfastly refusing to be nominated as a presidential candidate. So he will never be put to the test. The reality seems to be that responding to climate change meaningfully is almost certain to result in a lowering of the prosperity of the developed nations. It will require lifestyle changes that very few of us westerners are prepared to make. In short, it will cost us dearly.

When Al Gore recognises this, and starts to preach his message free of charge, as a symbol of his real concern for humanity, his credibility will rise dramatically in my mind. But in a society like the USA, where the value of something is generally measured by its price tag, perhaps no-one would listen anymore.