Debuking the Myth of a ‘No-Go Zone’ in Rosengård district in Malmö, Sweden

March 30, the Rosengård district in Malmö, Sweden. Police flashlights are reflected in puddles, while dog units criss-cross the scene. Lights flashing on patrol cars, people staring from their windows. And the police tape confirming the worst: somebody was killed again.

„This is the sixth person this year, you know? The sixth! The police should do something about it”, says an old man standing next to me.

An hour before the shots were fired, I was walking around the neighbourhood. I’m trying to remember any significant details that might help the police: a group of young people in front of a skyscraper, talking, smoking cigarettes. A guy from a local community center goes out to park his car at a different spot. Nothing important.

The next day, the local newspaper Sydsvenskan reports that seven suspects were arrested and the victim was a 23-year-old, well known to the police. Allegedly, he was threatened before. Apparently, in January he witnessed another murder.

In the infamous Rosengård district one almost doesn’t see any native Swedes. There are plenty of Iraqis, or people from the former Yugoslavia, Lebanese, Somalis, and many other nationalities. But few Poles – they’ve moved on to other parts of the city.

Rosengård was built in the 1960’s. It is one of the government’s „million program” districts: one million low-cost, accessible apartments in concrete skyscrapers interwoven with squares, alleys, bicycle paths, schools, and shopping centers. Today they are inhabited by the city’s poorest residents.

The war between local street gangs has led journalists from European and American right-wing media to make pilgrimages to Rosengård. From there they report on „no-go zones“, filing their stories from a forbidden district that „ordinary” Swedes don’t go near, a „battlefield“, „sharia area“, or „lost city“.

On February 20th, Paul Watson, a blogger and writer for Infowars, tweeted: „Any journalist claiming Sweden is safe; I will pay for travel costs & accommodation for you to stay in crime ridden migrant suburbs of Malmö.” I don’t want his money, but I’m taking up the challenge.
To be like Zlatan

My guide in Rosengård is Gemila al Kuraishi.

She works at an asylum center and has been living in Malmö since 1989. She was five years old when she arrived from Warsaw with her parents. Her father was from Iraq, her mother from Poland.

We stroll down the alleyways and main streets. Simple, but well-maintained façades, lots of trees, bicycle stands, garbage bins, flower beds and gardens. It’s a bit like a district of revitalized Communist-era apartment blocks in Poland – except that almost everyone here has darker skin.

Some women wear head scarves and traditional Muslim ankle-length dresses. Others show their hair and squeeze into tight jeans. Swedish mixes with Arabic on the street, though the latter is more common. Two teenagers smoke cigarettes. A young man scrubs his balcony. Another, in a baggy gray tracksuit, rides by on a bike carrying a bag of groceries.

„People in Poland ask me on Facebook: are you safe? The news they get is all sensationalized. I’ve lived here 28 years and I’ve never been attacked, robbed, or stabbed. I love this place”, Gemila says. „If Malmö really were so bad, where did all the new neighbors come from? Why do so many people want to live here? The city is expanding, and here there is something for everyone, every kind of music, theater. Hungry in the middle of the night? There’s always something open.”

Gemila speaks Polish, but prefers to speak English with me.

„To be more precise,” she explains. „Oh, look! This food truck under the bridge. When school lunch was bad, we went here for 10-kronor falafel. It was the first place like this in town.”

Growing up, her best friends came from China, Chile, and Vietnam. At school every week they celebrated a different holiday: Chinese New Year or Iranian Nowruz. Students brought home-made traditional food.

„That everyone is different was normal for us. I remember how, at the beginning of the 1990’s, a whole bunch of new kids appeared in the neighbourhood, literally overnight. They were refugees from the Balkans. A simple ‘hi’ – and we started playing together.”

But one thing the area didn’t have was native Swedes.

Gemila made her first Swedish friend in college. In her opinion, this is a big problem for Rosengård. How are newcomers from Syria, who mostly keep among themselves, going to assimilate? How will they learn the language if there are so many places where they can speak Arabic? Language classes sponsored by the government are not enough.

