As I write this, the headlines are reporting the closure of Keleti station in Budapest. The Hungarian authorities are trying to block the movement of refugees, displaced people escaping Syria’s war. Last week, riot police in Macedonia were firing stun grenades to drive them back – and here in Sweden, for the first time, an opinion poll put the far right Sweden Democrats in first place nationally.
We need grounds for hope, just now, so I want to share a story my colleague Joakim told me yesterday from his hometown in Jämtland. (If you read Swedish, he’s written about it on his blog: what follows is part translation, part retelling and part my commentary.)
Nälden is a town of 800 people up north, inland, towards the Norwegian border. Disused military buildings there have been taken over as accommodation for refugees. When Jocke was back to visit this weekend, he was curious about the flags hanging from the lampposts.
It turns out that local people – starting with the ice hockey association, the largest voluntary organisation in the town – had decided to organise a welcome for their new neighbours. The flags are those of the twenty countries now represented within the community. This weekend, they are organising activities, where people can try out iceskating, mushroom-picking, ceramics, pony-riding and plenty more, followed by a bring-and-share dinner at the community centre on Saturday night.
One of the organisers wrote: “It felt impossible to just look on as a steady stream of refugees were bussed in to the old military base, having fled their war-torn homelands. Most of them have sacrificed everything with the hope of reaching a place where they can find safety – forever, or until the war is over. We have plenty of space in Jämtland Härjedalen and the strong connection to nature and outdoor life should be capable of being a platform for recovery. Here, we breathe fresh air and drink pure mountain water, which is guaranteed to do the soul good.”
When I compare Sweden’s policy towards asylum seekers with the attitude of the UK government, it makes me proud and ashamed in equal measure. But we still have a long way to go, here, to figure out how we make life work together as a society, rather than allowing the politics of fear and hatred to exploit people’s uncertainty and insecurity. From a lot of the media debate, you could get the impression that it’s the big cities that are the centres of progressive resistance to that kind of politics. Honestly, though, I see more hope of real integration coming from places like Nälden than I do in Stockholm, which feels alarmingly segregated.
Anyway, it’s good to have stories of hope. I suspect there’s more of this going on than we get to hear about, because it’s undramatic, small-scale, close to the level of people’s lives.