Menu

Change Writer

Why I’m celebrating Advent for the first time by fasting Twitter

Refugees: The Holy Family by Kelly Latimore

This December is the first time I’ve observed Advent. I mean really intentionally observed it.

While I love this season as much as anyone, I usually don’t make the most of it. I’m usually distracted by whatever it is I’m working on and, by the time Christmas comes around, I get swept up in whatever festivities are happening around me. I usually let other people curate my Christmas experience.

Not so this year.

I can remember coming to the end of almost every winter holiday season wishing that there had been more focus on Jesus. I felt sad that something that is so important in my life had been sidelined.

While I had the intention of celebrate his coming to Earth, my attention was elsewhere. It was on logistics and shopping and meeting friends and family members and cooking nice food.

Don’t get me wrong, all these things are good, it’s just that I have experienced them as distraction from the kind of space I actually want to inhabit. I want to be someone whose life isn’t hurried, but is deeply centred.

At times in church history, Advent has been used for fasting and reflection. It’s been a time in which decorations are kept to a minimum in order that we celebrate Jesus coming to a world that wasn’t prepared for him. Fleming Rutledge puts it this way:

The purpose of this withholding is to teach us that, in the birth of our Savior, we have received something that is beyond our deserving, beyond our preparations, beyond our human potential, beyond our expectations–that comes to us, in the words of beloved carols, in a “silent night,” in the “dark streets,” “in the bleak midwinter”

Fleming Rutledge, Observing Advent

So this year, knowing that it won’t work to start pursuing centredness on Christmas Eve, I’ve decided to embrace Advent. I’m using it as a time of preparation for what is to come. I’m taking time for reflection and focus in the hope that this will influence my inner space by the time Christmas comes around.

One of the important factors in cultivating this space is reducing distraction. Instead of falling prey to the cacophony of voices that usually crowd, and shape, my imagination, I’m taking back control.

One of my sources of endless ideas and questions and opinions is Twitter.

Even though I deleted the app from my phone several months ago, it has continued to be one of my go-tos for new information.

But more than that, I’ve noticed that it’s been my go-to for a quick fix of distraction: an escape from my inner journey. And my inner landscape has been deforested by this incessant running away.

So this Advent I’ve decided to abstain from using Twitter.

I won’t be opening that particular tab on my web browser until after Christmas. And even though I have minor anxiety about missing out on some important news, I think things will be okay.

Hopefully, learning to spend more time reflecting on the things I choose to, rather than the things that are thrown at me, will mean that I have more to offer the world.

How about you? Are there things you do during this season to help you reflect? Leave a comment below or shoot me an email to share your advent practices.

Ps. for those of you who arrived here from Twitter and are wondering if you caught me cheating, that was an auto-post 🙂


How anti-racism strategies can backfire

While reading about refugee children in Sweden, I came across a study by Ann Runfors which looked at the way that schools on the multicultural margins of Swedish society instil identity in those they teach.

What Runfors found was that while the schools she visited worked hard to avoid emphasising the differences between people, with the aim to be anti-racist they instead reinforced a Swedes vs. Immigrants mindset.

In their desire to nurture an atmosphere of culture blindness and tolerance, the teachers in these schools avoided even asking where their students came from. The idea behind this was that if teachers didn’t recognise the differences between say Somalis and Kurds, or Afghans and Iranians, the pupils were less likely to see these identities as having an impact on who they should or shouldn’t associate with.

But the teachers still needed a way to describe the kind of behaviour which was desirable within Swedish society. And for this task they referred to “Swedes.” A Swede sees things this way, or does things that way…etc.

And who became the other to the teachers’ idealised version of a Swede?

Yes, you guessed it – immigrants.

In an environment that had been intentionally engineered to be prejudice-free, immigrant children were learning that they were not ideal citizens. They were second. Other.

The large group which was made up of many ‘invisible’ cultures was, according to the narrative told by the teachers, a unified block. This block represented the antithesis of Swedish culture.


I tell this story for two reasons.

First, that it is a reminder of the gap that can exist between intention and outcome. The teachers were not trying to educate their pupils to see themselves as lesser. This was an indirect effect of a well intentioned strategy. 

Second, it teaches us the need to reflect on the impact of our actions. It is easy to get busy with activities that are well intentioned but which reinforce destructive and inhumane power structures. It is important to seek the input of those who have a different point of view, especially if we are more closely aligned with the system of power than those who are affected by the things we do or say.

