Once upon a time

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With Aisha Jallow

This is how many fairy tales begin, the beginning is a promise of an interesting and exciting story filled with imaginary characters and places. The purpose of a fairy tale is to be amusing. Your imagination will be moved to places where animals can speak, mountains can move and the sun can decide to set in the morning instead of the evening. Humans can speak to animals and they all live together as one. Animals can live in houses and act as humans, cook food, clean their houses and sleep in beds. A fairy tale has no boundaries, it stimulates your imagination and is setting your mind free.

A tale is a bit different. A tale can also be filled with talking animals, blue coloured people and exotic places, but they are not mainly made to be amusing. A tale ends with a sense morality which means that you are supposed to learn something from it. The technique of weaving in life lessons in a story is more efficient than only pointing your finger at someone, telling them what they have done wrong and asking them to do right. Pointing fingers is always easy, but following the direction is harder. If we think back at our childhood I’m sure most of us can remember someone who made a great impact on us just by telling stories about good and bad. There were no pointing fingers, only the possibility to find our own ways of doing good instead of misbehaving.

In Sweden we had a great fairy tale author, her name is Astrid Lindgren, and her stories are spread among the world. She grew up as a poor girl, but she had loving parents who never abused their children. Astrid was a great children’s rights ambassador. She had a saying: Show your children love and even more love and the common sense will develop by itself. An old lady, who I used to call grandma, used to say that it is easy to hit a child. The hard part is to avoid hitting the child, even if you feel the urge to punish it. I decided to follow both Astrid’s and grandma’s advice when my children were young. I decided to never abuse them as I was abused. I learned my lesson through the tales of Astrid and grandma, and that is exactly the purpose of a tale.


Fairy tales have a happy ending, but old time tales were not supposed to have that, they could even have a cruel ending. Nowadays we try to pamper and comfort our children, more than we were pampered when we grew up. Considering that, we still need to find a balance, too much and too little of anything is never good for anyone. What I have found, especially with my Somalian students, is that their parents feel lost in our Swedish society. Many of them are more or less illiterate, come with a lot of trauma from their time as refugees. They were taught that children are raised with the Holy Qur’an in one hand and a slipper in the other. If the words of God couldn’t make the children behave, the slipper certainly did.

I know many of my Somalian students fear the slipper, it hurts bad when they are hit with it. Corporal punishment is against the law here, but this is many times the only way the parents know how to raise their kids. It is hard for any parent to raise kids, but it is harder when you live in a society where you don’t speak the language, you don’t know the rules and you avoid asking for help as you fear your kids will be taken away from you. The social services take abuse of children seriously, but in some cases they have reacted too quickly and without enough knowledge of cultural differences.

As well as we expect immigrants to integrate into our society, we need to have a deeper knowledge about their background, both cultural and what has happened to them before they finally settled down in Sweden. You can’t throw away your own experiences and history like an old backpack you no longer want to carry. Your life has formed you into the person you now are, and that needs to be taken into consideration whenever we react on something we find strange. I often say that we can’t only listen to what someone is telling us, but what are they not telling us? We can’t only look at what someone is showing us, but what are they not showing us? Fear and pain are hard subjects to speak about, and you don’t open up your soul to everyone.

If we learn to listen with our hearts too, and not only with our minds that often are filled with prejudice, we can learn a lot about our fellow human beings. Many times we talk too much and listen too little, we are filled with answers but are we really interested in the questions? The old tales led us and gave our lives a structure. Even if they could be cruel or harsh, they still gave us some comfort. They gave us the answers for how we were supposed to behave, how to live and what to think. What the tales didn’t give us, was the insight that life is seldom easy. There is no rule book we can follow, as we are all individuals and don’t act in a way you can always predict. Life is not only black or white, only good or bad, it is a matter of grey zones and interpretation.

Some of you might have seen a picture where two men are watching a number written on the floor. Depending on where they stand, the number could be a 6 or a 9. Who is right and who is wrong; the one who sees the number 6 or the number 9? You see, there is no easy answer on this dilemma, it depends on where you stand and that is the same with so many things in life. This is an insight we should use when we interact with people, no matter their age, gender or nationality. If we approach our fellow human beings with humility, we will find that there is always something interesting to learn about them. Life is a learning process, it is not constant, it is a process and that is what is making life so interesting.

We get so many impulses nowadays, many more than before we had internet and social media. Some of these impulses we can handle, others are completely strange to us and what is strange many times fill us with fear. When we get afraid, the automatic impulses from the oldest part of the human brain, the brainstem, kicks in. The fight or flight impulse has saved humanity since the beginning, but we need to learn to sort between imaginary dangers and actual dangers. Use the old tales as guidelines, not rulebooks. Meet your fellow human beings with interest and a will to learn. Raise your kids with the Holy Qur’an in one hand, but skip the slipper. Give them love and even more love, and the common sense will develop anyway.