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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?

The utility of refugees

There are several strands of conversation, or discourse, on the subject of refugees and why they should, or should not be offered the hospitality of our national borders. I find two of them particularly disturbing.

First, the idea that refugees are worthy of help because of who they may become.

The argument goes something like this: we should allow refugees into our countries because they may become the next Steve Jobs or Albert Einstein: they may end up contributing to history in such a way that it would be a huge mistake not to let them survive and thrive in our country. They are valuable because they contribute to our sense of the common good, and thus because of their utility.

The flaw in this argument is that it fails to recognise that human beings are valuable. They’re valuable not because of what they contribute to the greater good, but because of the basic fact of their humanity. We should offer hospitality to refugees not as some kind of high odds gamble in which we may hit the jackpot and find ourselves hosting a genius, but because we recognise the humanity we share.

The second is the idea that refugees should only be understood through the paradigm of victimhood.

There is a good reason why refugees tend to appear in the media as either victims of a great injustice, or as villains seeking to portray themselves as victims.

The reason is that the former is the easiest way for organisations like the UNHCR to raise funds.

They make a video that talks about how helpless these people are and how we must save them, otherwise they will die or face some other terrible injustice. How do we save them? By giving money to the UNHCR, who in turn promise to convert cash into changed lives.

The competing story about refugees has its roots in the same concept, but is the antithesis of the victim discourse. It says that refugees are not victims, but opportunists using political unrest in their homeland to further their personal ambitions. They leave an otherwise peaceful part of Syria and move to London or Stockholm in order to improve their standard of living and to give their kids a chance at getting in to better schools. Refugees, in other words are not victims but scroungers who don’t deserve to be helped.

My issue with the idea that refugees are victims is that it ignores the agency, the decision making powers, that the individual refugees have and use throughout their process of relocating.

Most of the people I have met who have obtained refugee status are extremely creative, strategic individuals who have used all their abilities to get to Europe and begin building a life for themselves here. They are doing what any of us would if we found ourselves in a similar position: finding a place that is more stable – somewhere that future generations can succeed. I don’t understand why we can’t learn to celebrate this creativity, to recognise their agency, rather than seeing it as a threat.

The victim narrative paints the picture of someone who is utterly useless once they arrive in their host country: they’re all take and no give, which is the opposite of the experience I have had as I’ve gotten to know refugees in Sweden and Jordan.