This can be applied to many contexts. It applies to the education of immigrant children, but it can also be applied to the #metoo movement. It has relevance to relief and development organisations, as it does the missionary world.

The more we are able to reflect on our own place in the world, the more we become aware of the voice that we have, the voice which can ask questions and challenge policies, which can prod and persuade and instigate change in the direction of a more just world.



Sweden’s new class system

A short time ago I visited a Syrian family with a friend of mine. My friend is an engineer and had decided to help this family’s two sons with their maths homework.

Our time with the family was lovely. We got there and the two sons were ready to get started right away. They started showing my friend their current schoolwork on a computer that they have been given by their school.

I sat on a mattress on the floor with the Mum and Dad, talking about life in Sweden, life in Syria and why, after two years, they still hadn’t been given a residence permit.

These boys had been placed in a class that reflects their age (they’re twins and both 12). The work they are doing is, by Swedish standards, several years behind their age.

Their parents are from the Syrian countryside. The mum is illiterate, even in Arabic. The Dad likes to read, but left school when he was nine.

In another setting in Sweden, the kids would be getting help with their homework from their parents, who would have the education level to understand the work their children have been given. But our Syrian friends don’t have those resources to lean into.

The Swedish system is designed to be a meritocracy – an environment in which people succeed based on their natural abilities, rather than the connections they were born into. Someone from a poor family who performs well at school has just as much chance of getting into a good university as someone from a wealthy family.

Kind of.

Although anyone who performs well at school can succeed, there are factors that prevent those from families like our Syrian friends succeeding.

One of these is not having parents who can help them with their homework.

Another is being taught in a language in which they are not yet fluent.

And then there’s the fact that they have been out of school several years because of displacement, journeying to Sweden, and then the time it has taken them to get enrolled in a school here.

Not to mention the trauma that accompanies witnessing war, travelling to Europe in a cramped sea vessel, seeing fellow travellers die, and being separated from family and friends.

All of this hinders them from competing with other children in their age group.

Which, to me, looks like the makings of a class system.

Because it’s theoretically easy to succeed in Sweden, and education is free, certificates are very important.

In fact, they are much more important than things that used to count for something, like experience.

I don’t know what the answer is for kids like these, who are so full of potential but have had so little opportunity to develop it. Perhaps it’s just the one-at-a-time offering of homework help by people like my friend.

According to Dave Eggers, the author who started the 826 Valencia homework club, a child who receives 35-40 hours one on one homework attention usually improves by one whole grade (see his TED Talk here).

That’s just one hour per week.

I wonder what could be achieved if enough people took this kind of  initiative?

Why silencing Jordan B. Peterson does little for our public debate

I grew up thinking that universities were places where ideas could be discussed, challenged, contested, and ultimately improved. I thought that they were places where anyone was welcome and where rigour of thought and evidence were valued more highly than political biases.

In this marketplace of debates, I assumed that populism and partisanship would be limited. Ideas would stand on their own merits without having to be labelled right wing or left wing.

So it surprised me when I discovered that the academy can be as susceptible to the marginalisation of views that have been prejudged as sitting on the wrong side of the political divide.


A few days ago I spoke to a friend in Canada who told me that an event at the University of Ottawa in which Jordan Peterson was due to appear had to be cancelled because of protests by students. They are angry at how his views have been adopted by the Alt-Right and used as justification for continued marginalisation of some groups. Because of this, he is prevented from submitting his ideas for public debate in the context of this university. 

My own opinion of Jordan Peterson is somewhat ambivalent. There’s a lot that I dislike about what he says and how he says it. He certainly loves a good argument and comes across as overly insistent on his view of the world. At the same time, he presents a way of looking at issues which is under represented within academia and our public debate. These are ideas which do not align neatly with a leftist liberal world-view, and which are therefore only given exposure in places where the debate is even more populist: Youtube, Twitter, glossy magazines and TV news programs. However, Peterson is an academic and works at the University of Toronto which is in the same province as Ottawa. In my view, he should be challenged by those who see things differently from him within an academic setting.

Of course, he has made appearances at other universities and also been rebutted in the intellectual press. I’m not saying that he has no platform, but I am arguing that the exclusion and attempts at marginalisation do us no favours. Calling him A Messiah-cum-Surrogate-Dad for Gormless Dimwits might be good for click-throughs, but it does nothing for the respect and openness that we need in our societies.

