Immigrant Story: Make Yourself Small

It is the way an immigrant can seamlessly integrate into new surroundings

Jeff Cunningham
4 min readJan 25, 2024
Muslims in Sweden burning the Swedish flag (photo)

Sometime in 2023, a spirited gang war ensued between nationalist Swedes and Swedish Muslims. One side burned copies of the Quran; the other burned Swedish flags. It was a zero-zero tie, although everyone lost the game as the symbols representing each group's identity were now being destroyed.

Violence escalated, and authorities issued warnings for Swedish citizens and businesses to be on high alert in Muslim communities. The country's National Security Adviser, Henrik Landerholm, Henrik Landerholm, Sweden's National Security Adviser, warned of the rise of "a heightened threat" to Swedish people. Justice Minister Gunnar Strömmer added, "Sweden has gone from being a "legitimate" target for terrorist attacks to being a prioritized target."

The once peaceful nation is now torn apart by conflicting ideologies and fear of harm from within and outside its borders. This has naturally led to restrictions on public demonstrations, as police feared potential disruptions and risks to public safety.

As the flames continue to spread, the question lingers— what happened to open immigration, and should we now rewrite the rules of behavior for immigrants in a new country?

Christmas Tree Grows in The Middle East

As a young boy, my family moved to the Middle East. We were raised in the Christian tradition with decorated trees sprinkled about our lawn. In the new country, there were no lawns and, to my six-year-old eyes, not a pine tree for miles around.

To respect the local culture, my parents yielded our traditions by celebrating discreetly, with a tree inside our home. Our home's exterior was bare of decorations like Christmas lights and garlands. My parents described this as "making yourself small." I asked, what did that mean, as I was already small? It meant allowing room for our heritage in a way that did not conflict or insult our local community. The surprise was how well it worked.

When our non-Christian neighbors visited occasionally, they noticed our Christmas tree and began asking about the holiday in a friendly manner, without resentment. Over the years, this led to a cultural exchange where we invited them to our Christmas dinners in which we shared wrapped gifts, and they included us in their holiday celebrations. But as the example of Sweden suggests, our era has lost the art of what used to be called acculturation.

DEI Gone Berserk

Unfortunately, in today's Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) era, showing respect to a new culture is dismissed as yielding to 'privilege.' Immigrants are now urged to assert native customs boldly, throwing them in the face of the new community and triggering the rebirth of nationalism. There are examples of Muslims praying in the middle of a busy London intersection, for example.

Muslims praying in the street when the mosque is packed (photo)

The power of acculturation is that it allowed an immigrant to find the right balance between preserving one's cultural heritage and respecting the new environment. It is the way an immigrant can seamlessly integrate into new surroundings.

It's a valuable lesson that responsible parents like mine pass on to their children, a lesson exemplified in the touching story from Luai Ahmed, a Yemeni Muslim immigrant to Sweden:

Swedish Saga

Before moving to Sweden, my mother told me, "I need you to become Swedish. If in 10 years, you don't speak Swedish better than the Swedes, you're no longer my son."

She insisted that I learn Swedish fluently, adapt to Swedish culture, fully integrate, and become a part of Sweden. She told me, "I don't want you to become like one of those immigrants with an identity crisis whose bodies are in the West and whose minds are stuck in the Middle East."

This was the last lecture I was given as I left Yemen, and to this day, her words still echo in my mind. I had no idea what she meant back then, but now, almost ten years later, I understand exactly. I see immigrants whose minds are always stuck in the Middle East. I see them waving the Palestinian flags, spitting on their new countries, and being utterly ungrateful for having gained a second chance at life. I will forever be thankful to my mother.

Because of her, I spent every day learning Swedish, translating songs, reading Swedish books, listening to podcasts, and reading the news until I immersed myself and my mind in Sweden, and a Swedish identity was born within me, an identity that I am proud of.

I am not white or blue-eyed, but I never had to be — to feel Swedish. My Swedish friends and co-workers have always made me feel Swedish, even when my Swedish was broken. In their heart, my ethnicity was irrelevant. They made me feel like family.

And I understand that this is not every immigrant's experience — I have also had my fair share of unpleasant assholes. Still, most Swedes were welcoming, open, and loving. Thanks to my instilled "Swedishness" — I always feel at home here.

Many immigrants whom I meet who are stuck in the Middle East always tell me that they struggle with the language. I ask them: "How many hours a day do you spend learning Swedish?" They turn silent because they know they're working hours to learn the language. But I can't blame can't. Very few people are blessed with mothers like mine. My beautiful mother has graced me with knowledge that money can't buy.