The world is big. Yet, it is also small. We are all part of it, and we all have more commonalities than differences. But we also have different approaches, timelines and paths to development and equality, justice and prosperity. Luckily, the human nature is also such that we always want more democracy, influence, participation, democracy and peace. Well, it is not linear and upwards always. But if it goes in the wrong direction at times, there are always groups and forces that work for us to be back on the right track.

In our time, there are many positive forces, taking us forward; and there are some negative, populist and other forces, sometimes making it acceptable to reverse past achievements of democracy, equality and development. It is important to make the right analyses and see what goes on so that we can strengthen the right forces, values and actions.

We can learn from each other, historically and in our own time; we can get inspiration from how people struggled and worked in recent decades and centuries. Today, I shall tell the story of one Swedish couple, who helped build the land of Sweden a couple of generations ago up to the present time. They are impressive, ordinary people. They are not royals, not highly educated, not full of big words and speeches; they are like you and me. Indeed, they can represent the people that built their land, every land. Let us learn from what they did and how they lived and worked, indeed their values of solidarity, concern and love for others, especially those who had to stand with cap in hand.

Another time, I will tell the story about a few Pakistani couples who did as much - and I will give honour to the indigenous Swedes, the Sami and Lappish people, who live in the north of Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia. The majority society did not give them the respect and inclusion they had the right to, until in recent decades. That also includes the Inuit of Greenland, the indigenous people of the large Danish island, and indigenous people everywhere.

My article today is about a Swedish couple, who can be representatives of those who built their land’s modern welfare state and the folk home (‘folkhemmet’), and one of the world’s most equal, fair and prosperous societies.

Oscar Severin Björk was born in 1900 in Västermanland County in Central Sweden, but moved later to Stockholm to seek work as a labourer, a mason; he was called to the army during WWII, serving some years and having prospects for a future army career. He left the army to go back to his work as a labourer. With only 6 years of primary school, but a strong body, save for a leg problem, but will to work, there was not much else he could do. Manual work he did all his life, being proud of it, too, from he was 13, working in a coal mine for a meagre pay and no job security, but with food and a place to sleep – and getting away from the beatings of his stepfather. He was a conscientious and honest worker from he was a young lad till the bitter end, working until age 75, although he could have received pension earlier. He passed away of a heart attack at 76 in 1976. By then, Oscar had been a widower for seven years after his wife for 46 years had passed away in 1970.

Greta Björk, nee Nilsson, was Oscar’s beloved wife. She was also born in 1900 in Örebro, in the same area as Oscar. She left school after six years of compulsory primary school (‘folkskola’) and began working as a maid in homes of well-to-do people in her hometown, always receiving the best recommendations and certificates when leaving a post. She had been best in class at school; the teacher called her a ‘leshovud’, a ‘reading head’. But her parents could not afford to give her further education. At the age of eighteen she gave birth to a son, Karl-Eric, or Kalle, as he was nicknamed. That time, it was considered a scandal. Kalle was taken care of by Greta’s mother, and even when Greta and Oscar had married in 1924, and had a home so they could have taken Kalle to live with them, the boy was so attached to his grandmother that they let him live with her till adulthood, which was the right thing to do for the boy and the grandmother, but not so easy for his mother.

When Kalle came of age, circumstances had improved in Sweden, and he got an opportunity to study to become an engineer. He found work at the large arms manufacturer Brofors AB. Later, he moved to Stockholm in a location not far from his mother in Norra Ängby.

Greta and Oscar had no children of their own. But they had a foster son for six years, Tom Alandh. He made the film from where I have most of the information I tell you in this article. The film, in Swedish entitled ‘Greta och Oscar och huset dom byggde’, (‘Greta and Oscar and the house they built’) was made by SVT, the Swedish state broadcaster, and released in 2017. It is a beautiful and moving documentary, also with political and social content. When Tom’s mother had divorced his flamboyant father and she had sorted out her life, she was able to take her son back to live with her, not far from where his foster parents lived. Throughout life, Tom remained as a son to Greta and Oscar, and his thankfulness is tremendous.

