Story of Eskilstuna, Sweden
“When you are a teen and you have control over drugs and weapons, you’ll go crazy – it’s not a responsibility for such a young person to take. We can’t have young people running around having weapons and being criminal. It hurts them, and it obviously hurts the rest of the society.” Racil, 16.
Eskilstuna is a beautiful small city located in the center of Sweden. The location of the city is excellent: it has direct access to the sea through the bay of Mälarn and it is close enough to the capital city Stockholm, as well as its many surrounding small cities and villages.
Industries have used this logistics hub for decades, if not centuries. At the moment Volvo and several other international companies have their factories and businesses in town.
To meet the industry’s need for labor, in the middle of the last century an active recruitment of workers both from Sweden and from abroad began. Labor immigration to Eskilstuna started in the 1940s, and it more than doubled the city’s population in couple of decades, rising from 37,000 in the 40’s to 94 000 in the 70’s. At the moment the city has 106 975 inhabitants and 34 % are from immigrant backgrounds.
Great numbers of people needed homes in the latter half of the last century, which led to Sweden’s big housing investment, the miljonprogrammet (million program) that built one million new homes in ten years, started in the 1960s. It created new high rise suburbs in Eskilstuna in Nyfors, Årby and Slagsta, among others.
Different branches of the industry are not the only party attracted by the connections of the city. Also organized crime is present. According to the The Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention (Brå) there were approximately 42 acts of crime last year per day in Eskilstuna, 15 446 in total. Eskilstuna municipality was one of the municipalities in the country that in 2022 had the highest number of reported crimes per 100,000 inhabitants. Only the three big cities had more.
Year 2022 was especially serious in gun violence. There were 32 shootings in Eskiltuna of which 15 happened in the neighborhood of Årby. Between 2018 and 2021 there were 34 shootings in all.
What would protect youth from getting involved in criminality? Different actors in the community are working to find solutions to this complex question that has deep roots in segregation, marginalization and mistrust. And so are members of Young Revolution, a youth group of an NGO called Sisters in Business, that supports women with minority backgrounds Racil Hussein 16, Joel Almourtada 19, Anisa Abdi, Hanan Noor 17 and Emilia Selberg 17 together with their mentor Maria Nordin 24. According to them, people involved in criminal gangs, drugs and gun violence are getting younger and younger every day.
Racil, Joel, Anisa, Hanan and Emilia all come from the most troubled neighborhoods, such as Årby, that was built during the miljonprogrammet. Many of their childhood friends are now members of organized crime gangs, so they see the situation from a personal perspective. It is clear that the feeling of not belonging, which spans generations here, as well as the feeling of being left out of society and the lack of future perspectives play an important role in the phenomenon.
“We can’t have young people running around having weapons and being criminal.” Racil says, “It hurts them, and it obviously hurts the rest of the society. I think it’s such a big problem in Eskilstuna, because we have a lot of segregation.”
Her colleague Hanan adds, “I think all this violence and organized crime is really embedded in harsh environments. I think the biggest reason for it is the segregation and poverty and mistrust and a feeling of being an outsider for your whole life. What is also problematic is that young people are easy to control or take advantage of, as they are in such vulnerable situation. They are so young.“
According to the team, there’s general mistrust towards people living in the deprived areas and vice versa in Eskilstuna. Many of the youth in these areas tend to trust only their peers – not the police, teachers or the school staff, or any other people living outside of these areas in general. Many of them haven’t got an image or a plan for a better future, where an education helps one to find a job and be part of a society.
“With segregation people tend to stay in the same place for their whole life and generations, you know”, Racil says “Your parents might not have money, but you need to get money, and you know how to get quick money.”
Criminality is also normalized. Especially in the less privileged neighborhoods people have used to see drug dealing in the streets and according to the group all the youth in these neighborhoods know somebody, who has a link to organized crime – and to quick money. This makes joining gangs easier, and has contributed to the age of involvement getting lower. According to the group, the youngest people involved are around 12 years old at the moment.