„Ever since I was a teenager, I remember this division: ‘we’, that is immigrants, against ‘them’, Swedes from downtown. When they built a McDonald’s here, we were all like: ‘hurray!’ But then we thought: ok, they probably did it so that we wouldn’t go to their neighbourhoods.”

Gemila doesn’t want her son to feel the same way. That’s why she sent him to school in a different part of town. And to yet another to play after-school soccer. In Malmö, every boy dreams of growing up to be Zlatan Ibrahimović, star of the Swedish national soccer team.

„Zlatan lived on this block”, my guide points out to me. „His mom would be calling him home for dinner, but he just wanted to keep kicking the ball around”.

Many years later Zlatan (along with Nike and a municipal company) built a soccer field here. „Zlatan Court” also includes a training wall for practicing your aim. The inscription on the nearby bridge, attributed to Zlatan, reads: „You can take the man out of Rosengård, but you can’t take Rosengård out of the man.“
To be yourself

What went wrong here? Ethnic segregation.

„When everyone hints that you are different, you finally just assume that you are. I always say that integration requires the effort of both parties: immigrants and Swedes. It’s like rowing: if only one person paddles, the boat will just go round and round.”

Recently her son asked her who he was. She replied that he would have to find out for himself. He shares her Polish-Iraqi roots with those of his Lebanese-Swedish father.

As for Gemila, she decided that she was just going to be herself. She can fluently switch from chats with native Swedes to feeling at home in the world of immigrants. „Technically” Gemila is a Muslim, but at home she helped to decorate a Christmas tree. There was a time when she looked for her identity in Poland, but she was discouraged.

„When I talk with Iraqis about my mixed origins, they just wave their hands: „You’re not mixed, you’re ours!” But Poles’ reaction is the opposite: they exclude you. Like this waiter in a restaurant in Warsaw who got really rude when he heard me speak Polish. Or this security guy who followed me in a shop in Wroclaw… my friend said: ‘He thinks you’re Roma.’”

We pass under a bridge with a sign: „Your home is where your heart is.” I see a memorial stone with some flowers and a few candles.

„One of the victims was killed here,” Gemila explains.
„Gangsters are the problem!“

In January, at the bus station in Rosengård, 16-year-old Ahmed was killed. Six bullets, close range. All in the back. After this tragedy people took to the streets to march against violence.

In the basement office on the outskirts of the district I meet with Housam Abbas, Ahmed’s cousin.

„He was a good boy, not involved in any criminal activity. Good grades, liked at school. His friends loved him. He wanted to become a doctor. The police didn’t find any motive’, says Abbas with a trembling voice.

Ahmed and part of his family came to Sweden in 2009 as refugees from Iraq. A few years earlier, Housam had made the same journey. He is an engineer and volunteers at a local community center, organising youth talks.

„People reacted strongly to Ahmed’s death because up until then those who were killed were mostly connected to gangs. The exception was Rami, who died in December, and then Ahmed. Rami, 24, was killed in a better neighborhood. He was a dentist, studied in Poland for six years, and had just come back last year. He got a job two weeks before he died.”

Abbas has a wife and a three-year-old daughter.

„I’m afraid of something happening to them. Every morning I take my kid to kindergarten and my wife picks her up in the afternoon. Recently there was a murder 50 meters from there. And when my wife was writing an article about how much we missed Ahmed, she saw information about another murder on the Internet. She panicked. I didn’t know how to calm her down. I called the hospital but they advised me to just be there with her. I love Malmö, but we want to live here safely.”

According to Abbas, the police don’t do enough to fight crime: they should have more legal powers and more officers. The law should be tightened so that kids under 15 can also be incarcerated. He, Rami’s sister, and several activists issued these demands to the Minister of Justice at a recent meeting in Stockholm.

„Those teens know perfectly well that they have impunity. We have a lot of guns coming over the bridge from Copenhagen. Do you know how easy it is to get one? I talked to a 13-year-old who told me: ‘If you want, I could get you a handgun for 3,000 kroner’. I was shocked! My wife and I, we wanted to have cameras on our street, but our request was rejected. I read in a newspaper that actually about 200 young people are behind those crimes. Why can’t the police deal with them?!”

„Some say: ‘that’s immigrants’ fault, we should just get rid of them'“, I tell him.

