Category: Sweden

Angels in the darkness

At this time of year Sweden is engulfed in darkness. We all long for light. Candles burn in every window. Candles are a part of Swedish winter, and especially at Christmas.

Today I read the following article in the journal of the Swedish Medical Association, Läkartidningen. It brought tears to my eyes. This is an English translation, but the original article can be found here.

Like angels in the darkness

Mariko Yoshinaga Galvér
General Practice registrar, Uppsala, Sweden

My name is Mariko Yoshinaga Galvér and I am a GP registrar in a health centre in Uppsala. I came to Sweden twelve years ago from Japan, where I studied medicine.

I have never written before but I feel compelled to tell the story of something special that happened yesterday.

Yesterday I received a patient, an unaccompanied refugee child.

The referral that came with her said she was tired, and she had been booked in for a 45 minute appointment, with a telephone interpreter. I saw in the medical records that the child had experienced every imaginable horror in her homeland. I realised that this was going to be a challenging meeting and as I went out to the waiting room my steps were slow and deliberate.

The girl sat alone, looking tense. I discovered that she can speak Swedish, so we dispensed with the interpreter. Seated in my office she spoke slowly and calmly; I was amazed by her calmness. I examined her. I saw the scars on her little body.

For the first time in my life I thought of God, there in my office. I am not religious, I come from a Buddhist land, though I did marry in a Swedish church. But for the first time I thought of God and I prayed: please God, help her.

And then I heard children singing, quietly and calmly. We looked at each other, my patient and I, her glance confirming that I wasn’t just hallucinating.

We went out of the room. We saw many beautiful children, dressed in white, candles in their hands. Suddenly I remembered, today was Lucia and the children before us were the Lucia train. They looked just like angels in the darkness. The staff were happy and listened as the children sang. One of the nurses fetched a chair so that a mother bearing a child in her arms could sit and listen.

The angels looked us with their beautiful, beautiful smiles.

I am convinced that this girl will be happy here. Things like this don’t happen in Japan. Maybe they don’t happen in other countries either. She will be happy in Sweden.

I cycled home. And I began to cry as I thought about the day’s Lucia.

You know God, that I have also been happy here, in Sweden.

Happy Christmas!

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Migration medicine

Earlier this week I attended an evening hosted by SYLF – Sweden’s Young Doctors’ Association – about migration, which is a hot topic of conversation in Sweden at the moment. Refugees are pouring into the country and people are wondering how this is going to work. There were three talks: the first given by a friend of ours about a clinic that has been set up for beggars in our city of Örebro, the so called Stefanus Clinic, the second given by registered nurse from our hospital who spoke of his experiences with Medicins sans Frontiérs in Libya, Syria and Liberia, and the last one by a representative of the Immigration Department here in Örebro.

In the talk by the Department of Immigration figures were quoted to give some feeling for the magnitude of the situation.There were 10,553 asylum seekers who arrived in Sweden last week, and of these, 2,942 were unaccompanied minors, the majority, it would seem, from Afghanistan. The number of asylum seekers was over 800 more than the previous week. The total number of asylum seekers for 2015 to 11 November was 134,883, already over 50,000 more than the number who arrived in the whole of 2014, when only 81,301 asylum seekers arrived in Sweden. The three biggest contributors were Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.

These are mind boggling numbers. No-one, including the Immigration Department, has any idea how the country is going to absorb these people into the society. However, the Department is doing its best to provide shelter and food for everyone, a task which is becoming harder by the day. Here in Örebro the local council has resorted to using hotels to provide temporary accommodation for unaccompanied minors. But there are places all over the country, unused buildings, which are being turned into accommodation. There is talk of tent camps being erected, but Sweden is winter is not really a pleasant place to live in a tent. Voluntary organisations, including churches, are providing accommodation and various kinds of support to the refugees. There is a constant demand for people to teach Swedish.

There are many in the world who believe that Sweden is naïve in accepting so many foreigners into the country. There are predictions of a decline in the economy, and of the country being literally overrun by foreigners. There are groups in Sweden who are very unhappy about this and some potential refugee accommodations have been burnt down by Swedish protestors before refugees have moved in.

