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Stockholm’s resilient immigrants succeed through hard work, entrepreneurship

Stockholm city centre - Photograph: Benedict Lopez

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They are honest men and women, working hard daily, paying their taxes and contributing to the economy of Sweden, writes Benedict Lopez.

People migrate from one country to another for a variety of reasons, including economic factors, employment and education. Other compelling reasons are persecution, ethnic cleansing, genocide and war in their home countries.

Immigrants have changed the demographics of many developed countries and contributed to the economic development and prosperity of these nations. The US, Canada, the European nations, Australia and New Zealand are today home to diverse ethnic groups, many of whom have assimilated into the mainstream of society.

Despite issues and problems faced upon arrival, immigrants have thrived in many of these countries. Today, many of them are model citizens, assuming prominent roles in the economic, social and political life of the countries they live in. Some even speak the national language of their adopted home country better than the indigenous folks.

Like many developed nations, Sweden is home to distinct ethnic groups, some of them economic migrants while others have fled persecution in their home countries. During my stint in Stockholm, I made friends with many successful immigrants with flourishing businesses – four of whom I shall refer to as Yusof, Tony, Grace and Thomas.

From Iraqi professor to Stockholm cafe owner

Yusof owns a café in a train station in Sodermalm where I used to live, and a similar outlet at another station in the city, which is managed by his wife. Yusof and his family fled Iraq when events in his city took a turn for the worse in the aftermath of the war in 2003.

An apartment block in Sodermalm, Stockholm, where the writer lived – Photograph: Benedict Lopez

Often in the mornings, I would stop at Yusuf’s café on my way to work to buy my breakfast. On Saturdays, I would have my breakfast at his café, and since there were fewer customers then, he would often chat with me.

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Yusof was a respected university professor in a city in northern Iraq. On a few occasions, he reminisced with me about his painful experiences. Once, tears flowed down his face when he told me stories about his city.

But soon after arriving in Stockholm, Yusof did not allow self-pity to get the better of him. Instead, he slogged tirelessly to become a successful entrepreneur. He worked hard for an honest living, going to work at 6am, six days a week, and preparing breakfast for his customers who began arriving by 7am. Yusof’s working day would end at 4pm.

Today, his daughter is a doctor, and his son is a pharmacist. His youngest daughter was thinking of studying medicine when I left Stockholm in July 2014.

Yusof has only one regret: due to security concerns, he is unable to return to his home city and visit his relatives and friends.

Pakistani student turns into South Asian chef

Tony hails from Pakistan and arrived in Sweden in the early 1970s. Like Yusof, Tony speaks fluent Swedish and runs a successful restaurant in Solna, one of the suburbs of Stockholm. Tony came as a student but decided to stay back in Stockholm. He too faced numerous challenges and disappointments in life, including being conned by a business partner.

But setbacks never deterred Tony, and through hard work, intellect and business acumen, he succeeded in carving a niche for delicious Indian and Pakistani cuisine in Stockholm. I took many visitors to Tony’s restaurant, and they have bestowed accolades on the excellent dishes, often personally prepared by him.

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Tony hanging up an Aliran ‘Time to Act’ clock at his restaurant in Sweden – Photograph: Benedict Lopez

Tony once told me he still has one more culinary passion. He wants to excel in Malaysian fare too!

Not only is Tony an exceptional chef in South Asian dishes, he also excels in Swedish, Italian and Chinese food. I have tasted these dishes at his home. Tony is a master in the art of public relations, very often displaying these skills when customers patronise his restaurant.

Amazing Grace’s Polish fish soup

Jointly with her partner, Grace owns a restaurant near our embassy in Karlavagen. Grace is fiercely proud of her Polish heritage, and her restaurant serves mouth-watering pastries, in addition to Swedish and Polish lunch dishes.

Grace’s signature dish is her Polish fish soup, served only on Tuesdays. I make it a point to visit her restaurant every Tuesday if I am in Stockholm. I go there at sharp noon when lunch is served, as by 1pm the restaurant is full and the dish is sold out. If I am not around one week, Grace would enquire about my absence the following week.

Even though the restaurant is always crowded, Grace always drops by to enquire about the quality of her famed dish, and my response is, “You are still the Amazing Grace!” One day, out of curiosity, she one day asked me about it, and I sang a few verses of the song to her in my awful voice.

Grace and her partner have worked very hard to ensure the success of their business.

A Malaysian serves up Swedish dishes

Thomas, a Malaysian, whose roots go back to Penang, arrived in Stockholm in the early 1980s.

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Today, he owns a successful restaurant about a few hundred yards away from my apartment. On the menu at Thomas’ restaurant are Swedish dishes. He is always happy to meet Malaysians like me and is often nostalgic about Penang and Malaysia.

Like the others, Thomas is eloquent in Swedish and works hard daily, from early morning till evening. From my observations, Thomas has integrated well in Sweden, and like Tony, he has a knack for customer relations which is conspicuous from his conversations and body language.

A cold winter’s day in Stockholm

Yusof, Tony, Grace and Thomas are the epitome of successful immigrants which any country would be proud to have as citizens. They are honest men and women, working hard daily, paying their taxes and contributing to the economy of Sweden – unlike the many crooks, and the dishonest and corrupt people we see and read about so often these days all over the world.

Sheer determination and hard work have contributed to the success of immigrants in the countries they have settled down. There is no substitute for hard work, diligence, perseverance, determination and resilience to be successful in life.

Immigrants have contributed enormously to the countries where they have made their homes. In many countries, they have spurred economic life in fading cities and suburbs by setting up businesses and often taking up the jobs shunned by locals. They should be respected, rather than spurned.

Countries that have accepted immigrants are generally economically successful and advanced in various facets of life. Diversity after all is a source of strength for any country.

History bears testimony to this great fact.

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Benedict Lopez was director of the Malaysian Investment Development Authority in Stockholm and economics counsellor at the Malaysian embassy there in 2010-2014. He covered all five Nordic countries in the course of his work. A pragmatic optimist and now an Aliran member, he believes Malaysia can provide its people with the same benefits and privileges found in the Nordic countries - not a far-fetched dream but one that he hopes will be realised in his lifetime
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