Sweden: home away from home for Kurds

Sweden: home away from home for Kurds

The sister of slain Kurdish woman Fadime Şahindal carries her photograph as family members carry her coffin, during a memorial service on Feb. 4, 2002.

April 12, 2009, Sunday/ 13:19:00
A Turkish newspaper fell afoul of the truth when their front page ran the intriguing headline last Sunday, "Kurds, relatives of the Vikings" with the invitation to read further on page 32. The huge headline on page screamed "Kurds turn out to be Vikings!" above a cartoon of a marauding, axe-wielding, helmeted warrior approaching the shore in his longboat.

Around the Viking's neck was a traditional black and white Kurdish scarf. Having caught the reader's attention, the article went on to outline how the Swedish Vikings had, between A.D. 800 and 1050, turned their attention toward the East and traveled to İstanbul, Russia, the Black Sea, Baghdad and the shores of the Caspian Sea.

However, the inhabitants of these countries did not suffer from the rape and pillage synonymous with the Viking reputation, but instead the warriors had largely come as traders. Their objectives had been spices, decorative pieces, glassware, silver coins and wine rather than women (thus invalidating the headline and the lead's suggestion that the Kurds are the grandchildren of the Vikings). One bizarre Web site reports that the Vikings went to the Kurds for butter as their sheep grazed on flowers and therefore the butter was amazingly fragrant. Most of the facts in the article come from the book "Swedes and Kurds: A Thousand Years of Contact," which was published in 2000 and written by Rohat Alakom, a prolific Kurdish author, born in Turkey but living in exile in Sweden.

According to Alakom, the first contact between the Vikings and the Kurds was in A.D. 943, when the Vikings came to the shores of the Caspian and into Shaddadid country, a Kurdish state that lasted for 250 years in the area of present-day Azerbaijan. This initial encounter was war-like, but it eventually became a trade-based relationship. The second meeting of races was around 1000 in the Diyarbakır-Malazgirt region of modern-day Turkey, and it was again a commercial association. The third event was a confrontation between the mercenary Vikings (the Varangian Guard) in the pay of the Byzantine emperor, Romanus IV Diogenes, and the Selçuk leader Alp Arslan, again near Malazgirt (then known as Manzikert), north of Lake Van. Though the Byzantines outnumbered the Selçuks, a feigned retreat lured the larger force into a trap, and the outcome was a disaster for Romanus as his troops fell and he was captured. Back in the lands of the Vikings, headstones were erected (and later uncovered by archaeologists) saying that these warriors had fallen in Byzantium.

What the article only alludes to briefly is the pull of present-day Sweden for immigrant Kurds. Around 9 million people live in Sweden, but around 12 percent of the population is foreign born and 50,000-60,000 of these people are Kurds. The generous immigration policies of Sweden are based on the government's view that the migrants help to vitalize the labor market and the economy because of the new knowledge and experience they bring from their home countries, and that these migrants are future citizens. Newcomers have generally had access to the cradle-to-grave welfare system upon their arrival and have been able to bring their families over without being able to financially support them. Many of the Kurds living in Sweden are originally from Iraq and Iran, and they easily outnumber the 11,000-strong Turkish community. This is only one of the reasons, though, that Kurds have been able to express their culture freely and flourish in Sweden's liberal atmosphere.

The Swedish government has recognized Kurdish as a parent language since the mid-1970s, and there are several printing houses specializing in Kurdish language publications that have allowed literature and poetry, authors and intellectuals to flourish. There are two large Swedish-Kurdish friendship organizations -- the Swedish-Kurdish Friendship Association (SKVF) and the Swedish-Kurdish Friendship League -- and a Federation of Kurdish Associations, the Kurdiska Riksförbundet, which has 40 associate members. The Palme Center (named after former Prime Minister Olof Palme) runs 40 projects in Iraq aimed at the reconstruction of infrastructure and the rebuilding of civil society with the support of Swedish Kurds and a budget of SEK35 million.

On the education front, beginning in 1984, Kurdish teachers were trained in Stockholm, Kurdish children had the right to study their mother tongue at school for one-and-a-half hours per week, and there is a government-sponsored advanced Kurdish library in Stockholm. In politics, Nalin Pekgül, originally from Turkey, became a member of parliament in 1994 (until 2002) and remains the head of the Social Democratic Women in Sweden. Another Kurdish compatriot, Gulan Avcı, is currently a member of parliament for the Liberal People's Party. In 2009, Mona Sahlin, a government minister many times over and the first female leader of the Swedish Social Democratic Party, was happy to be pictured dancing with Kurdish women at the 2009 Nevruz celebrations in Stockholm.

Kurds have excelled in other areas, too. Bovar Mohammed Karim is an Iraqi football player who currently plays for Tromsø IL in the Norwegian Premier League. Perhaps the most recent cause to celebrate is Darin Zanyar, more commonly known as just Darin. The runner-up on the 2004 Swedish Pop Idol program, this slight and handsome young singer has since released gold and platinum-selling albums and is so popular that the name Darin for newborns increased by 120 percent and became the most common name for boys in 2005/2006.

However, there are still some difficulties for the émigrés. The Swedish think tank Captus produced a report in December 2008 stating that high taxes, generous welfare benefits and strong labor unions trap even highly educated and motivated groups of immigrants in welfare dependency. Though the early waves of Iraqi immigrants coming to Sweden were five to 10 times more likely to hold a doctorate than native Swedes, of those Iraqis who gained permanent residency between 1987 and 1991, only 13 percent of the women and 23 percent of the men were employed in 1995. The migrant entrepreneurs that start up their own businesses spend more time than the average developing their business ideas, but the lifespan of these businesses is shorter than that of native businesses and their incomes are considerably lower.

In a December 2008 report produced by researcher Marina Taloyan of the Center for Family and Community Medicine in Stockholm, Kurds who live in Sweden but were born abroad were found to experience poorer psychological and physical health than persons born and raised in Sweden. Twice as many Kurds as Swedes reported that their general health was poor and that they experienced poor psychological well-being. They suffered from anxiety, gastrointestinal complaints and musculoskeletal pain more often than Swedes, with the situation being consistently worse in Kurdish women. Those who experienced poor health often complained that they didn't feel free, experienced discrimination and that they were not in control of their own lives. The report seemed to demonstrate that for some it was difficult to start a positive new life.

Additional problems were pointed out by Aycan Şermîn Bozarslan in her talk at the Kurdish Institute of Paris on Kurds in Sweden and the process of integration. Though mainly positive in her assessment, she noted that recently arrived refugees and unemployed immigrants get apartments in the least attractive suburbs and that on these segregated housing estates where only immigrants lived, the number of children who failed in school and developed criminal tendencies was much higher than the Swedish average.

Among the greatest challenges facing Swedish culture have been the differences in the behavior and treatment of young women in conservative Kurdish families. The well-publicized case of 26-year-old Fadime Şahindal, who was murdered by her father in 2002 for having a Swedish boyfriend, caused a great deal of soul-searching among native Swedes. One of the effects was for the Swedish government to raise the age of marriage for foreign-born girls to 18 (as it was for Swedish born) from 15. The case was made more poignant by the fact that Fadime had been involved in a televised campaign to protect young women against "honor killings."

Sweden's liberal policies attract criticism from hard-liners who believe that the government's experiments in multiculturalism are at the expense of the Swedish working class, but it seems that for the Kurds, the 1,000-year contact has brought good fortune and good friends.

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