Abbas is genuinely surprised.

„I have a Swedish passport, just like Ahmed. We came here and we obey the law. We are Swedes. I work, my wife and sister also work, we pay high taxes. Ahmed’s two brothers work in health care. They are good people. Why immigrants? Gangsters are the problem!”
„We are visible when necessary“

I asked residents of Rosengård if they felt safe here. And got varied answers: „on a daily basis life is normal”, „the press exaggerates“, but also „I’m scared“. That response came from a Swedish teenager of Palestinian origin, who added: „If I could, I would immediately move to another district“.

A man from Iraq in his mid-twenties simply summed it up this way: „We have ordinary people here. And a few spoiled kids”.

Anders Wiberg, a deputy police superintendent in Malmö, confirms the statistics Abbas quoted.

„We identified 205 people who altogether have 1.7 thousand sentences. Young people, say, 15 to 25. We aren’t talking about gangs, but loosely organized local criminal groups”, explains Wiberg.

He admits that usually victims have a criminal background, but neither confirms nor denies that Ahmed was indeed a „good boy” – this is part of an ongoing investigation.

„Do the police have enough funds to manage Rosengård?”, I ask.

„Of course we would like to have more, but we are doing our best. We have enough people for our current investigations”.

„But Swedish media wrote recently: ‘Malmö police ask for help“’.

„That was about inside shifts. We got some support”.

We talked on March 30, in the morning, just a few hours before the latest murder.

„I’ve been here a few days and I haven’t seen any patrols,” I say.

„I assure you that we’re present in the district. We are visible when necessary”, Wiberg answers.

In 2008 riots broke out in Rosengård. In the same year firefighters asked for police escort after they were pelted with stones and eggs.

„Is Rosengård a no-go zone?”

„There are no such zones in Sweden. It’s a misunderstanding created by the foreign media. Moreover, for us it’s a „go zone“, the area where we should be especially present. We have a police station there”, says Wiberg.

Asked about „Sharia areas“, he also denies their existence. He adds, however, that the police identified 15 areas across the country which – although governed by Swedish law – are also home to „parallel social structures“. Rosengård is among them.

What does that mean? The police report lists informal loans between residents, local authorities settling disputes between people or clans, illegal shops selling smuggled alcohol and cigarettes, special funds with which criminal groups support families of convicts.

According to the report „there is currently no area in Sweden where the parallel social system fully exists.” But there are surrogates which can develop if they get out of control, especially because these places also share a „general reluctance to participate in court proceedings“, harbor „religious extremism promoting violence“, and cause „police difficulties in performing their duties“. The close proximity of other, similar districts adds to the problem.

Wiberg is nevertheless convinced that the police can handle it.

„We’re working with politicians. In about six months a new law takes effect: if we catch a criminal with a gun, they will immediately go to prison. As it is now, if you have a gun, but you’re young, you’ll be out right away. This reform can reduce violence”.
Pole on a ladder

„Every year in Malmö’s emergency room we treat a few people for gunshot wounds“, says Paulina al Kuraishi, Gemila’s sister, who was a nurse there for five years.

Back then she saw many wounded young boys visited by family and friends. And the ward would get noisy.

„But with me they had to behave. Mute your phone, hide those undies under your pants. Discipline, but out of love. Maybe that’s what they lack. Because in Sweden everyone cares only about their own”.

„Weren’t you afraid?”

„Nah! How many times they came to me in the street: ‘Oh, you’re from the emergency room! Remember me? You threw me out because I was loud’. I still live in Rosengård. I tell them: ‘Boys, empty cans go in the trash can, make it look nice’. All depends on how you approach people.”

Paulina remembers that the district got terrible press back in the 1990s. The Stockholm journalists came to „look at us like we were monkeys in a zoo.” They quoted the ridiculous story about inhabitants destroying wooden floors to grow vegetables in their rooms.