In a recent post, Ben Pollard refers to Bernard Crick’s argument that politics is “the negotiation of difference without violence.” He continues,

True politics is grounded in the ancient rituals of common life, not the divisive games of contemporary populism. Democracy began in the common spaces, the Greek agora, and the Syrian souk. Places where common rituals helped humans to negotiate their common good.

Ben Pollard, Politics is beautiful

I think universities should nurture this kind of common democracy, instead of pandering to the exclusion and polarisation of populism.


I want to live in a world where we learn to respect people who think differently from us; a world where a person’s views can be taken seriously and given the dignity of a reasoned response. I think that’s the kind of world where people’s minds can be changed. And even if their minds aren’t changed, their ideas are put through the fire of rigorous debate. Their thinking is strengthened. And those who disagree are also forced to explain why they disagree. They can’t fall back on lazy dismissals of “he’s right wing,” or “he’s not very clever.”

If there’s anything that is effective at enhancing the influence of an idea, it is dismissing it when it already resonates with a big enough number of people. Calling Jordan Peterson stupid just mobilises those who hate the left and see his ideas as justification for bringing back archaic practices. He becomes the underdog outsider who others use to give credibility to their own sense of victimhood.

Instead of lazy dismissals, I’d like to see more thoughtful deconstruction of ideas. I’d like to see those who are racist or chauvinistic or seem to be transphobic held accountable for these views, not just excluded from the public discourse. 

Is identity fixed?

One of the interesting factors in the immigration debates that take place around Europe is how common it is that we end up making identity seem like something that is set in stone. 

Whoever you ask what it means to be Muslim, or what it means to be Swedish, they will usually describe something that in their view is fairly concrete. Let me illustrate this with two examples.

A Swede is someone who was born in Sweden, loves eating herring and crayfish, would raise arms to defend her country, respects the royal family, celebrates St. Lucia, Ascension Day, and All Hallows Eve. Swedes are tolerant and socially liberal.

A Muslim is someone who is devoted to God, who prays five times per day, who doesn’t eat pork or drink alcohol, who sees himself as part of a community before he is an individual, who fasts during Ramadan and gives money to the poor. Muslims go out of their way to help others and never get involved with crime.

But there’s a problem with these definitions. While there are those who align with them, there are also many who consider themselves Swedish, or Muslim, who do not. That’s because the language we use and the definitions we have for our categories are dynamic – they are used differently at different times and in different places.

Some years ago , I attended a dinner at Princeton University where I witnessed a revealing exchange between an eminent European philosopher who was visiting from Cambridge, and a Muslim scholar who was seated next to him. The Muslim colleague was indulging in a glass of wine. Evidently troubled by this, the distinguished don eventually asked his dining companion if he might be so bold as to venture a personal question. “Do you consider yourself a Muslim?” “Yes,” came the reply. “How come, then, you are drinking wine?” The Muslim colleague smiled gently. “My family have been Muslims for a thousand years,” he said, “during which time we have always been drinking wine.” An expression of distress appeared on the learned logician’s pale countenance, prompting the further clarification: “You see, we are Muslim wine-drinkers.” The questioner looked bewildered. “I don’t understand,” he said. “Yes, I know,” replied his native informant, “but I do.”

Shahab Ahmed, What is Islam? pg. 3

The same is true of identity. I’m not the same person I was five or ten years ago. I have grown, changed, experienced new things, made friends with new people who have given me insights on life that I previously did not have. As I interact with the world, I am constantly renegotiating what it means to be me.

Although this process happens in everyone, it is particularly noticeable for those going through big changes like migration. It is common for those who move from one society to another to discard ideas and practices from their homeland, especially when those ideas and practices have been tainted by war or persecution. A person who went to church every week might stop going. A person who has always considered herself part of a particular social group might begin to distance themselves from that group. They might even begin to associate with another group altogether.


Kathryn Kraft interviewed Syrian refugees who came into contact with churches in Lebanon. Most of these refugees were from a Muslim-background. Even though they first came into contact with the churches through their relief efforts, many of these Syrians began attending other activities organised by the churches.

In her interviews, Kraft found that while only a minority choose to change their identity from Muslim to Christian, all began re-evaluating their beliefs about God and changing some of their views and practices. In other words, being exposed to a group of people with very different views didn’t make them less Muslim, but it did change how they looked at their beliefs and practices.


When someone moves to a new society, it is also necessary for them to acquire skills or dispositions that enable them to thrive in their new host society. They might learn the language, or begin making friends with locals. Each culture has its own rules and things that are seen as more important than others and newcomers are often forced to acquire some level of competency in the things which are valued by their new society.

