International multimedia journalist
Homeless in the Frozen North
How do those with unstable housing survive winter in Sweden?
Refugee Crisis in Rural Sweden
Asylum Seekers Polarize Community, but Most Critics Stay Silent
Story Behind the Story
In November 2015, I moved to Sweden at the same time as the highest influx of refugees since World War II. A journalist friend told me that her hometown in southwestern Sweden, infamous for its far-right politics, was flooded with refugees. My interest piqued, I travelled across the country by train to spend three days immersed in small-town life, interviewing refugees and locals about the global crisis in their backyard.
What emerged was a nuanced portrait of a divided town.
Refugees Polarize Rural Sweden, but Most Far-Right Critics Stay Silent
November 20, 2015
ÅSLJUNGA, Sweden – When Gisela Hector’s brother invited his village neighbor to play football with newly arrived refugees, the neighbor refused, saying he ‘would never have anything to do with them’.
“Many people are positive and helping refugees, but some are very against,” said Gisela, 67, a blunt and wiry physical therapist. “They’re a minority, though, so they’re afraid to do anything.”
Gisela and her husband Per, 69, built their sprawling home beside a serene lake when they moved to Åsljunga with their six children in 1976. The population of the traditionally Lutheran village, nestled among quintessential red farmhouses in the southern municipality of Örkelljunga, hovers around 700 - but not for much longer.
So far this year, Åsljunga received 102 asylum-seekers and Örkelljunga 332, compared with 90 in 2014.
These arrivals are just a fraction of the tidal wave of asylum-seekers entering Sweden. From September to November 2015, the country’s migration agency reported 80,000 new arrivals, the same as all of 2014. They predicted a total of 190,000 by the end of the year. Most refugees are Syrian, although many of the estimated 30,000 unaccompanied minors originate from Afghanistan, Eritrea, or Somalia.
The massive influx has overwhelmed a country famed for its historically open-armed generosity and polarized opinions in every municipality, including Örkelljunga.
“The town is divided on the issue,” said Hector's nephew Andreas Giselsson, 32, who works in a home for unaccompanied minor refugees in Åsljunga. “But in the public forum in Sweden, we like to be politically correct and don’t talk about it.”
On the national stage, the only vocal critics are the far-right Swedish Democrats, ostracized by other parties for their anti-immigration policies. The nationalistic party boasts a stronghold in Örkelljunga: in 2014’s general election, 26 percent of the municipality – the highest in the country – voted for them.
Although immigration critics are an undeniable presence in Örkelljunga, they’re largely silenced by cultural fear of disagreement and social pressure to accept diversity. Instead, a more vocal majority has rallied to welcome refugees.
Eager Local Volunteers Set Example for Swedes
When Åsljunga opened its refugee center in August 2015, 200 locals attended an informational meeting; 50 volunteered to help asylum-seekers.
Boel Skoglund, 55, deacon of the Lutheran church, organized volunteers to give rides and Swedish lessons to refugees – a scheme so successful that neighbouring towns followed their example.
Skoglund believes it’s easier for refugees to meet locals and learn language in the rural area.
“It’s better to come to a small place because people know each other,” she said.
“It’s also easier to mobilize people to volunteer, because they want to do something good for the village.”
For Åsljunga locals Gisela and Per Hector, helping refugees was natural. “We have such a good life,” said Per. “Many of the refugees have also had this life, and then they come here and they have nothing.”
After the refugee center opened, Per pioneered a second-hand shop for refugees that received so many donations he gave 90 extra bags to relief work abroad.
Gisela started teaching Swedish lessons at her kitchen table. Two of her students are Syrian refugees Salma Jabri, 24, and her husband Hasan, 31.
In August, the couple crossed from Turkey to Greece on a 10-meter boat with 45 fellow refugees and followed smugglers by ferry, car, train, and on foot over countless European borders until reaching Åsljunga.
Read more about their journey in article below
“We knew we wanted to come to Sweden, because we think we’ll have more opportunity,” Hasan said. The Jabris are now looking for their own house and interviewing for jobs – which proves to be the greatest challenge.
Refugees Fear Joblessness
According to the Swedish Public Employment Service, unemployment in Örkelljunga was 8.7 percent in 2015. In the greater region of Skåne, it was 10.1 percent – the country’s highest.
Finding a job is especially difficult for asylum-seekers. Refugees have the right to work while they wait for asylum, but they’re barred from government-sponsored Swedish classes until they're granted permanent residency - and without language, chances of employment are slim.
In one house in Örkelljunga, nine Syrian men and a family of three live together; some of them have been waiting to receive asylum for over a year. During the day, they attend informal Swedish classes; at night they play cards or watch TV - but what they really want is to work.
“We want to find a job,” said the oldest, who declined to give his name. “We Syrians like to study; we like to work hard.”
The speaker, who entertained guests from all over the world in a 5-star hotel for 25 years, would like to work in hospitality again. A medical student dreamed of finishing his degree and developing cures for cancer. Another man would take any job so his family could join him in Sweden.
