Ellen Mielsen, a 33-year-old who lives in Malmö and is studying to be a language consultant, said that the Swedish Democrats’ rising popularity is a source of worry for her.
“Sverigedemokraterna [Sweden Democrats] have managed to take their way of looking at things and their way of speaking about things, and they’ve managed to get a lot of people in Sweden talking with their words,” Mielsen said.
She, like Björk, said she had volunteered as language teacher to refugees and was proud of Sweden’s offers of help to them, but that the political climate upset her. “It’s become okay to say stuff that a couple years ago you couldn’t say,” she said. “Now people say the things that I think are awful, about refugees. I try to avoid speaking politics with people that I don’t know that well because it makes me so angry.”
Dastan Ahmmed, a 24-year-old from Stockholm who studies law, put it this way: “It’s like someone took a stand with the immigration issue, and people who are holding these comments and these thoughts back, they’re slowly pouring out of the shadows, of the darkness.”
Ahmmed also happens to be the only son of two Kurdish immigrants who fled Iraqi Kurdistan in the 1980s. (According to one 2015 report from the Oxford Diasporas Programme, which researches the impact of diasporas, there are more than 70,000 Kurds in Sweden.) He was born in Sweden, but he said he differed from many of his friends without immigrant backgrounds in that he does not support taking in more refugees.
“We need to be able to focus on helping those people [already here],” Ahmmed told me, “specifically, to get them somewhere so they don’t just sit here and think, ‘OK, the only thing we’re doing right now is not getting shot at or being bombed. I guess that’s good, but instead we’re sitting in a tent for two years waiting for better times.’” He added that, “People from my father and mother’s generation, who came here, they are assimilated into society, in a way that I don’t see people becoming anymore today.”
When I asked Björk what he liked most about Sweden, he said not only that Sweden is a functional, “quite welcoming society,” but also that it is a cohesive one. “The system is not perfect,” Björk admitted. “We have this idea of a welfare society where education should be free, where hospitals should be free, and all these things. But the idea is to create a foundation where everyone has equal or similar to equal chances of getting along, together. We’re in this together, in some way.”
How to maintain national cohesion, including a strong welfare state, alongside a posture that welcomes outsiders, is an open question across Europe. Mielsen, for one, doesn’t see a contradiction. “I wish people worked more together and took care of each other better and thought less about themselves,” Mielsen said. “You can take care of yourself and still take care of other people too.” Maybe even if the call comes at an inconvenient time.