The mistrust creates a vicious cycle. It’s hard to feel safe in the city, even though one may live in the calmer areas. Violence is everywhere in the news. “It’s very easy to become judgmental towards people living in these places, because – of course – crimes are committed in those places every day. What are you supposed to think about that? The people outside of the segregated people feel unsafe, and judge people living there. It’s almost like two-sided hate. And it’s not just about the hate. It ends up in both parties feeling unsafe. This makes the whole society feel shaky.” Hanan says.
Seeing criminal activity is so normalized, that everybody is familiar with it. “When I was younger, we used to see these older criminals and we didn’t think of them as “cool” or “wow”. We were scared of them.” Hanan describes. “I was maybe12 or 13, when I noticed that some of my good friends started to be like: “You know what? He is actually quite cool. Wow, he has weapon, a lot of money and a nice car. Suddenly there was an interest that wasn’t there when we were younger. After we finished high school, there was a long period of free time, as you don’t have to go to gymnasiet. It was an eye-opener for me to realize that more than like 50 % of the people I know had become criminals – I know they are good people, but now they are criminals. It is very hurtful, as it could have been me. We grew up together, we did the same things after school. We were like the same person.”
Racil continues: “I grew up in Årby and we played around all the playgrounds there. And to know that in the same playgrounds me and my friends played in, that someone has been shot there. It’s quite scary to think of, you know? To see all of my friends, or some of my friends getting into criminality and seeing how the criminality eats them up, it hurts bad. Although I can’t really understand why they ended up that way, or why it was them, and why it wasn’t someone else and why it wasn’t me. We grew up together, we went to the same schools, we played the same games. And they were dragged into it in some way. It’s so hurtful to see someone being destroyed by being dragged into criminality in general.”
“I grew up in Syria and I came here five years ago.” Joelle tells, “When I came here, I felt so safe, but right now I feel quite different. In Syria, I heard bombs hitting every day, but now – shootings. I think it’s even going to get worse. Maybe it’s going to get from guns to bombs one day, if nobody does something about it. “
During the past couple of years, it has become normal to see crime, drug dealers and to know that someone was shot in the street day before, where you walk now.
Maria explains the situation: “This summer, there was someone, who stabbed someone else in a crowded bus. The bus was driving, and the passengers had nowhere to go and everybody saw that. More and more people are involved, even though they have nothing to do with the crime themselves.“
Eskilstuna has a high unemployment rate, 11%, in comparison to the rest of the country, 6%. The number is higher among the people with immigrant backgrounds, 22%. A quarter of the total population of Eskiltuna have immigrant backgrounds and most of them live in the less privileged neighborhoods that were built during the miljonprogrammet. It is a challenging task to stop a long cycle of mistrust, gentrification – and young people joining criminal gangs.
The group, however, come from similar backgrounds, as the majority of those young people who join criminal gangs, and see things from their perspective. They know that many of the people committing crimes as gang members were ordinary children just a couple of years before.
“First of all, we want people to sympathize with these kids.” Hanan says, “They are humans in the end. Even though they have committed crimes, even though they live in Årby, even though they are not from Sweden, they are still children and they are still humans. I believe that if someone would have been there and seen them in the early stages, it could have been prevented. And that person could have been whoever. It could have been a parent, it could have been a teacher, it could have been a friend. Someone.“
“To take it one step further.” Maria continues, “We want to create more equal opportunities, no matter where you live in Eskilstuna. So if you would take more preventative actions, you would have a more equal society. It doesn’t matter if you grow up in the center of the city, or in Årby, or wherever. You would still have a good school. If you are feeling bad, someone will take care of you, will listen to you. You don’t have to be afraid to go out at night, no matter where you live. Create safety, empathy and forgiveness. We have talked about this a lot: that you have a lot of your friends, which you might know. They are not bad people all the way through and I think they deserve forgiveness, and that might also be the only way forward. Because otherwise, what are you going to do with them?”
In order to get their voices out, the group decided to interview a couple of young ex-criminals, who have managed to get out of the gangs. They started to work on a documentary film on the topic. Solving the situation in Eskilstuna is a massive task, but you have to start from somewhere.