„I’m ashamed I was once fooled, too. A friend from Stockholm came to visit. Scared like hell, because, you known: Rosengård. We were sitting here, talking, and suddenly someone knocked on the door. It was after 10 pm. In Sweden you don’t visit friends just like that, you call them first to make an appointment. I looked through the eyehole – a black guy. My colleague freaked me out enough that I didn’t open the door. Half an hour later we heard another knock, this time a neighbor. Again, I didn’t open, I don’t know why. The next day it turned out that I had left my keys in the keyhole. The neighbor took them to the police. That’s how it is in Rosengård. We take care of each other. A Swede wouldn’t see those keys, he would just look away.”

Paulina also claims that as for the emergency room, more often than juvenile delinquents they would have old Swedes who just wanted to talk to someone. And Poles.

„Often they were brought in by an ambulance because they had a few and fell off a ladder! In the evenings we had completely drunk people coming in. The two record breakers on intensive care reached 0,6 BAC each, and they were proud to have survived. Alcohol is very expensive in this country, so we had many Poles stealing the ethanol we use for decontamination.”
„I took care of myself“

According to the official data from two years ago, over 7,000 Poles live in Malmö, population 320,000. On the corner of Sodra Forstadsgatan and Smedjegatan, next to a Swedish supermarket, an Indian Haweli restaurant and a Middle Eastern shawarma, there is a Polish delicatessen called „Polonus“. Rosengård extends to the south east. Downtown, where the white Swedes are the majority, is to the north. There native Swedishness meets „immigration light”: restaurants with some delicious ethnic food and the hookah shops.

The „Polonus” is owned by Jan Wilbring, who came in the 1980s.

„I had a sister in Sweden and I found myself a fake Swedish wife. In the beginning I worked for a construction company, I washed the toilets. It wasn’t nice and easy. I’ve had my store for 20 years, I make it work.”

Wilbring sits in his office and watches the shop on several screens.

„Who steals?”, I ask.

„Roma. I caught them like a hundred times, but I never went to the police because they wouldn’t do anything. There is a lot of pressure on them being a victimized group”.

I ask Wilbring if he feels safe in Malmö.

„In the middle of the night, not quite, but it’s not like you go out and you’ll get shot in the head. These are fights between gangs. I read what they write in Poland and I can hardly believe my eyes. Ten years ago or so, Sweden played in the Davis Cup against Israel and there was a riot started by some Palestinians. People are still putting those videos on the Internet, like this is what’s happening now.”

Despite this skepticism, the owner of „Polonus” supports anti-immigrant Swedish Democrats.

„We should help the refugees, but only those really in need. In Rosengård we have a lot of people on benefits, not interested in any work. The state made them dependent. I took care of myself. I am liberal and I believe that a good state gives people a free hand, instead of interfering in raising children or curbing their initiative. The more I worked, the more I was punished by taxes. But I kept working. I have a lot of respect for the Iranian immigrants: they assimilate and bring benefits to the economy. The Persians are said to be the best educated taxi drivers in the world”.

According to Wilbring, Sweden is ruled by the „political correctness mafia“.

„You are not PC, you lose your job. The Swedish Democrats are thought to be a racist party, but what the government now introduces – tightened border controls – is a part of their program.”

„Don’t you fear that anti-migrant sentiment may turn against the Poles?”

„There’s always a risk. If there were half a million of us, then maybe. But we’re just a few, so we’re not the problem.”
Global city

Finnur Sverrisson doesn’t mind articles about crime in Malmö. But it annoys him that that foreign media focus only on this topic. It creates a distorted image of the city.

Sverrisson came to Malmö from Reykjavik 15 years ago. He studied pre-school education, now he works as a project manager.

„A few years ago, on a boat trip, I heard that 193 countries have their representatives in the UN. And in Malmö we have people from 170 countries. We’re among absolute world leaders: New York, London, Washington DC, and us. I thought: It would be so cool to have every single country! You know, ‘Malmö – a truly global city’. Celebrating diversity.”

Little Big Malmö, a socially-funded project Sverrisson invented, is looking for people willing to move in from countries like Tongo, Kiribati, Palau, Andorra, Liechtenstein or Belize. They offer a plane ticket, annual accommodation and even a bike (it is Malmö, after all). The only condition is that a candidate must find a job. Three people have already arrived: from Bhutan, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and Maldives. Another registered as a citizen of Southern Sudan, which separated from Sudan in 2011.