The fears of unemployed refugees echo the concerns of immigration skeptics like Kristian Svensson, 35, who grew up in Åsljunga. He said taking in refugees was a good thing – up to a point.
“The problem here is there are no low-qualifying jobs,” Svensson said. “The sad truth is that no refugee can find a job.”
Critics Say: ‘We’ve Taken Enough’
Unemployment is just one reason Örkelljunga’s parliamentary representative Mikael Eskilandersson (SD) believes the municipality can’t support asylum-seekers.
“We have problems in elderly care and schools because there is not enough room,” he said. “All these things cost money, but while our population has grown, our taxes income hasn’t.”
Annette Mårtensson, Örkelljunga’s refugee coordinator, confirmed that space in the municipality was very short, reflecting a national crisis that prompted Sweden to impose border controls in November. Eskilandersson advocated to close borders completely.
“We’ve taken enough,” he said. “Whether they’re refugees or not, we must stop the inflow of migrants. They need to go somewhere else.”
Anti-immigrant sentiment in Sweden sparked a string of suspected arson attacks – ten in October alone – against planned refugee centers. In response, the migration agency made their locations secret.
Recently in Åsljunga, perpetrators broke windows and set off fireworks at refugee housing. The director of the main center declined an interview, fearing negative attention. Residents now take turns patrolling the premises at night.
“I feel afraid all the time,” said Amar Amer, 19, who arrived alone from Syria two years ago. “But if I compare it to war, it’s nothing.”
Activists Envision Integration for All
In the face of animosity, some locals are committed to overcoming prejudice.
“I don’t think that everyone is racist,” Skoglund said, “but they’re afraid. If you’ve never met a person from Baghdad, you only see the differences. It’s important to see every human being the same, not look at borders and nationality.”
In 2013, Skoglund partnered with Turkish immigrant Necmettin Meletli to found IFALL (Integration for All), an organization that now has 23 volunteers and multiple weekly activities including a language café and sports games.
“We try to create a meeting place where people can understand cultures,” said Meletli. “Refugees are willing
to integrate, but the main challenge is for Swedes to integrate refugees into society. Being Swedish is not about ethnicity, it’s about values and how your behavior reflects those values.”
IFALL’s goal is not only to integrate communities but also to develop refugees, like Syrian Mazen Hossni, 36, (left) into leaders.
After two years waiting for asylum, Hossni, his wife, and pair of young daughters received permanent residency two months ago.
Formerly a luxury shoe store manager in Dubai, Hossni now works at McDonalds. In his free time, he volunteers as a translator at the refugee center and serves as IFALL’s Vice-President.
“I feel that Sweden is my home,” Hossni said. “Because they helped me and my family, I want to help.”
Seeking Asylum Pregnant and Sassy
One refugee couple braved Syrian car jackers, Serbian mafia, and Swedish isolation for the sake of their unborn son.
ÅSLJUNGA, Sweden - It wasn’t the multiple near-death experiences that ultimately made Salma and Hasan Jabri leave Syria for Sweden. Not the bullet that sliced by Salma’s head while walking down the street. Not the bomb that exploded in front of Hasan on his way to work. Not the men who stopped Salma on her way to university, and even after she resisted and bit them, succeeded in stealing her car.
“Those things were normal,” Salma shrugged. “They happened every day.” Then what was the breaking point?
“This guy.” Salma pointed at her stomach, nine months pregnant with the couple’s first son. “When we found out we were pregnant, we thought there’s no way we’re going to have this baby here.”
Four months later, the two sharing their story struck with their confidence. Salma, 24, with unusually pale skin and blue eyes, peppered her fluent English with sarcastic slang and sporadic swearing; Hasan, 31, tall with grey creeping into his black hair, spoke less but smiled more.
The couple married in Syria in January 2015. Hasan worked in finance while Salma trained as an architect and volunteered with the Red Crescent. “The funny thing is,” she said, “we used to be the ones helping refugees, and now we’re the refugees.”
Clustered around a wooden kitchen table in rural Sweden, the pair traced their European exodus according to Google Maps on a computer screen. From the way they told it, you would have thought it was an adventure tale – complete with James Bond jokes and smuggler impersonations – instead of the most harrowing journey of their lives.
When the Jabris decided to leave Syria, Salma didn’t even tell her mother. They sold Salma’s stolen car – that they’d recovered, crashed, the same day as the theft – to pay for the trip.
The couple took a bus to the Turkish coast with four friends, where they boarded a 10-meter boat with 45 fellow refugees to cross the tumultuous Aegean Sea. Hasan, the only one who could swim, carried their plastic bag-wrapped laptop in a backpack. Miraculously, the laptop survived the hour-long trip.
Hasan and Salma landed on a Greek island where they were confined to abandoned coast guard barracks. “In Greece,” Salma said, “you’re not treated like a guest, but a prisoner.”
Men and women were separated. They couldn’t shower or change their clothes soaked with seawater. 200 refugees used one toilet, and the overflowing sewage crept beneath their beds. Over the three nights they spent there, Hasan slept only 15 minutes.
