How Immigration Changed A Small-Town Sweden That Never Existed

Christian Christensen
4 min readJun 24, 2019
Photo: Christian Christensen

How far can you stretch nostalgia before warm, harmless exaggeration transforms into weaponized dishonesty?

This question is at the heart of a great deal of discussion on immigration in Europe, where the presence of new residents is often pitched by those opposed to immigration as ultimately undermining (and even eradicating) local history, cultures and traditions. Precisely what those local histories, cultures and traditions looked like before the arrival of immigrants, however, is far from agreed upon, and are very often altered and romanticized in the service of an anti-immigration agenda.

Nothing better illustrates this dynamic than an opinion piece published a few days ago in the Swedish newspaper Göteborgs-Posten. In the article, the author recounted the tale of searching late one dark winter night (in the relatively small Swedish town of Gävle) for an open food store. She eventually managed to find a shop run by an immigrant, and noted that the store sold meat marked “Halal” in Swedish and Arabic, had “small animals” in the meat freezer and pickled vegetables she considered “inedible”. She ended up buying the only thing she felt comfortable eating: a box of instant macaroni.

The author’s reaction to this entire incident?

”I am in Sweden, a Sweden that doesn’t feel Swedish. And I don’t like it.”

The piece played on the familiar clichés of lost local cultures and feeling like a stranger in your own land. But, it also touched upon nostalgia over the death of small-town community and identity: the “Mom ’n’ Pop” corner store selling local food being replaced by stores selling supposedly “exotic” foreign food; and, small communities, once bustling with people and businesses, now reduced to ghost towns housing immigrants.

But, as many Swedes on social media noted in reaction to the piece, when had shops ever been open in smaller towns Swedish late at night? Why pick on an immigrant who was so hard working as to have the only shop open late in the evening? Why should the mere presence of foreign food in one shop signal the demise of “traditional” Sweden? Where were all of the “native” shop owners? And, when were these smaller towns last bustling and vibrant?