But as I cycled home I couldn’t help thinking of the Old Testament and how it encourages us to be kind to foreigners. Here is what it says:

In Leviticus 19:“‘When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”

And in Deuteronomy 24: Do not take advantage of a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether that worker is a fellow Israelite or a foreigner residing in one of your towns. Pay them their wages each day before sunset, because they are poor and are counting on it. Otherwise they may cry to the Lord against you, and you will be guilty of sin.

And in Ezekiel 47: You are to allot it as an inheritance for yourselves and for the foreigners residing among you and who have children. You are to consider them as native born Israelites; along with you they are to be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel.

Of course Jesus echoed these sentiments in his teaching too.

Matthew 25:
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

I couldn’t help thinking of the words of God, so famously quoted by Eric Liddell, Scotland’s great olympic hero, from the Old Testament, 1 Samuel 2:30:

Those who honor me I will honor, but those who despise me will be disdained.

Sweden is a land of contradictions. It is a land where secularism appears to have triumphed, but is at the same time a land whose values are deeply embedded in the Judeo-Christian worldview, as embarrassing as that might be to the unbelievers among us. Australia, my other home, has become known as a land that is tough on asylum seekers, infamous for “turning the boats around.” Some see this as a triumph of foreign policy. Others see it as an embarrassment. Sweden has become known as being a soft touch for refugees, one of the few countries in Europe that has refused to close its borders.

I can’t help thinking that Sweden, for all its noisy secularism, might have an approach that is closer to God’s heart than it cares to admit. However, it does not perform its acts of kindness in the name of the God of the Bible, but in its own name. Its kindness may have its roots in the Judeo-Christian ethic, but will that kindness prevail if Sweden refuses to acknowledge its real source, namely Jesus Christ and what he shows us of the Father. For ultimately that kindness will require self sacrifice, another aspect of God’s character that we humans find hard to adopt.

If we as a nation continue to perform acts of kindness, even though it costs us dearly, but we continue as a nation to turn our backs on God, will he honour us? If Sweden prevails without acknowledging God, will that be a triumph of secularism? Will Sweden triumph because of its Swedishness rather than its godliness? If we are godly in our behaviour, does it matter if we acknowledge God? What of the other secular countries in Europe that are taking an increasingly hard line against refugees and asylum seekers. Will they be the winners in this battle of humanitarianism?

I am a foreigner in Sweden myself, and I have been welcomed, as has my family. I understand the sentiment expressed in the Leviticus passage: Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I have experienced something of what it is to be a stranger in a strange land, and though it has been easier for me as an Australian, it has had its challenges. As I see the enormous influx of foreigners and strangers into our comfortable and secure society, even as I recognise the potential problems, how can I possibly look the other way? What will I do? And in whose name will I do it?

Autumn

Through the window
Through the window

Saturday morning. Crisp cold autumn. Fog blankets our little corner of Örebro. The sky above is clear but the blue is barely visible through the white mist. The fir trees that line the ridge that is known as Brickeberg, behind the houses of our suburb, and beyond which is forest, are ghostly outlines in the haze. The grass of our garden and the top of the hedge that separates it from the road are white with frost. A birch tree across the road is laden with golden leaves, but further away the world seems to dissolve into grey scale – black and white. The sun is shining somewhere beyond, trying to burn the mist away, pushing its brightness through the white veil, but still beyond reach, out there.

It is a long time since I have posted on this blog, almost a year. I have thought so many times about beginning to write again, but the longer it goes the harder it gets. It has been a difficult year for our family with many unwanted challenges, some of which remain unresolved. We still live in Sweden, but we think we will not be here much longer. As time draws on we feel the pull of the great southland, our other home, Australia.

It is a little over nine years since we left that hot dry continent and reestablished our lives here. The plan for a temporary sojourn of a few years did not give us time to achieve our goals. We stayed and stayed and despite a year’s respite in the warmth of those southern climes a few years back we found ourselves returning to this cold and dark but intensely beautiful land. Suddenly we began to feel that we had stayed too long, but we were somehow stuck. Extricating ourselves rom our Swedish life has not come easy, and it is far from accomplished. Sometimes we wonder whether it is smart, or even possible…

Our time here has been good and it has been bad. Which is perhaps a picture of life. We have made decisions that have turned out to be right and others that have turned out to be wrong. We rejoice for the successes and are sad for our failures. There are things that we would change if we could turn back time, but life can only be lived forward and so we can only try to avoid the same mistakes.

