For Immigrants, Life in America Far Outstrips that in Sweden or Europe

Toward the end of last year – following the riots in France’s immigrant-populated suburbs – something happened: discussions about Europe’s “social model” grew quiet, very quiet.

Just a few months earlier, when Hurricane Katrina had struck New Orleans, European media and politicians were wallowing in schadenfreude (taking pleasure in the misfortune of others). The U.S. was called a “developing country,” unable to protect its own citizens, and thus a world away from a Europe of solidarity and compassion.

But then the fires began in Paris, Lyon and Marseille. And an embarrassed silence settled in.

The American societal model, with its wide disparities and gaping safety net, is something that few in Europe wish to emulate. There is, however, quite a bit to learn from it. One example is the assimilation of immigrants into the labor market.

Europe’s serious problems in this sphere are documented in numerous studies by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Sweden is a very good case in point, since there is a 15 percent employment disparity between the native and foreign-born.

When Somalia collapsed at the beginning of the 1990s, hundreds of thousands of Somalis fled the country. Those who reached Sweden had almost no chance of finding work: In 1997 only 10 percent were employed. Currently, the number has risen to some 30 percent, which is long way off the national level of 77 percent.

Benny Carlson, Associate Professor of Economic History at Lund University, has together with ZUFI, a think tank in Malmoe, put out a thought-provoking publication “Somalis in Minneapolis: a Dynamic Deal.”

A lot of Somalis who wound up in the U.S. migrated to Minnesota, more specifically to Minneapolis-St. Paul, the Twin Cities, a metropolitan area with a population of roughly 3 million. There are an estimated 25,000 Somalis in Minnesota, and in Minneapolis they have congregated along Cedar and Riverside Avenues. The area has always attracted immigrants, and 100 years ago that mainly meant Swedes. Cedar Avenue was known as Snoose Boulevard, as in snus tobacco [editor’s note: this snuff tobacco, or chewing tobacco, remains very popular in Sweden].

According to Benny Carlson, Somalis are “not a prosperous group, but they are a working group, and one that is likely developing dynamically, at that.”

The employment rate lies between 55 to 60 percent. Thus it is twice as high as in Sweden.

Entrepreneurship constitutes the first – and likely the most important – explanation. There are around 800 Minneapolis businesses run by Somalis. That number is growing rapidly. In 2003, there were 38 Somali entrepreneurs in all of Sweden.

The second explanation, which is partly connected to the first, is that the Minneapolis Somalis have created an (ethnic) “enclave economy.” People with a common ethnicity engage in economic activities to support themselves, to support each other – and later on, this branches out and becomes part of the surrounding community.

Corner stores become supermarkets. Holes in the wall become real restaurants. Taxi drivers join forces and launch their own carriers.

At the Safari Restaurant, Benny Carlson meets Jamal Hashi, who runs the place with his brother. Initially, they only catered to their compatriots and didn’t even have a menu. Now they not only have a menu but also a non-Somali clientele. They have thirteen employees: six Mexicans, four Ethiopians and three Somalis.

Business is good: “There’s opportunity here.” The brothers have ambitious plans about building an African fast-food chain. There may, says Jamal, even be a restaurant in Sweden, a country he describes by quoting a friend who lives there:

“There you are like a fly trapped under a glass turned upside-down. You can feel that your dreams are being smothered.”

Hussein Samatar arrived in Minnesota in 1994. At the time, he spoke no English. Now he heads an entrepreneurship center, stating that “the dollar is green, not black or white.” Omar Hassan, who was an accountant back in Somalia, runs a multi-service business that provides help with tax returns, applications and travel documents. And while he works very hard, he is also in his own words “the top man on the market.”

The elder and religious leader Shejk Sàad Muse holds a mini-lecture about how Somalia lies strategically on the Horn of Africa, and how Somalis are therefore used to traveling, trading and adapting: “We can be Somalis, Muslims and Americans at the same time.”

Carlson’s main purpose was not to compare Minnesota and Sweden, but he does write that there are likely “aspects here that should serve as eye openers on our side of the Atlantic.”

Indeed. His short tract, 74 packed pages, should be circulated within the Swedish government as well among the municipal power-brokers in Malmoe, Gothenburg and Stockholm [Editor’s Note: Sweden’s three largest cities in ascending order]. Entrepreneurship, both your own and that of others, is the key to successful assimilation.

Every fifth new business in Sweden is started by a foreign born person. These entrepreneurs are well-educated: some 44 percent have a university degree. In the public at large, 29 percent have the same level of education.

But there could have been more – and more prosperous – immigrant entrepreneurs if they were offered better conditions:

* 33 percent of the foreign-born would prefer to be entrepreneurs, compared with 26 percent of the native-born.

* Four out of ten foreign-born entrepreneurs believe that the Swedish authorities lack a positive attitude toward small businesses. Nearly half consider that the rules, regulation, and requirements stunt growth.

* 84 percent of the foreign-born entrepreneurs wish to expand their activities, compared with 63 for the Swedish-born.

* Six of ten foreign-born entrepreneurs feel that Sweden is xenophobic.

As a consequence of all this, Sweden has more than a little to learn from Minnesota and the U.S. There, as is clear in the Minneapolis case, the service sector plays a key role as an (assimilation) gateway. The fact that Sweden and other European countries have a smaller (private) service sector than the U.S. helps explain why unemployment remains stuck at high levels: when jobs disappear in manufacturing, there are not enough new businesses and job opportunities being created in the service sector. Those most vulnerable on the labor market are the ones then most affected.

A recent study by the Swedish Center for Business and Policy Studies (SNS) demonstrates that Sweden, with its regulations as well as the public sector monopoly on services, is the OECD country with the weakest long-term link between growth and employment.

The Americans understand – and celebrate – the social and economic significance of the immigrant businesses. This is in relation to both the immigrants themselves and the society as a whole. In a country like Sweden, however, entrepreneurial individuals are not seen as motors of progress. This role is reserved for the benevolent systems of the state.

But even here entrepreneurs from abroad have historically been very important: Carnegie, Bonnier, Bukowski, Becker, Mazetti, Zoéga, Felix. {editorial note: these are all the names of large Swedish companies founded by immigrants. Their focus ranges from publishing (Bonnier), auctioneering (Bukowski), paint (Becker) to coffee (Zoéga) and chocolate (Mazetti)}. At the beginning of the 19th century, a British immigrant named Samuel Owen was the founder of the (subsequently very successful, e.g. Volvo, Saab, Electrolux) Swedish engineering industry. How many Chilean, Lebanese, Iranian and Somali equivalents have we deprived ourselves of?

Malyun Ali came to the U.S., via a refugee camp, in 1997 and now runs a little store in Minneapolis while also working in home care.

“Life is tough in the U.S., but it’s good. If you have a dream, you can realize it,” she tells Benny Carlson. She herself is dreaming of an even larger store, and of employing staff.

Sure it sounds somewhat idyllic. Not everyone makes it. Life as a poor immigrant in the U.S. is tough, just as Malyun says. Attitudes towards Muslims have been affected by the September 11th terrorist attacks.

But it is also tough being smothered by good intentions. To labeled hopeless from the outset. To be a fly under the glass.

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