As the question is massive, you also need to have everybody onboard to create change. The group wanted to start a dialogue with a group of teachers, school youth workers, social service and also the police. The first step was however to start to work with the film and get their story ready.
The group wanted to create dialogue between various actors and sit together with them in order to create an understanding, how the teachers, youth workers and the police understand the situation. But as it is often the case, the preparations for the interviews of the ex-criminals and for the documentary film took longer than expected. So they decided to bring everybody together at the same time at the premiere of their documentary film with an organized panel discussion.
The event took place at Munktell Science Park in Eskilstuna on late November 2022, where they invited various actors related to the topic of criminality amongst youth in Eskilstuna, including the police, social services, municipality officials, regional health workers, school personnel, teachers, politicians, sports teams, and other NGOs. Their target audience was quite wide and unclear due to the complexity of the problem. However, we believe that all parts of society must be mobilized to better address this problem.
“The film was used as a catalyst for discussion and to provide a common ground to start a conversation. We aimed to create empathy and highlight the individuals behind the bigger problem.” Maria tells. “Our aim was to build new bridges between everyone invited to better mobilize preventative work against criminality in the future. We understand that the problem is complex and involves various people with different power, mandate, authority, understanding, and agendas. We wanted to bring these people together in the hope that they could work together, mobilize, and collaborate in the future.”
There was less audience than the group was expecting as they used more time for making their documentary film and less time for inviting and contacting people. However, the group found that it was a good beginning for something more that can happen in the future.
Preliminary work: how do we understand and see the issue?
The Event 23.11. in Eskistuna
“I’ve been reflecting a lot, what change is and ways to make change. We are working more with the ways to make change possible – with knowledge. I think it’s a big part of what change is, but it doesn’t result into any structural changes. So there’s more nuances in the change, than it might seem at first.” Maris reflects.
Racil continues, “I also realized, that there’s a lot of steps to make the change possible and you need to take a lot of them, in order to create change. I think, we focused on the first step, which is to make people understand. Because you can’t change things, if you don’t understand the problem. First you need to understand it yourself, discuss it further and create wider discussions, where there’s more people involved. You definitely need to have people in, who have power and right tools to make it happen. There are different types of structures in a society. Either you can try to create your own structure, or try to find a way to include yourself into the existing structure of the society.”
The work will continue, but one thing is certain. “We want to use the film in different ways, as we are proud of it. It’s a good conversation starter and can be used in schools and in various different settings.”
I am Racil and I am just a 16 year old girl from a small town in Sweden. That town in particular is Eskilstuna. Eskilstuna is the town I was born in, the town I grew up in and made memeries in. I now feel like I am watching that same city default in front of my eyes.
I grew up in årby. That is one of the most problematic areas in Sweden. I played around a lot with the kids in the playground in årby. But as we grew up I saw a lot of my friends getting involved in criminal activities and I have seen how that life has eaten them up. It is truly terrifying. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone.
I think I realized that I was so passionate about the subject 1. when I saw how it destroyed my friends 2. The knowledge that a 13 year old is running around with a weapon shooting people in årby.
I live in Årby where the most of criminality happening and I am seing people araund me geting hurt or geting shooting.
For me who came from Syrian and I was live in war I didn’t feel save or happy. So I want to people now that is not even save too to live in Sweden also. And do something about it.
I’m convinced that no one is born good or bad but rather a result of their upbringing, surroundings and other conditions. I was born into a privileged situation, but as I grew older I learned more about the world and how unfair our society is. Privilege is a form of power – and I feel like it’s my responsibility to use the privilege I have to make out society more just and peaceful place.
I am Hanan, 17 years old. I live in Eskilstuna and these scarring things happen in my surroundings and is therefore deeply imbedded in me with worry.
I myself have been struggling with self-harm because of my mental health issues. I can’t help but wonder what those people are going through. Are they so hurt, so desperate that they feel capable to bring themselves into criminality? Is that what mental health issues does with us? I would like to say that mental health is a big piece of the puzzle.