Friday Column: 'Svenska för Idioter,' - OR - 'Where is Palestine?'

So, back to the old days of sitting in a foreign café and writing about it.

I’m in Wickman’s. In Enköping. It is January in Sweden and yet it’s raining today (this was written on Thursday), and about 3º plus (above zero). Skitväder. The café is on the corner of a small ‘roundy’ as Mia is apt to call them, and on the opposite corner is an appropriately named bicycle shop called Cykel Hörnan (Cycle Corner). It is half past three in the afternoon and nearly dark outside. Of the dozen or so tables in the café, only three of them are occupied, one by myself and my computer. They’re black (the tables), and the walls of the place are white (as are the chairs). With the candles spread throughout the room (Swedes love candles in the wintertime), the light is warm and cozy, and yet the large glass storefront succeeds a bit too much in wintertime at bringing the outside in. It’s not my favorite café, but the closest one to my school, so I’m here. As usual, my café latte was not hot enough even though I asked for it very hot. They still cannot make a hot enough coffee for me in this country.

This morning was my first real day of Swedish classes. ‘SFI’, ‘Swedish for Immigrants’ (or ‘Idiots,’ depending on who you ask). Tuesday was really the first day, but it was filled with information and not much was accomplished. Today we learned.

I expected the class to be easy – I have been exposed to the language now for five years, and am getting better at speaking it each time I come back to Sweden – but what I did not expect was the cultural experience I’d get in the classroom, something I think many Americans would be downright shocked at. I am the only one from the continent of 'Nordamerika' in the classroom, a fact made strikingly obvious when I had to pull down a separate map to explain where I had come from (the map the teacher used was one of Europe and 'Nordafrika', where most everyone else originated). The two guys in front of me were from 'Grekland' and 'Italien'. Two girls behind me, 'Indonesien' and Thailand. Behind them was a young guy from 'Irak' and another from 'Palestina'. (Yes, Palestine). He had trouble locating it on a map, because it is not in fact on the map, as most of the world does not recognize it’s existence as a country. The proximity to global politics in this small classroom alone was staggering.

On the opposite side of the room sat another young man from 'Irak', and in front of him a woman from 'Iranien' (the teacher, in Swedish, questioned whether their countries were friends. Everyone laughed). In front of them was a woman from somewhere in Siberia I think, and two in front of her from 'Lettland' (Latvia) and 'Ryskland' (Russia), and another from 'Syrien'. Our teacher is from Finland, and I sat next to a middle-aged man from 'Libanon' (in the city of Beirut). He moved to Sweden and bought a pizza shop.

What shocked me was that a good one-third of the students in that classroom are refugees. Refugees. In 'Amerika' that word brings with it so much baggage. We hear it on the news daily, but does anyone quite understand what it means? Has anyone actually met a refugee? Befriended one? The word’s meaning was abruptly understood in class today when the teacher questioned all of us as to whether we were refugees or immigrants – ‘did you flee your country or did you come of your own free will?’

Flee your country. ‘Did you flee your country?’ It was such a simple question (oversimplified actually, as it was asked in the simplest Swedish so everyone would understand exactly what the question was). More than one innocently and completely un-self-consciously answered ‘yes,’ and my mind instantly wanted to know why.

When the question of immigration arises in US politics, I am not so sure that the American public quite understands the implications of such a question. I am not about to attempt to debate the topic. But it’s interesting. The idea that someone might have to flee their own country has to be utterly foreign to 99% of Americans.

It’s very interesting here in Sweden how the socialist system works in certain ways. They offer SFI for free to all legal immigrants (including refugees who came here legally and with good reason - again, refugee, someone fleeing their country because they fear for their life). Some of them get a piece of paper stamped each day that they then take to the local government and get money for, in lieu of working (the class is five days per week, almost all day – the idea is to learn the language as quickly as possible in order to enter the workforce already fluent in Swedish. The government is apparently happy to encourage this). And it makes sense in a way. People bitch and complain at home about Spanish, and yet how is a Spanish immigrant (a legal one) supposed to learn the language? Has anyone ever considered the enormity of the task of moving to a foreign country, with a foreign language (a foreign alphabet for most of the Arabic people in my class) and trying to get a job? The Lebanese guy who sat next to me this morning used to work in a rather high-tech field, traveling in South Africa and Dubai for his work, and now he sells pizza and can just about read the ingredients on his recipes. Does anyone ever consider this when they are debating immigration laws back home? Or putting signs up on their hotdogs stands that people must be able to speak English before ordering (next to an American flag)?

I am 100% in favor of Americans speaking English, immigrant or otherwise. I do not think we need a second language back home, and I think that people who want to live there should learn to speak like the natives. The fact that so many Swedes speak English is not to placate the foreigners like me that come here, but precisely because English is what the rest of the world speaks and they are smart enough to figure out that they need to learn it or be left behind. In the USA, immigrants should speak English, but how should they accomplish that? It’s a question I do not have an answer for, and it certainly wouldn’t go over well to model it after the socialist system here and offer it for free (because everyone knows where that suggestion would end up going). But for a successful immigration policy, doesn’t that have to be part of the discussion?

(This brings up an interesting aside. Mia and I are in the process of applying for her green card. Suddenly I’m almost an immigrant in my own country. Incredibly, US Customs & Immigration – USCIS – is amazingly helpful. You can call them up on their helpline, and – though the automated service is clunky and frustrating – you can eventually speak to a real person who offers real help, and in a friendly tone. We applied to have Mia's forms expedited so we can get home to help my mom and dad, and to our surprise they were sympathetic. We received a reply within a week that the form will go through expedited, but that they need two documents we submitted in Swedish – our wedding certificate and our state-registered status as being married – translated into English. Mia thought this kind of silly – as the Swedish government can handle forms in both English and Swedish – but I disagreed with her and took the side of the USCIS. We want to immigrate into the USA – well Mia anyway – so the burden should be on us to provide the forms in the native language. Going through this process really makes it apparent that people who haven’t seen it firsthand should really not be allowed an opinion on the matter. The chasm between the ideological and the practical in the case of immigration is vast).

As for the Palestinian in my class today, how incredible is it that in 2012, someone can enter a class and not even be able to point out his country on a map because the rest of the world does not recognize that country’s right to exist? I find this amazing. And enlightening.