And now I reach a key aspect of what I wanted to tell you about Greta and Oscar. They were ‘typical Swedes’ of their time. They belong to those admired, ordinary people, who built the land and the welfare state – and their own homes, the ‘folkhemmet’, as Per Albin Hansson coined it. He was the legendary Social Democratic Party leader from the mid nineteen twenties till the forties, and two-time prime minister. People needed homes, work, skills, and functional education. They got all of it; well, they worked for it, the way Greta and Oscar did in a life of duty and solidarity to land, community and each other – it was a lifelong love at many levels.

In the documentary, there may be a hidden message, that all Swedes are somehow social democrats, even those who voted for other parties than the Social Democratic Party. It was not until the 1970s that other more centrist and conservative parties gained strength. Oscar never voted for the Social Democratic Party, and he was also not a member of a labour union that was affiliated to the ruling party. Yet, he believed more in solidarity and uplift of ordinary people than in the king and establishment institutions – and so did the leaders of the land, too, the documentary explains.

Queen Elisabeth visited Oscar’s and Greta’s residential area in Norra Ängby, Stockholm, in 1956, so she could see how ordinary people in the more egalitarian Sweden lived. Oscar and Greta are not seen in the photos from that event, simply because they didn’t attend. Oscar said in an interview that his foster son Tom had made with him, that he didn’t think it was necessary. He also said that the middle-class neighbourhood just a few kilometres away, with big gardens and larger houses, where lawyers, directors and senior civil servants lived, was certainly good, but it was awfully quiet. One never saw anyone working in the garden, cutting the lawn, tending to the fruit trees and bushes, weeding the flower beds and cutting a bouquet of roses – all of which was his wife Greta’s and his own joy, and it became a way of comfort to Oscar after his wife had passed away. When in his workshop at the basement of the house, Oscar often spoke to himself, even using those colourful Swedish swearwords; Greta explained to their foster son that it was only good people who would do that.

And then, Oscar would go home to his house, a modest dwelling built in 1936 from a loan of SEK 9600 (about USD 1600 in today value), paid back promptly in instalments and an interest rate of 3.5 percent till 30 September 1966 when the final instalment of 128 kronor and 41 öre was paid to the bank. It took 30 years, but then Oscar and Greta had had a home, 3 rooms and kitchen and a garden, indeed a dream come true for ordinary people. The house was sold a year after Oscar’s death for SEK 7.9 million (about USD 1.3 mill).

The house had been full of life and warmth during the foster son Tom’s years with Oscar and Greta, who made a home for him and saved him from drifting into delinquency. They were a typical decent couple, working hard in ordinary jobs; Oscar as a labourer, and Greta as a housewife, as was common that time, looking after all that needed a woman’s care. The kitchen always smelt so nice, Tom recalls, and Greta’s warm hugs and concern was always in abundance. Oscar was a particular man, yes, in many ways a typical Swede in that sense, keeping receipts and books in order, paying bills and not being in debt to anyone; that was also why it was possible for Tom to make the documentary, simply because the shoeboxes at the basement of the house, with all the papers, had been saved when the house was sold. The basement had been turned in to a garage, not only a workshop for Oscar. Well, Oscar and Greta, too, managed to buy a car, a Volvo PV.

But they never forgot their roots, their struggle, and sometimes also what they could not have. They built the land that is Sweden today, one of the world’s most democratic countries. Yet, today there are new challenges and new tasks. I hope and I believe that Sweden still has people like Oscar and Greta. Today, many of them are immigrants, almost twenty percent of Sweden’s ten million inhabitants. Among them, and among the other Swedes, there are people like Oscar and Greta. They will help build the ‘new Sweden’, not only fighting class differences, which Oscar and Greta did, but continue working for an all-inclusive culture where all ethnicities, backgrounds, religions and classes are valued.