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Last Updated: Friday, 15 September 2006, 11:58 GMT 12:58 UK
Sweden sticks to multiculturalism
By Laurence Peter
BBC News, Malmo, Sweden

Islamic Centre, Malmo
A bouncy castle provides Sunday fun for Muslim children in Malmo
"I speak Swedish, Arabic, Kurdish, Persian and English with my friends," says Ammar Mamand, a 12-year-old Kurdish boy living in Malmo, southern Sweden.

"But in class it's only Swedish and English."

The city of 270,000 has a diversity of cultures unlike any other in Sweden - 34% of its inhabitants have a foreign background. Many came from the former Yugoslavia, followed more recently by Iraqis and Somalis. Increasing numbers of Danes are also moving to Malmo.

Sweden has opted for multiculturalism, rejecting the assimilation model of neighbouring Denmark, which has one of Europe's toughest policies on immigration.

Almost 12% of Sweden's nine million people were born abroad - a high percentage compared with other countries in Western Europe and a significant block of voters in Sunday's general election.

Immigration has not figured prominently in the election campaign, as the main parties focused on jobs.

The two issues are related, however, as many immigrants will be hoping that the next Swedish government delivers more jobs. The official unemployment rate is nearly 6% - but the opposition claims it is higher.

Struggle for jobs

Sweden's traditional tolerance, neutrality and generous welfare may appear attractive to many newcomers. But the language is a big hurdle for most and in Malmo the unemployment rate among immigrants is much higher than the national average.

Class at Borgarskola, Malmo
Many students at Malmo's schools are of foreign origin
"Fighting discrimination is difficult because it's a matter of mentality and attitudes are slow to change," says Iranian-born Parwin Carami, integration co-ordinator for Malmo.

In recent years the nationalist Sweden Democrats party - which wants an ethnically homogenous Sweden - has boosted its electoral support.

It won 1.4% in the 2002 election, making it the largest party not to win a seat in the Riksdag (parliament). At the same time, it boosted its municipal council seats from eight to 49.

Sweden's experience of immigration differs greatly from that of the UK or France, where large-scale immigration started earlier and new arrivals usually came from former colonies, speaking the host language.

Malmo map

Malmo suffered a sharp economic downturn in the mid-1990s, coinciding with high immigration. That meant that rapidly "unemployment got an ethnic dimension," the city's mayor Ilmar Reepalu says.

Some 3,000 immigrants come to Malmo each year, but the city only has housing for about 1,500, he told BBC News.

Overcrowding

The Rosengard area of the city is where many new arrivals go first.

Mayor Reepalu says overcrowding is a problem because many asylum seekers choose to live with friends or relatives.

Sociologist Aje Carlbom warns that such "enclavisation" provides fertile ground for Islamists and "Swedish society doesn't understand what's going on because of the climate of tolerance".

Bosnian folk group at Islamic Centre, Malmo
A Bosnian folk group: The Islamic Centre says it welcomes all Muslims
Despite high unemployment in Rosengard, some enterprising individuals have made a real difference.

Ammar Mamand goes to school at the Islamic Centre in Rosengard, whose founder, Bejzat Becirov from Macedonia, takes pride in fostering openness and independence. He insists that no Muslim group is allowed to impose its agenda on the Centre.

Built in 1983, the Centre's focal point is the mosque, funded by the local community.

Most of the Centre was burnt down in a mysterious fire one night in 2003. Some fire damage is still visible in the rebuilt prayer hall.

But the Centre has recovered, providing education and other services for immigrant families.

Role models

Another pillar of the Rosengard community is Diabate Dialy Mory from Senegal - nicknamed "Dallas".

He arrived in Sweden in 1964, when there were just a few Africans in Malmo.

Community worker Diabate Dialy Mory
"Dallas" has made his mark as a social worker in Malmo
For decades he has run a boxing club - a magnet for immigrant boys, many of whom are struggling to settle into Swedish society.

"Some of them arrive without parents, they don't speak the language, they're outside society," he told BBC News.

"When they start boxing here, with us as brothers and sisters, they start to act differently, they start to understand that they are someone and that someone cares about them."

He has made it a rule that only Swedish is spoken at the club.

Swedish football star Zlatan Ibrahimovic - whose parents came from former Yugoslavia - is a hero for many immigrant boys in Rosengard.

Other success stories among the immigrant community include top chef Marcus Samuelsson, born in Ethiopia, and Lebanese-born film director Josef Fares.

Mayor Reepalu notes that Sweden has toughened anti-discrimination laws and is working to validate foreign qualifications. He also stresses that the demography of immigration is positive for Malmo.

"While the load of its ageing population is weighing down Sweden, our city has a young population that is in itself an investment in future welfare," he says.




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