From Zambia To Sweden: The Disappointment of Life Abroad
They picked the best in the class. It was something exciting, my relatives were excited, we even had a gathering. Everyone looked forward. Going to the airport, the whole family had to escort me, but when I came [to Sweden] everything changed.
For Diana Sianono, 26, being chosen to study in Sweden was a big honor. She was one of two nursing students selected from her home university to take part in an exchange program. However, Diana’s high hopes quickly caught frostbite.
For Diana, homesickness, disappointment at the medical system and encounters with racism, have made for many overcast Swedish days. This is not the Sweden she imagined. “I had a lot of expectations. I expected to see a lot of different things compared to Zambia, better things,” she reflects, disheartened.
Sweden is certainly carrying big expectations on its shoulders. Its history as a welfare state and reputation for social and political equality makes for a heavy load. But maybe this image of the steadfast Viking, a forward thinking leader, is only a mirage of strength? Sweden is after all not a superhero, only so much can be shoved into that Fjallraven rucksack, the country can only move so far ahead of the pack, before it buckles under the weight. Can it deliver everything it promises? In Diana’s perspective, the answer has been no.
Before arriving, Diana didn’t think racism existed in Sweden. As if it were a myth.
She talks with surprise about her experiences of everyday racism, trying to understand why she has been treated differently. It is hard to watch, almost like a child trying to figure out a puzzle with no logic behind it. She brings up examples from her daily bus ride, describing how people will chose to stand rather than sit next to her. When the suggestion is made that perhaps this was not racism but Swedish reservation and shyness, she adamantly re-confirmed her experience, insisting, “someone will prefer to sit where there is a white person. I had an experience where there was an empty seat beside me, then behind me there was a white person seated, and there was also an empty seat. This girl comes, she stands next to the empty seat where I was. She stands, she observes. She didn’t know whether to sit or not, and then she looked ahead and saw the other one, she preferred going to sit there. The seat was just fine.” She tells this story not so much with anger but with confusion. “Is there some kind of racism that is somehow concealed here or what?” she asks.
Perhaps problems that still exist are hidden under the guise of progress. There might not be segregated busses anymore, but what about the quiet signs of racism faced on daily commutes? Small human reactions that give insight to a larger, unacknowledged way of thinking, submerged under the surface, sunken in inequality, bubbling away.
Protection of human rights is a cornerstone of Swedish society and The Swedish Discrimination Act makes clear that racism is not tolerated. However, whilst it may have been addressed at an institutional level, examples of racism can still be found in Sweden. It may not be a pandemic, it may only be a small amount of the population or appear in subtle ways, but it doesn’t feel so small a problem to the individual facing it.
It is not only Diana’s race that is defining how people see her, but her role as a wife and mother. Diana left a husband and infant child back home in Zambia so as to take up this opportunity, but seems frustrated when people typecast her based on these facts alone. “When they see me, that’s all they see,” she explains. “It’s really been hard to open up about my status, where I come from and the people that I’ve left behind, cause I don’t know how people will take it.” Surrounded by young peers, many eager to experience independence and freedom, the thought of family life may have many at a loss. Diana expressed feeling judged and isolated. Almost as if there was a stigma attached to being a wife and mother within the student community. “I even asked one of my professor’s, is it a crime in Sweden for someone to be married?” she jests.
Despite missing her family so much so that “Given a chance [she] would speed up the days just so [she] could go back home,” it is clear that Diana has other parts of her identity that are very important to her. Her passion for nursing is undeniable and inspiring. She opened up explaining that as a young girl she was very close to her grandmother. When her grandmother became sick and passed away she felt that better care could have been given, so she decided that she would do better herself.
Initially she wanted to become a docter, but was then drawn to the more personal side of nursing, the day-to-day interactions that in themself save people’s lives. “A docter never feeds a patient, never bathes a patient. If I joined nursing atleast my grandmother’s spirit will rest when I take care of somebody else. Or when I learn something new in nursing and I manage to do it on my own, I feel at peace, like if my grandmother was here she would have been proud of me,” she explains.
It is this commitment to her nursing that was the catalyst for her coming to Sweden in the first place. Despite the challenges life in Sweden has brought Diana, she would “never discourage someone from experiencing some culture in another country.”
As the frost releases its hold on the detained tree branches and the Spring sunshine starts to creak through the clouds, the end is in sight for Diana. Only one month till she is reunited with her family and her home. Despite the memories of the bleak, ruthlessly cold days, that do not discriminate against anyone, she is taking with her some brighter recollections as well.
She speaks fondly of the lack of formality in Sweden, “I’ve liked that, because it hasn’t limited me, it made me open up [to people] no matter how big they are. Even someone that is sixty something, I call her Gertrude. I’ve liked the culture that the Swedish people have in that respect”
Diana seems positive that she can take what she has seen and learnt in Sweden and implement it back in Zambia. The shoots of a daffodil, sprung out of the same soil that carried the Winter snow.