It is hard to be a family from two nations, two languages, two cultures. Our children are what are nowadays known as third culture kids. They are entering adulthood now and like us, their parents, wonder where they belong. They are not Swedish, they are not Australian. They belong to a third culture, and that is the identity and heritage we have given to them. They are not alone in this. There are millions of kids around the world who leave childhood and embark on life with the same burden, if that is what it is. They carry that idea of themselves for the rest of their lives. I know how that feels because I am one of them, a third culture kid. Sometimes I rejoice for the wonders that it let me experience. Sometimes I weep.

If things go according to plan this will be our last year in Sweden. It is painful to write that, and yet in some ways is a relief. If I am to post blogs in the months that remain they will be written in that context – of winding up, of closing down, of clearing out the debris of the past years. At present I feel no excitement about moving again, finding a new home, establishing new connections and relationships. But I trust that anticipation and excitement will come. It is a strange time.

I peer through the fog beyond our triple glazed windows. The sky is getting brighter and more colours emerge from the black and grey lines. Autumn has been lovely, with little rain and frequent blue skies. The temperature has slipped slowly down toward zero and frosts have really only arrived in the last week. Gloves and hats are pulled once more from storage and we reluctantly realise that winter is just around the corner. If it rains there will soon be ice on the roads and cycling will assume its winter challenge.

Will there be snow before Christmas this year, I wonder?

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Colours in autumn mist

South

Flying south
Flying south

A year after we arrived in Sweden I started working at a health centre on the other side of Örebro. The suburb in which we live is on the south eastern corner of the city and in my musings as I cycled to work every day I reflected on the fact that I was cycling north, away from the warmth and toward the polar regions. As the months slipped by autumn deepened into winter and I experienced for the first time real cold. I remember the novel feeling of icy raindrops hitting my eyes as I sped down the hill. The greyness of November days was swallowed up by the blackness of lengthening winter nights.

November must surely be the worst month of the year. It is cold and wet and overcast and once the leaves have gone there is little to relieve the grey drabness. Two things stand out in the greyness of November in Sweden. The first is Allahelgonsafton – All Saints Eve – when churchyards all over the country come to life with candlelight. On the Saturday of that weekend people visit the burial places of their ancestors, leaving a long burning candle on the grave. Since many people are no longer buried, but rather cremated, when they die, leaving no headstone to visit, there are memorial gardens in cemeteries and churchyards too and these become a veritable sea of flickering candlelight. As morbid as it sounds, it it the graveyards of Sweden that bring relief to the darkness of November.

The other thing that marks this month is the mid term break, the so called höstlov – autumn holiday. It is perhaps not much of a time for a holiday, so nowadays many travel abroad, southward to warmer climes – Spain, Italy, Greece, Turkey, the Canary Islands.

We stayed home however, and one afternoon took a stroll through our local forest – Markaskogen. Walking back toward home in the darkening afternoon we heard telltale sounds overhead and as our eyes were drawn upwards we caught a glimpse of migratory birds, their long necks straining forwards. They too head south at this time of the year, away from the cold drabness towards somewhere warmer and happier. Some, like the swans in this photo, go no further than Denmark, but others have the good sense to not stop until they have crossed the Mediterranean into Africa.

Heading south seems the smartest thing to do when November greyness threatens to drown us in its drudgery. Times like this we wonder why we live in this cold northern land and not in our other home, Australia, the Great Southland.

Australia and Ebola

I read the following statement in an article in an Australian medical newspaper (Medical Observer) this morning:

THE US and Britain have made specific appeals for Australia to send personnel to fight the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, despite the government’s insistence that it won’t send Australians into harm’s way.

That expression, “into harms way,” got me thinking. There is no doubt that the countries of West Africa that have been smitten with this epidemic are dangerous places to go. There is no guarantee of coming home alive. I am reminded of the missionaries of the nineteenth century who packed their belongings in a wooden box that could double as a coffin. Few expected to come home alive, and few did. The missionary call to Africa was a call for life, and in many cases a call to death. West Africa has never been an easy place to be.