„We got 400 applications the first week. I’m not surprised. It’s a great place to live and raise children. Huge possibilities: many international companies, but also small start-ups. It’s green, lots of bicycles, great people. Just 25 minutes by train – and you’re in Copenhagen. I used to go there more often, because in Malmö after 6 pm all the restaurants were closed, the streets were empty. Now I don’t have to, Malmö developed its own nightlife.”

Sverrisson talks about theaters, film festivals, parks, graffiti artists, themed playgrounds scattered throughout the city, about revitalization of the harbor district, about a creative melting pot and those little things that create the magic of this place – like a miniature „mouse restaurant” made by an anonymous artist on a street downtown.

„So where does that dark picture of the city come from?”

„Those 200 people make a lot of noise. They shoot each other, settling their beefs. Every community has its problems, but since we live in a relatively small city, they come to stand for Malmö as a whole.”
Sweden is learning

Prof. Jerzy Sarnecki, a criminologist at the University of Stockholm, explains that crime in Sweden, contrary to popular opinion, is lower than in the 1980s when the number of immigrants was much smaller. Yes, they are more likely to be found in criminal statistics, but this overrepresentation mostly disappears when you take into account the communities in which they are raised.

„If we compare an immigrant and a native Swede who grew up in similar social and economic conditions, most of the differences evaporate. The immigrants simply make up the lowest social class and most inhabitants of ‘difficult districts’”, explains Sarnecki.

Sarnecki, who emigrated to Sweden with his family in 1968, has been studying this subject for years.

„In Stockholm, Göteborg or Malmö, there are enclaves with enormous unemployment and with primary schools in which many students don’t get good enough grades to go to high school. In such areas – American sociologists described them a hundred years ago – you have gangs and other subcultures. Young people, mainly first and second generation immigrants who have been in Sweden for a long time, are unable to communicate with society. They try to solve their problems by taking matters into their own hands.”

Sarnecki thinks that Sweden made a serious mistake.

„We knew from American research that there was such a risk. The authorities didn’t invest enough in such areas, businesses didn’t open stores there. It’s a failure of integration; though, it should be noted, it concerns a fairly small group. The typical tendency in capitalist societies is that the poor live in the cheapest neighborhoods, and then when their situation improves, they move out. Many immigrants had lived there for 10-15 years, until they learned the language, got a job, and moved somewhere else. Those who didn’t succeed, stayed: people with educational problems, the unemployed. They created criminal structures that will recruit new members.”

Nevertheless, Sarnecki is optimistic. Sweden, he argues, is slowly learning. And apart from the police actions, the important thing is to have good kindergartens, good schools and better care for mothers and children.

In the spacious office of Annelie Vanlunteren, Headmistress of the Rosengårdsskolen Primary School, one almost doesn’t hear the noise from the corridor. A huge board on the wall is covered with colorful cards with names. Yellow is for „ordinary” teachers. White, blue, and orange are for additional teachers for whom the school gets extra funds – making ap about one-fifth of the staff.

The one-story school buildings have sloping roofs and pastel facades. They are surrounded by playing fields and playgrounds. Some four hundred children with 20 to 30 different native languages attend this school. Half of them have been living in Sweden less than four years. There are no ethnic Swedes. Two children come from mixed marriages in which one parent is a Pole.

„The children who have just came to Sweden are sent to a two-month language course and then to regular classes. At this age you learn the language quickly. The bigger challenge is that the group is constantly changing because people are moving out”, says Vanlunteren.

A typical primary school has grades one through nine. However, in Rosengårdsskolan there are only grades 1-6. Then the students are sent to different schools throughout the city.

„This system was introduced four years ago. Closing grades 7-9 was a political decision to tackle school problems. Now the place is calmer”, explains the headmistress.

Students’ marks are also slowly improving (in Sweden they are given from the sixth grade). At the end of last year the school was visited by a commission from the ministry of education. Vanlunteren, with visible satisfaction, shows me the results of this inspection: in all six categories (like quality of teaching or helping the students) Rosengårdsskolan was rated positively.
The House of God

A few hundred meters from school there is a Catholic church, a bit further a Lutheran church, then a mosque. The latter was torched several times. In 2009 its imam was shot at by Peter Mangs, the man responsible for a series of attacks on people with the „immigrant look”. Mangs is currently serving a life sentence.

