These migrant entrepreneurs are decent, honest and hardworking people who pay their taxes, which are pivotal in sustaining Sweden’s welfare state, writes Benedict Lopez.
Going back to Stockholm after a hiatus of nearly four years was like taking a trip down memory lane, a sort of balik kampung for me.
Chilly winds blew directly at me as I exited Arlanda Airport. But the 5C temperature cascading amidst a gloomy horizon could not dampen my spirits as I returned to the city where I’d lived for nearly four and a half years. Indeed, I have many friends and fond memories of the Swedish capital.
My good friend Aru was gracious enough to allow me to stay in his apartment. After unpacking, I headed for the nearest tunnelbana (underground train station) and bought a weekly Access card, which cost me SEK325 (RM150): it gave me unlimited travel all over Stockholm and the outskirts on trains, buses and commuter. What a bargain it was for me!
If there is one advantage the train stations in KL have over the tunnelbanas in Stockholm, it is the washrooms. Surprisingly, most tunnelbanas don’t have washrooms. And KL stations are much cleaner too. What’s more, KLIA appears more efficient than Arlanda in many aspects.
Once again, I visited some of the stations like Stadion, which is noted for its artworks. Stadion was the tunnelbana I used when commuting daily to and from work.
The changing colours of tree leaves during autumn embellished the ambience on the train ride from Rågsved station in south Stockholm, where I once lived, to the Stockholm Central Station. New buildings are being constructed just outside the station.
Upon disembarking at Central Station, I went straight to the Ahlens shopping centre to see the area where the terror attacks took place last year.
I also strolled around Slussen, which is undergoing rapid change. This area is being reconstructed as a central hub in Stockholm to serve as a vibrant meeting place with modern traffic solutions.
Don’s successful travel agency
The following day I visited my friend Don, who hails from Sri Lanka. Together with his Finnish wife, Katarina, they run a successful travel agency, just two stops away from the central station at Radmansgatan. Don has been operating this agency for the past two decades and has a broad clientele base.
Tony’s flourishing restaurant
After chatting with them for an hour, I proceeded to Solna and met another friend Tony, who owns a good South Asian restaurant in Stockholm.
From the crowds at Tony’s restaurant, business is definitely flourishing. Tony insisted that I have dinner with him and he personally prepared his signature dish, nihari, a spicy version of the lamb shank, which I tucked in with my naan bread.
Tony told me that he had a coronary-bypass operation at a public hospital last year. The bill? Only SEK300 (RM140). No wonder he complimented the Swedish healthcare system for the treatment he received.
The negligible amount paid for the operation and hospitalisation is due to Sweden’s welfare state system. The country has a broad taxation base, with little tax evasion and negligible corruption. This allows tangible benefits to be enjoyed by the people. How I wish Malaysia could emulate Sweden in this respect.
Ravi, the compassionate restaurateur
The next day, together with Aru, I had lunch with another friend Ravi at his restaurant in Vesberia. Ravi’s restaurant serves delicious Swedish and Malaysian dishes.
Ravi works hard daily, starting early in the morning until evening. A compassionate restaurateur, he employs migrant workers from countries like Sri Lanka, India and Venezuela (see photograph at the top).
One such worker is Agiraa, a Catholic refugee who was an accountant in Caracas. She was forced to leave her 10-year-old son behind with her mother and move to Stockholm due to the dire economic crisis in Venezuela.
Ravi told me Agiraa is a hardworking employee with a commendable work ethic. Her only problem is the language barrier as she is only conversant in Spanish. It has been tough for her to adjust in Stockholm as her only friends are her fellow Venezuelans, whom she meets in church on Sundays.
Still the amazing Grace
On the third day of my stay, I visited the Malaysian embassy and met the staff there and then dropped by at the Stockholm office of the Malaysian Investment Development Authority (Mida). Later, with my ex-colleague Norihan, we had a Polish fish soup lunch at Grace’s restaurant near our embassy.
Grace was happy to see me and, as in the past, asked me about the quality of her fish soup.
As usual, my standard response was, “You are still the amazing Grace!”
Yousef’s calling it a day soon
Following lunch, I visited my Iraqi friend Yousef, who operates a café at the tunnelbana in Mariatorget, close to where I used to live.
Yousef insisted I at least have a sandwich and a café latte with him. He said he’d recently sold his café located at another tunnelbana, St Eriksplan, which was managed by his wife Nadia, a civil engineer. Nadia now helps him at his Mariatorget café.
At 69, age is catching up with Yousef, and he intends to sell his Mariatorget café next year. The good news is that he will be receiving his pension from the Iraqi government for his tenure as a professor at a university in northern Iraq. Along with his Swedish pension, his income should be enough for him to live a comfortable life.
Like any other father, he beamed with pride when I enquired about his youngest daughter Sarah, who was entering medical school when I left Stockholm in July 2014. She is now completing her third year and hopes to graduate in three years’ time.
Thomas’ thriving café
The following day, together with another Malaysian friend Jackson, I returned to Sodermalm, less than a kilometre from Mariatorget tunnelbana, to visit another Malaysian friend Thomas.
A Penangite, Thomas owns a café selling Swedish food and pastries. Judging by the crowds at his café, Thomas’s business is definitely thriving. Still, he squeezed in some time to sit down and chat with me while serving café latte and his famed blueberry pie. Thomas informed me he recently opened up a new outlet about a kilometre from his present café.
Three Turkish delights
Prior to my departure, I met my three Turkish friends, Eymen, Mustafa and Omer, who operate a burger stall in front of the apartment where I once lived in Sodermalm, just about a quarter of a kilometre near the Mariatorget tunnelbana. They too have a hectic 15-hour working day.
I always used to chat with them when there were no customers around. They are friendly guys with whom I’ve always enjoyed engaging in banter.
Immense contribution to Sweden
I was indeed delighted to see all my migrant friends prospering – the result of their sheer tenacity, diligence and astuteness. They are living examples that hard work is the key to success in any country.
Migrant entrepreneurs like my friends and their workers have contributed enormously to Sweden’s economy. Unlike the many crooks and tax evaders all over the world, these migrant entrepreneurs are decent, honest and hardworking people who pay their taxes, which are pivotal in sustaining Sweden’s welfare state.
Without these migrant workers, many sectors in Sweden would encounter difficulties. Any country would be proud to have them as citizens.
Value Malaysia’s migrant workers too
Malaysia too has to acknowledge the immense contribution of its migrant workers, who have played a critical role in our economic development, adding to the nation’s prosperity. If not for them, the country would have faced major problems.
But sadly, often out of prejudice, many Malaysians look down scornfully on our migrant workers. It is time we opened our eyes and recognise the migrant workers’ immeasurable contribution to our country and economy.
If we fail to do so, it would mean we have lost our moral compass as a nation, and we can in no way consider ourselves civilised, decent human beings and a caring society.
All photographs by Benedict Lopez