I’m half scot, half iraqi. but in malmö in sweden, i felt i belonged zaineb al hassani opinion the guardian gas monkey bar and grill

On the streets near Triangeln train station and in the cafes dotted around the nearby square, most people speak Arabic. Shops and supermarkets carry signs in the language too. For any outsider, it is a surprising sight. But not for the people who have grown up here. Malmö is Sweden’s third largest city. About 43% of its 328,000 population has a foreign background, many from the Arab world, some having arrived in the area decades ago.

There are streets lined with currency exchange shops called Babylon Exchange, Al Jazeera Exchange, or Denar Exchange. At the Bagdad supermarket, butchers chat with customers in Arabic as they chop and pack up meat that is all halal. Shoppers wind their way through busy stalls, passing fridges full of sujuc (a dry, spicy sausage) and flatbread, as well as shelves full of baklawa – bite-sized sweets made of filo pastry, nuts and honey or syrup – and other Middle Eastern desserts. In one corner, a small stand distributes free copies of an Arabic newspaper.

The owner of the supermarket is a Kurdish man from Baghdad. I meet his 26-year-old son, Amir, who tells me the family, who moved to Sweden in 1991, feel firmly established in Malmö. He says it was “ hard in the beginning” for his father, “but now he’s used to the whole mentality”, by which he means the Swedish way of life. Now, Amir says, his father feels both Iraqi and Swedish “at the same time”.

Between some of the older and more recent migrants, I hear differing views on how groups have managed to integrate with Swedish society. Perceptions seem to vary with successive waves of arrivals. One Iraqi man who arrived in 1989 with his wife tells me racism is “an open issue” which is made worse if the newly arrived don’t adapt to local customs. He suggests that recent refugees react differently from earlier ones because they have been shaped by crises in their homelands, countries racked by conflict or ruled by dictators. Another says it was easier to integrate into Swedish society decades ago, when there wasn’t such a large mixture of nationalities, and with migrants now concentrated in certain neighbourhoods. “Foreigners lived among Swedes more, so they acted more like them,” he says.

Bashar, a 34-year-old coffee-shop owner who arrived from Baghdad as a teenager, says that he is unhappy with how overtly religious some newly arrived migrants can be. He explains that years of living in Sweden have changed him: “I keep my religion at home. I don’t want to show it to other people, I don’t want to speak about it.” It irks him when people ask: “What religion are you? Do you go to the mosque?” He believes that people moving to Europe from vastly different cultures must learn to adapt. I hear similar comments from 32-year-old Mohammad, who held a government job in Iraq from 2010 to 2015 before emigrating because of the war and now works at the Möllevången fruit and vegetable market. “I see things and I do things I couldn’t see or do in the Middle East. I’m a guy, I want to go out with a bunch of guys and girls, go to the pub to drink or smoke. In the Middle East that’s like a forbidden thing.”

Mirna, a mother of four whose family moved from Lebanon in the 1980s to escape from the civil war, tells me she worries about insecurity. “I used to go out without watching my back. Now you have to look everywhere. It’s not the same.” Still, she says: “My blood is in Lebanon, but I love Sweden.”

“The first thing to note about Möllevången is that it is different from other neighbourhoods. It’s not just a poor immigrant neighbourhood but also an inner city neighbourhood with plenty of nightclubs and bars, so it’s one of a kind in Malmö, in a way,” says Manne Gerell, a lecturer at Malmö University. “There is plenty of violence, most of it related to nightlife and entertainment districts. But some of the violence is possibly related to immigration, or at least youth gangs mostly made up of people with a background in other countries.”

Sweden is the EU member state that took in the largest number of refugees per capita in 2015, at the peak of the refugee crisis. The country has been famously known for its welcoming attitude towards those fleeing war, persecution and poverty. Until recently it had the most generous immigration laws in Europe. But that has changed, with legislation introduced in 2016 to make family reunification more difficult for recent immigrants. In the runup to a general election in September the far-right Sweden Democrats party, in opposition, has been busy linking public concern about rising crime rates to the large increase in the number of immigrants.