Yet for millions of people it is home. Their home has become a place of fear and death. The epidemic that is raging there threatens to destroy the peace. People are frightened and desperate. But they have few resources to respond. It is easy to look down on the local people of Liberia and Sierra Leone as uneducated and ignorant. But they are just like many of us. One of my doctor friends told me the other day of a patient of his who would not go to the USA on holidays because there was Ebola in America! And we live in the highly educated and enlightened country of Sweden. If even people here can be so controlled by fear is it any wonder that Africans who are facing this threat daily can easily be overcome by their anxiety and begin to act irrationally.

“Into harms way” reminded me of a favourite film of mine, Behind Enemy Lines (see the trailer here). There is a wonderful scene on the deck of an aircraft carrier when a US general uses the same expression. He is giving a pep talk to a team he is sending into war torn Yugoslavia to rescue a pilate forced to eject from his fighter plane, behind enemy lines. It is a rousing speech, when he challenges the soldiers to be ready to sacrifice their own safety, even their own lives, to rescue a friend and comrade. (“Gentlemen, I intend to put you in harms’ way. Any man who doesn’t wish to join this mission, step away now!”)

This military connection made me think of the Australian government’s willingness to send soldiers to fight in distant wars, the most recent being the struggle against ISIS. Why is the government so ready to send weapons and military aid to fight against the evil of ISIS which is conceivably a much harder battle to win than the battle against Ebola? But content to wait for the Ebola threat to reach our shores before we act?

There are people willing to go, Australians as well as many others. But they fear for their safety. They need to go knowing they have the support of the Australian people and the Australian government, knowing that they won’t be abandoned.

Today I signed a petition calling on the Australian government to commit money and medical resources to the battle against Ebola. Maybe that is odd for me, since I live in Sweden. Sweden has committed lots of money, more than Australia if I understand correctly. The subject is discussed daily in the medical and general press here. Volunteers are not exactly pouring out of the woodwork, but they are coming, and they are celebrated as heroes, as they should be. But I am Australian and proud of that fact, even if I live on the other side of the world right now. I don’t want people to think that my country, with far more resources than Sweden, is sitting on its hands. I want to see us as Australians responding to this threat with the same commitment and enthusiasm that we have committed to so many other worthy causes over the years. Why should we wait for Ebola to come to the Asia Pacific? There is a battle to be won now, a pre-emptive strike that we need to launch.

You can sign the same petition on the Get Up website here.

Penny Bridge

Örebro-kommunOur Swedish home is in a town with the unfortunate name of Örebro – unfortunate because few of our Australian friends really know how to say this word. The letter ö is pronounced like the “ur” sound in burn (for Australians that is, who don’t generally pronounce the “r” in such words). The second syllable of the word sounds like the word “brew” in ozzie speak. So for an Australian to pronounce it correctly they would need to read it as urebrew.

But what does it mean? It is a composite of two words: the first is öre, which is the Swedish name for the smallest currency denomination, which in Australia is called a cent, but in England is called a penny. The word öre can also be used for a pebble. The second word in the name is bro, which means bridge. I have read that Örebro is situated where it is because there was a ford with a pebble bottom in the river here – a “pebble bridge” – and it was easy to cross back in the days before there were constructed bridges.

However, lately I have seen the word pennybridge used in various contexts. Today for example, there was an advertisement in the paper for the Pennybridge Tattoo Mess – a tattoo exhibition/fair to be held in Örebro this weekend. There is also an Örebro company called Pennybridge which is a website where individuals can donate money to a long list of participating charities, among others Mercy Ships and Operation Mercy, both of which have a special place in our hearts.

We were in England in the summer and spent a week in the Lake District. On one of our last days there we drove through a village with a familiar name. We couldn’t help stopping for a photo!

IMG_0463

Autumn colours

DSC_5574Something happened to the summer… it was glorious while it lasted, but autumn is here and soon the darkness will return. But autumn colours bring moments of happiness despite the anticipation of the freeze that lies up ahead…