They couple made it by ferry to Athens, where a smuggler crammed them into a dilapidated car to drive through Macedonia and Serbia. Salma celebrated her birthday in Belgrade.
The smuggler arranged for them to stay in a hotel, but when a tip-off alerted police to their location, they evacuated to a café commandeered by Serbian gangsters. Listen to Salma tell the story of who they met there:
In the morning, the man offered his own car for them to continue the journey. “They took us near the Hungary border and told us to walk straight,” said Salma. “He said, don’t worry, it’ll only take 10 minutes.”
“We walked for 15 kilometers. It took more than 4 hours. Then we jumped a fence," said Hasan. “We jumped three fences,” Salma scoffed. “We don’t know which borders we crossed.”
In Hungary, mayhem broke out. Smugglers increased their prices, travelers were robbed and beaten, and refugees fought for space on trains. On a carriage intended for 100 people, Salma saw 3000 packed in.
The couple claimed two seats in a smuggler’s car headed for Copenhagen, where they boarded a train for the last leg of their journey. They arrived to southern Sweden on August 22.
“When we got to Malmö, we weren’t sure this was Sweden. We started to go around the station, wondering what to do now,” said Salma.
She met a Syrian woman who had immigrated to Sweden 20 years ago; the woman drove the couple to a hotel and connected them with the government migration agency. Two days later, the Jabris were placed in Åsljunga.
When the couple finally arrived at their new home, they were shocked. The village surrounded by quintessential red farmhouses has a population of 700.
“We thought we’d come to the middle of nowhere. “We’re not used to being this secluded,” Salma said. Hasan explained: “We lived in a city with 5 million people. Everyone in Åsljunga could fit on our street.”
Hasan and Salma came from Aleppo, the world’s oldest Islamic city and a formerly thriving urban center. Before the war, the city exported its goods – soap used for Loreal products, wheat to produce Italian pasta, jam made from roses – all over the world.
When the Jabris left, Aleppo was half-empty and completely destroyed. “Even the safest places are bound to explode,” said Salma. “No place is safe now.”
They keep in touch with their families still in Aleppo, who live in constant anxiety and deprivation. Recently, Salma’s brother couldn’t find milk, diapers, or baby food for his children for three weeks; Hasan’s mother went 16 days without electricity and 10 days without water. To survive, people are fleeing.
“Now our whole street is empty,” said Salma. “Everyone is selling their houses and cars and going to Europe.”
Salma and Hasan always knew they wanted to come to Sweden because they believed they would have more opportunities here. When they arrived, they immediately applied for asylum and began learning the language.
“We have to wait for papers to go to Swedish school, but we thought it’s good to start learning as fast as you can,” said Hasan. The couple dove into study using a smart phone app and library book, but struggled under the pressure.
“After all that happens when you’re coming from Syria, you need one or two months to ease your mind and then start,” Hasan said. Three months later, they’ve started studying again – this time learning from the locals.
When Åsljunga's refugee center opened in August, Gisela Hector started giving weekly Swedish lessons to refugees in her home. On a Saturday afternoon in mid-November, the Jabris were her only students. They arrived on time, slipping off their new winter coats, Salma making fun of Hasan for leaving his just-bought umbrella on the bus.
Around the kitchen table, Gisela taught the Jabris vocabulary from a children’s picture book. Quick learners and already tri-lingual, the couple compared Swedish words to Arabic, English, and French.
Gisela moved on to explain Swedish recycling, animals, and geography, pointing out Åsljunga on a laid-out map. When the Jabris pulled up Google Maps to show Gisela where they came from in Syria, the lesson evolved into reliving their journey up to the present.
During fika, a traditional Swedish coffee break, Salma and Hasan shared about their current life in the refugee center. The Jabris explained that less resilient residents looked to them for help.
“The woman who is living in the next room came to us the other day crying,” Salma said. “She hadn’t slept or eaten for 15 days, and she felt so much stress she thought she would have a nervous breakdown.” The Jabris calmed her and helped her to contact the center’s psychologist – who was only able give her a counseling appointment in January.
“People come to us to solve their problems,” said Salma. “Maybe it’s because we’re happy all the time.”
For Salma, happiness is a lifestyle choice. The cover photo of her Facebook page broadcasts the philosophy: Happiness is a decision. You are as happy as you decide to be.
Salma and Hasan have decided to be grateful for many things – safety, food, and a roof over their heads – but they haven’t buried their ambitions.
“We want to get our own house,” said Salma. “We are trying to get our degrees translated. We are interviewing for jobs.”
It was easy to imagine the Jabris in five, ten, fifteen years: fluent in Swedish, working, settled in their own house – maybe still living in Åsljunga, or maybe moved on to Stockholm, London, New York.
It was easy to imagine them telling this story to their son. At first enraptured, after countless times he would grow bored or annoyed or maybe even secretly skeptical – finding it hard to believe such an extraordinary tale of hardship so far removed from his own life.
December 21, 2015
*On January 12, 2016, Salma gave birth to a baby boy, Faysal, in Sweden.