This process is also instrumental in a person’s identity. In acquiring a new language, or adapting to a new worldview, they are forced to see themselves differently. They are forced to reflect on what they once took for granted. Sometimes this period of reflection will lead to them being more determined in their views they had before leaving their homelands. Other times, they decide to align with a new way of seeing things or seek some kind of middle path between the two.


So the next time you hear someone say something like “Muslims think _______,” or “men are ________,” I challenge you to remember that there are always exceptions and that assuming that the identity of a person or a group of people is fixed does not reflect reality.

The one who got sent back

In my last post I mentioned the young men I spoke to who had converted to Christianity within the Church of Sweden. What I failed to mention was one young man, Amir*, who converted to Christianity, was then deported, but returned to Sweden a second time in order to seek asylum.

Amir had lived in Iran since the age of three but was deported to Afghanistan. He was terrified of admitting that he had become a Christian. He found a place to live with some other young men, all of whom were Muslim. All of whom prayed together five times each day. Amir participated, but was torn up inside because he knew he was no longer Muslim.

I lived in Afghanistan for four months and I was afraid the whole time, every second. I woke with nightmares, when I had slept at night…I was scared for my life.

Amir

He feared being found out, but also felt conflicted.

When he would take trips to other towns, the buses stopped at  prayer times in order that all the passengers could pray.

One day he decided he had had enough of faking it. He told one of his house mates who he believed he could trust. This house mate became angry; he went outside and began telling the neighbours that they had had a Christian living among them. The neighbours became angry.

Amir fled the neighbourhood and found a friend who he really could trust. He told this friend what had happened and asked him to go and check on how things were going at the house. When the friend returned he told him, “you have to flee immediately. You can’t return. They will kill you.” So Amir left immediately.


After making his way back to Sweden, Amir was told that he had to wait a full four years after his denial before he could apply for asylum again. He went into hiding, biding his time before he could officially enter the system again.

Hearing this story, looking this man in the eye as he told me of his simple desire to live in peace and security, really put flesh on the harm that ill informed migration officers can do.

*not his real name

Why are our migration officers “religiously illiterate”?

A recent op-ed by a theologian in one of Sweden’s largest newspapers describes the “religious illiteracy” with which the migration office here addresses the cases of asylum seekers who have changed religion since arriving in Sweden.

He argues that as a country which has religious freedom enshrined in its laws, and a high value for human rights, those who act as judges over the legitimacy of asylum applications should at least have basic competencies in understanding religion and religious journeys.

Unfortunately, it is usually the opposite, with migration officers having little more understanding of conversion processes than your average non-religious Swede.


At the end of 2017 and the beginning of 2018 I carried out fieldwork among unaccompanied refugee minors who had converted to Christianity in the Church of Sweden.

In the lead up to this project, I had conversations with many friends and acquaintances on the research I would be doing and I noticed a surprising trend. Almost everyone I spoke to said the same thing:

“Aren’t they converting so that they can stay in Sweden?”

It didn’t matter where the person came from or what their level of academic expertise, the question seemed to come up in every conversation.

Over time, I began to feel outraged at this default assumption, since conversion journeys have been shown to be much more complex than this in both academic literature and my own experience.

The young men I interviewed and spent time with for my study struck me as more genuine than most young people of their age I had met from Europe. They were devoted members of their churches and had often been part of the churches for several years before they were able to be baptised and be considered officially part of the congregation. By the time they were baptised, many had already received their residency.

Some had been shunned by their families and friends because they had decided to convert. Some had faced persecution from people from their homelands within Sweden. And yet they stood by their decision.


Priests described how these young men had revitalised their ailing congregations. They were extremely committed and very serious about learning the Bible and putting it into practice.

One priest told me that working with these young men had given him a love for his job that he didn’t have before, that he now got to do the things that the church are meant to be doing.


All of this brings me back to an important point. We need to learn to listen to those we judge. To really listen.

And when we don’t understand what we hear, to spend time developing the competency we need to make sense of it.

Because in this situation lives depend on it. We can’t let illiteracy and incompetence lead to the pointless deaths of those who have embraced European life to the full, who have begun to believe that they can decide how they self identify.

I hope that the Swedish migration office heeds this advice and reconsiders how it judges cases of religious conversion.  

The agency of refugees

I wrote previously about two narratives that undermine the way in which we look at refugees: that they deserve help because they might be the next Steve Jobs, and that they should be viewed primarily as victims.

In this post I will point out why recognising and celebrating the agency of refugees could be beneficial to our societies, even when looked at from the political right.


