When I met the Spaniard who is now my husband while we were both living in England, I had just returned from my first trip to Spain, where I stayed in the home of some English friends. After about an hour of great conversation over dinner, I realized that I had never actually met or talked at length with any Spaniards while I was in that country. It was the unfortunate downside of spending a week within the confines of an “expat” community, and it cemented in my mind that it wasn’t how I wanted to experience life in any country, whether as a visitor or a resident.
Fourteen years and several countries later, I feel with an equal amount of certainty that connection with other immigrants is, for me, as important to establishing a sense of community as avoiding connecting solely with immigrants is to integrating into a physical community. Although I don’t wish to live exclusively among “expats”, fellow immigrants are part of an emotional support system that is vital when the challenges and frustrations unique to my situation become overwhelming. This has been especially important for me here in Sweden – the first country I’ve lived in where I wasn’t already rooted through language, culture, or family ties.
After a year in this country, I feel very fortunate to have found not only the support and friendship of native Swedes within my own community, but also from a diverse group of fellow immigrants who further enrich my sense of community and belonging. Many of these friendships are virtual and have come as the result of writing this column and participation in online immigrant groups. But, like most virtual communities, there is a flip side. One that – at the risk of sounding like a babe in the woods – has surprised me: the petty and, at times, malicious way that immigrants criticize and verbally attack other immigrants when they express anything other than perfect contentment in Sweden. Worse still is when the target of this abuse is refugees.
It’s not that this phenomenon applies only among immigrants. Without a doubt, the internet has spawned a virtual army of people who, cloaked in relative anonymity, feel safe spewing bile at people they don’t know. There’s no reason I can conceive of that this shouldn’t also apply to immigrants, who are, after all, human. What surprises me, however, is when the perpetrators and the targets essentially belong to the same community, in this case, immigrants and refugees.
What I have seen usually involves people demonstrating that they have little tolerance for differences of opinion or experience, and even less inclination to live and let live. At its worst, it manifests itself as the ugly expression of “If you don’t like it, go back to where you came from.” Speaking as an American who is ashamed of the increase of just this kind of rhetoric coming from my native country, I find it difficult to fathom how anyone – never mind a non-native Swede – could say such a thing while living in a country that embodies the ideological opposite.
For some, it seems there’s no sense of empathy, never mind community, that compels them to reach out in support of individuals who are essentially in a similar situation, even if the specifics are not in alignment. Are these people so eager to be considered fully-integrated members of Swedish society that they won’t forebear any less-than-glowing assessments or opinions of their adopted country? If so, they would appear to be misguided, because the native Swedes in my community have and express their own frustrations and disappointments with Sweden and its systems. They also have no problem when I express mine.
Albert Einstein wrote, “…laws alone cannot secure freedom of expression; in order that every man may present his views without penalty there must be a spirit of tolerance in the entire population.”
Back when my immigrant journey was new, I realized just how limiting a shuttered existence could be. Now I appreciate that the principle applies equally as well to living solely among your “own kind” as it does to divorcing yourself from their numbers. Both require the same thing: intolerance.
Maybe it’s just me, but that’s not the way I want to experience life in any country. And it’s certainly not the way I would wish for anyone else to experience it.
Victoria Martínez is an American historical researcher, writer and author of three historical non-fiction books. She lives in Småland county, Sweden, with her Spanish husband and their two children.
Read more from her family column on The Local here.