Rosengård, an immigrant concentrated area of Malmö, Sweden, is mostly known for two things: gang shootings and the man, the myth, the legend, Zlatan Ibrahimovic. It would not be an understatement to claim that Zlatan (and yes, all Swedes are on a first-name basis with the football superstar) is an icon. He made a class journey that had never been seen in Sweden before and in order to understand the nation’s fascination with him, one must first understand his background and the neighborhood that he came from. As part of my civic internship, I worked with a local NGO named ‘Girls in Association’, who conducted a project, which aimed to collect and map stories of people in e.g. Rosengård, in order for local politicians to get a better understanding of the social issues that citizens face. Statistics are usually at the core of public policy, but the issue that ‘Girls Association’ highlighted was they lacked data that gave proper feedback on their grievances.
As a person who is not from Rosengård nor Malmö as a whole, I might add that it is notorious in Sweden and that the reputation of this neighborhood nothing short of threatening from an outside perspective. The exposure that the area gets usually concerns gang-related crimes, which includes shootings and even bombings on occasion. Not only has this coverage has done little to actually encourage rigorous local security initiatives to make Rosengård’s inhabitants feel safer, but this one-dimensional portrayal of the neighborhood reflects poorly on its inhabitants that are obviously just normal people. In addition, the impact of this coverage has a larger outreach than for the inhabitants of these apartment complexes due to the fact that Swedish media has a tendency to not only label it as a crime but more specifically, as ‘immigrant crime’. It is not surprising that this terminology adds to the anti-immigration rhetoric that far-right parties are advocating for, not to mention that it simply contributes to a negative stigma that perpetuates Islamophobia, Afrophobia, and xenophobia in general. In other words, all Swedes of foreign descent, to some extent, are then forced to tackle a stigma that is only linked to them on the premise that they are not ethnically white Swedes.
As most scholars in the field of criminology could agree upon, there is a strong correlation between crime and poverty. Merton’s strain theory is a perfect example of this as he outlines how an unequal distribution of the means to achieve culturally defined societal goals can result in deviant behavior, like e.g. crime. Not only has this theory been supported in a significant quantity of academic research, but most of the people we interviewed in Malmö endorsed this line of thought as they spoke of their hardships. I met a fifty-year-old man during my internship who happened to be on a break from his Swedish class. He told me that he and his family had now lived in Sweden for six years, yet this was the first time he seriously pursuing his Swedish studies because he lost his job as a janitor last year and has been unemployed ever since. The fact that this man, a first-generation immigrant with a family of five, was taking Swedish classes now after six years of living in Sweden, is very telling in itself. Furthermore, there are at least two points to be made about his story: Firstly, there are few job opportunities for low-skill workers in today’s Sweden and this has a direct impact on new arrivals that either lack education or their education is simply not recognized by Swedish authorities. Secondly, the fact that you can live in a country for six years without mastering the language is a clear indicator of how integration has failed, not to mention the extent to which our society is segregated.
Moreover, residential segregation in Sweden is an integral factor that has come to hinder widespread integration. The state of residential segregation in Sweden is directly linked to the legacy of the welfare system and consequently, it highlights the class angle that must be addressed in any discourse relating to immigration. Rosengård is one of many neighborhoods that were built as part of ‘Miljonprogrammet’ (translates to the Million Programme) and as one could guess based on the name, the government set up a goal in 1962 to build a million homes in the time span of 10 years. The aim was to meet the housing demand with a firm emphasis on the importance of providing housing for all, regardless of income and class. Although the plan was deemed successful at the time, the monocultural nature of these projects meant that these neighborhoods offered limited housing alternatives. Apartment complexes were, and still are, the main form of housing in many of these neighborhoods and this feature really limits the socio-economic diversity within e.g. Rosengård.
With time, these predominantly working-class areas experienced an influx of immigration as most new arrivals were unable to afford any other forms of housing and the trend of segregation, which started off as a socio-economic issue, developed a new ethnic dimension. Rosengård is now considered a ‘transient’ neighborhood, as well as a so-called ‘port of arrival’ and consequently, white avoidance and well as white flight (to a lesser extent), have perpetuated this segregation. Presumably, the observed white avoidance is due to instability found as a result of some of these neighborhood’s tendency to have
large numbers of poor residents, weak ties between neighbors, or other deleterious social and economic conditions, rather than an aversion to living near minority group members per se
Crowder K. (2000). The racial context of white mobility: An individual-level assessment of the white flight hypothesis. Social Science Research, 29, 223 – 257. (p226)
This means that it is not necessarily rooted in xenophobia, although it does contribute to the perpetuation of stereotypes and prejudice. Furthermore, it does not simply apply to the native population, but educated immigrants also tend to either avoid or move from these areas as soon as they are given the chance due to this vulnerability.
At the end of the day, the story of Zlatan’s Rosengård is one of neglect. Not only is the demographic profile of its inhabitants prone to be plagued by unemployment, the neighborhood in its physical form is also subjected to neglect. For one, we encountered a kindergarten teacher who explicitly told us that although crime is unsettling to her, she still finds the spread of vermin to be more disturbing. She explained to us that they are facing a serious rat problem and despite the fact that they have filed numerous complaints, they have merely received instructions to keep the kindergarten’s windows closed so that the rats do not climb in through gaps. It does not take a lot to realize this is a mere shadow of a solution, not to mention that this supposed preventive measure is a health hazard to the toddles who are forced to stay inside a building without AC in 27 degrees heat. Problems like these, that might seem small, serve as daily reminders that your problems are not a priority to those in power. Furthermore, when you take a 10-minute bus ride from Rosengård into the city center you are faced with the new concert hall, Malmö Live, that cost around a billion Swedish Kronor, made to attract tourism whilst your toddler cannot even play outside because of rats. How are you supposed to feel?
Then again it is important to note that despite these hardships, Rosengård is blessed with a sense of community that other Swedish neighborhoods lack. It is known for being a hub of nationalities, with considerably large Iraqi, Somali and Albanian communities (the list goes on) and together they have managed to create an environment that is welcoming to everyone. The local shopping center is a foreign experience, in fact, you can proceed with your errands without speaking a word of Swedish. Given the neighborhood’s function as a port of arrival, this feature is certainly valuable to those who have been forced to flee their homes and find themselves in a dramatically different environment, where they do not speak the language. But then again, this comfort also serves a double edged sword: not only does it allow new arrivals to opt out of Swedish society, but it also inhibits them from seizing socio-economic opportunities due to a lack of Swedish proficiency, as well as the prejudices against “foreigners” remain intact as native Swedes never have any real interaction with those of foreign descent.
To conclude, the context that I have now outlined (although there is more to this framework), it has really contributed to the attractiveness of Zlatan’s story to those from his former neighborhood, as well as the Swedish immigrant community as a whole as it is a story of “one of us” making it against all odds. But then again, Zlatan’s path to success was not particularly conventional, and although his story might be valuable, football alone will not solve Rosengård’s socio-economic challenges.