Our European nation states are, by and large, organised according to Neo-liberal ideology, which sees the market as right, the state as better when smaller, and democracy as a worthy norm.

And when we talk about democracy from a Neo-liberal perspective, we’re not just talking about one-person-one-vote and the chance to elect any kind of government the masses desire, we’re talking about a very specific type of government.

It has to be a government that promotes the free market, eschews radical ideology and pushes forward ideals such as gender equality and human rights.

Typically, the further right you are economically, the more you trust the market. In fact, the market itself becomes more than just an economic matter as its rules are applied to everything – people, projects, etc.

Neo-liberalism sees the world as a competition. People compete for resources, the strongest win. It’s like political Darwinism. Those who acquire vast resources do so because they deserve them, because they have worked hard and earned them.

This worldview isn’t really compatible with the victim narrative because, deep down, those who view the world as a competition don’t necessarily believe that they have a duty to help those who are losing the game. When it’s a matter of she who plays best wins, the loser is losing because they’re not trying hard enough to win.


Right now I’m not going to get into the systemic violence which works against many who play the  game. Instead I want to suggest a refugee narrative that might work in a Neo-liberal context.

I want to suggest that we start looking at those who arrive at our borders seeking refuge not as victims, but as winners.

These are individuals who, in spite of having all the odds stacked against them, have made it to a more stable place. They have risked their lives. They have navigated unknown territories. They have been brave enough to leave behind everything they once knew.

They have just competed in one of the most grueling journeys that it is possible to take, and survived. 


If we learn to see these newcomers as intelligent, capable individuals who have already proven their ability to face challenges, we might just reduce the stigma of being labelled a refugee.

It might be easier for us to recognise that while there are ways in which they need help, there are also many ways in which they can help us, and many things which we can learn from them.

Dear Habib

I found this video earlier today that tells the story of Habib, an unaccompanied refugee minor from Afghanistan who now lives in Britain.

It reminds me of some of the young men I had the privilege of getting to know during the research for my master’s thesis.

Many have experienced great loss, risked everything, and faced many challenges since leaving their homelands. They arrive in Europe having invested a lot of their time, energy, and resources in getting here. 

And when they arrive, they are eyed with suspicion by many in society. They are asked to prove their age. They are assumed to be the same as that one person from their country who was in the news for doing something bad.

They are over-represented in the mental healthcare system because of the trauma they have experienced at home, and during their travels. 

And yet they persevere. They go to school, they work hard, they build new friendships, and they do their best to fit in.

What does it mean to belong?

There’s a lot of talk these days about belonging: who’s in and who’s out. Everyone seems to have an opinion. No one really knows who gets to decide.

For some, it’s the immigrants who don’t belong. They’re the outsiders who should go back to where they come from.

For others it’s the racists who don’t belong. Here in Sweden some politicians have articulated that racists are un-Swedish. They don’t belong. But if they don’t belong here, where should they go?

On the level of society, there tend to be two parts to the belonging conversation: immigration and integration. Immigration is about who, and how many should be allowed in. Integration is about how those who are allowed in become part of the bigger group: society.

But the question of integration is complicated, partly because those who have the power to make political decisions have never had to consider the process of joining society.

They were born into a family who already belonged. They learned how to belong simply by hanging out. The norms of society are their default settings, trained into them from birth.

Very few of those making the decisions about how integration should work are experts at integration. Those with immigrant histories are usually far enough removed from the integrational process that they might be considered not to have skin in the game themselves, even though their parents or grandparents did.

When you join a group, you do so by proving to the others in the group that you belong. That’s true of the political elite. To join them you prove to them that you can work together, that you know the rules of the game they are playing and that you can join in without causing too much disruption.

There are so many different ways of looking at what it means to integrate into society. Perhaps it means to learn the local language and get a job. Or maybe it’s to have a mixed group of friends that include those from the host culture. It could involve intermarrying, so that you have families that are blended into the host culture.

We should also ask on what level does integration happen? Is it something that takes place on a micro-level, when someone builds a friendship with one Swedish neighbour? Or is it about the macro-level, gaining citizenship and speaking the local language with a local accent?

Whose responsibility is this process? Should the host be the one accommodating newcomers, acclimatising them to life here? Or is it the responsibility of the newcomers to sink or swim as they try to assimilate?

There are so many areas of contention, so much uncertainty as to the basic definitions of the concepts surrounding belonging to society, that it’s no wonder that progress can be slow.