„Churches on the edge of the ‘Sharia zone’?” I pretend to be surprised. The Lutheran pastor Marta Gustavsson isn’t having any of it.

„It’s no Sharia zone. Rosengård has many Muslims, but we’re there as well. Many immigrants come to us for help. Most of our congregation are people from the nearby neighborhood, where 80 percent is white, but in Rosengård we organize summer activities for children – games, trips to the beach. Once a Muslim girl said: ‘Don’t go in there, it’s haram [forbidden].’ But another one argued: „Come on, it’s the house of God,” says Gustavsson.

On the board at the entrance of the church hangs a photo of the pastor and other clergy. Mostly women. Swedish Lutherans have ordained them since 1960.

„Where do Rosengård’s problems come from?”

„If you have many poor people living in one place, you’ll acquire a bitter mentality, a feeling that you cannot get out of there. Many residents feel that the others are suspicious of them. And that makes it easier for the criminals.”

„Those ‘others’ are the people from your congregation?”

„Many of them support Swedish Democrats. I think they are unfairly judged. They say: ‘we want to help, but immigrants shouldn’t live in such a cluster’. They are just scared”, says Gustavsson.

Recently the church sent an invitation to the surrounding schools for some Easter classes. Five classes accepted, including four from Ogardsskolan, the school at the mosque.

„Only one was from a public school, so we started calling the headmasters. They said: ‘you know, religion is a sensitive topic, what would the parents say…’ If secular schools wanted to cooperate with us, we would fight the district’s problems more effectively.”
„We try to build bridges“

„Crime isn’t related to a religion or a specific culture. In every community there are bad people and good people. However, the media create a different image. Whenever a Muslim does something wrong, they always mention that it was some ‘Ahmed’ or other”, says Ala Eddin Al-Qut from the Islamic educational organization Ibn Rushd.

Al-Qut wishes that everyone wasn’t being lumped together. He feels constantly on the defensive, always assuring people that he respects democratic values ??and renounces extremism. Meanwhile, the approximately 60,000 Muslims in Malmö represent a diverse group. You have newly arrived asylum seekers, immigrants in the second and third generation, converts. Muslim organizations which cooperate with Ibn Rushd use a dozen or so languages: Arabic, Bosnian, Kurdish, Somali… Some Malmö residents are religious, others aren’t. About 10,ooo people came at the last Eid, the holiday at the end of the Ramadan when Muslims come together to pray. Others probably prayed in informal mosques, because the main one was too small. But, according to Al Qut, there is also a large group of secularized Muslims.

„We try to build bridges. We organize courses for the employers, because some of them have a bad image of Islam from the media or they are afraid that their employees will leave on Fridays to attend prayers. We organize courses for the police, although in Rosengård many policemen are Muslims. Sometimes I go to the weekly seminars at the cultural center for Rosengård’s youth. Some 80-100 people attend. We have guests from the police, social services, politicians. We disagree; sometimes someone cannot stand the debate and leaves, and then comes back after two or three weeks. We ask them: Are you frustrated? If so, what’s stopping you from becoming a Social Democrat, a Green, or a member of any other party and trying to change things? That’s the way to do it.”

Al-Qut is a Palestinian Jordanian who studied engineering, but discovered that he has a soul of a social worker. He believes that there is a place for Islam in Swedish social democracy.

„We are a minority here. When I come to Sweden, I abide by Swedish law. If someone doesn’t, they are free to leave. Countries in which Muslims are majority have their own social systems.”

Al Qut had lived in Rosengård for ten years. Then he moved to another, „mixed” district.

„Rosengård is not an easy place for social projects. People are constantly moving in and out. My neighbors changed all the time. The residents speak some 160 different languages, but the traditional Swedish culture is somewhere in Hyllie [southwest district]. How are immigrants able to learn anything about their new country?“

„Aren’t you afraid of gangs?”

„I have four children of school age. If I thought Malmö was dangerous, we’d leave tomorrow.”