Syrians who were well respected in their home country are struggling to survive in Sweden, the only country that will grant them asylum.
Respected and successful back home, these Syrians have escaped war but they’re still fighting to come to terms with a life of oblivion in Sweden, the only country that will grant them asylum. Matteo Fagotto reports
Dressed in a yellow sweatshirt and loose, blue trousers, 23-year-old Salah Debas remembers the life he enjoyed in Syria. “I had everything there,” he says. “Nobody could dare touch me if I ran a traffic light or if I played music into the early hours of the morning. I just had to make a phone call and the police would leave immediately. Those were the best days in my life.”
Until two years ago, Salah worked at a radio station belonging to Maher Assad, the brother of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad. One of the most promising Syrian DJs at that time, he spent his life between the radio studio and gigs at nightclubs all over the Middle East, from Cairo to Dubai, from Beirut to Istanbul. The pay was fantastic, at least $1,500 (Dh5,500) per event, and the lifestyle enviable.
In contrast, the miserable existence he has in Strövelstorp, Sweden, couldn’t be more different. “If I died here now, no one would know,” he says, his eyes roaming around the barren, wooden room he occupies in this small village, lost in the Swedish countryside.
“I feel I am just throwing away another year of my life,” he adds, clearly dejected.
Salah shares a basic house with another Syrian and an Iranian refugee in a village of just a few hundred people near the Swedish city of Helsingborgs. Hosted in a former farm turned into a residential complex for asylum seekers, Salah clearly struggles to adapt to his new life. “I feel terrible,” he says. “Life here is just pressure, pressure and more pressure. Music is my life, but now I can’t get any pleasure from it. The only good thing is that I am safe.”
Salah’s life began to crumble after the start of the Syrian revolution. Disgusted by what he describes as the blatant pro-government propaganda his radio was making up, he decided to quit and work as a media activist for the opposition Free Syrian Army. After the Syrian intelligence started looking for him, he fled the country.
Using all his savings, Salah went to Istanbul and paid a smuggler to squeeze him into the boot of a bus bound for Sweden. This was to be his home for seven long days as the bus wove its way to Stockholm. Breathing with the help of an oxygen tank, he arrived on March 17, 2013. Seven months later, he was granted asylum by the Swedish authorities.
Salah is just one of thousands of Syrians who have recently found shelter in Sweden, the only country in the world now granting permanent residence to Syrian asylum seekers as a general policy
since last September. Lured by the dream of a safe and comfortable life, more than 6,000 Syrians applied for asylum between September and November last year, and thousands more are expected to arrive in the coming months.
Most of them belong to the middle and upper classes, the only ones able to afford the roughly ¤ 10,000 (Dh49,685) necessary to purchase fake documents and be smuggled through Europe. The majority of those who make it are young, single men, whose main goal is to find a job and send money to their families back in Syria. Once here, though, what they discover is a different reality from the haven they dreamt of.
Despite several integration programmes conceived by the Swedish authorities to introduce them into society, most of the young Syrians who arrive here struggle to adapt to the new reality. Cut away from their families and loved ones, they are stuck in limbo between a comfortable life they can’t forget and a tough, new reality they’re unable to accept.
Most refugees occupied a prominent place within Syrian society and, unlike the economic migrants, wouldn’t have left their country if it wasn’t for the war. “They had very good positions in Syria and they want the same position here,” says Elias Kasgawa, a 47-year-old Syrian who migrated to Sweden in 1970. “But they won’t get it.”
Hampered by language barriers and without a network of local contacts, they struggle to cope with a radically different society. Sweden and Syria are worlds apart, not only in terms of food and weather, but also in terms of politics, relationships between men and women and the way society is organised.
“Syrians are raised in a more hierarchical way,” says Elias, who has happily settled with his family in Sweden and works as a hotel constructor. “You always have a leading figure. In Sweden you don’t have many guidelines. The system here lets you develop yourself.”
Once a newcomer applies for asylum, his application is processed by the Swedish Migration Board – the government agency responsible for hosting and feeding the applicant until a final decision is taken.
While the average waiting time is around 90 days, given the recent influx of Syrians, responses can now take six months or, in some cases, more than a year. If the application is successful, the asylum seeker is granted a fiveyear permanent residence and enters a two-year introduction programme managed by Arbetsförmedlingen, the Swedish public employment service. During this time, the asylum seeker is paid roughly ¤ 650 per month for attending a 40-hour-per-week Swedish language course and is encouraged to seek job training or part-time jobs.
Arbetsförmedlingen also assists newcomers in finding accommodation and subsidises part of their rent. Although the introduction programme is one of the most advanced in the world, the situation is still far from ideal
“It looks nice on paper, but in reality authorities aren’t looking for the competence of these people, their experiences or their dreams,” says Lena Schroeder, associate professor at the Swedish Institute of Social Research and former director of research at the now-dismantled Swedish Integration Board. “Quite a lot of them have high education, yet they are put in labour courses to drive a bus or in something similar.”
As a result, most of the young and educated Syrian professionals in Sweden either have to somehow find the time to learn the language properly and try to continue their professions or settle for less attractive, more menial jobs.
“What is best, a job or the right job? These might be two separate things for a highly educated person,” says Johan Nylander, analyst at the Arbetsförmedlingen Department of Integration and Introduction.
Giwara, a 28-year-old Syrian Kurd from Aleppo who arrived in Sweden
15 months ago, is a living example of this contradiction. Once the owner and manager of a clothing factory that was employing 90 people, he was forced to close down business two months before the FSA entered Aleppo, in the summer of 2012.
“The rebels ransacked all the factories, selling the machinery and components to Turkey,” he says. After an adventurous trip through Greece and Italy that lasted more than a month and cost him around ¤ 16,000, Giwara finally settled in Helsingborg, where he now survives by sharing a hostel with 10 other immigrants.
“We have only one kitchen and one bathroom. Some of these guys have stayed in this place for 15 years,” he says. “I’m disillusioned by Sweden. If I could turn back time, I would have settled in Turkey instead.”
A haven for refugees, Sweden has a long tradition of welcoming refugees and asylum seekers. In the past decades, thousands of Somalis, Palestinians, Iraqis and ex-Yugoslavians have found shelter from wars here. The small city of Sodertalje, on the outskirts of Stockholm, became famous for having accepted more Iraqi refugees than the whole of the United States. In 2013 alone, more than 13,000 Syrians applied for asylum.
“Syria is by far the biggest emergency we had after the war in the Balkans,” says Veronika Lindstrand Kant, head of department at the Swedish Migration Board. Mainly because of the recent influx of Syrians, by the end of October 2013, 1,400 people were entering the Arbetsförmedlingen introduction plan every week – more than double the figure of the previous year.
This massive arrival has created a worrying housing backlog in the big cities, forcing the public employment service to allocate newcomers to remote and isolated villages in the north, where more houses are available but living conditions are tougher and working opportunities rare.
“Eight thousand people are waiting for a house,” says Johan. “With this influx now, we’re happy to find them any place to stay.”
Despite all these hardships, not all Syrians are faring poorly. Contrary to most of his compatriots now in Sweden, Bashar*, a 34-year-old from Lattakia, didn’t experience war.
A mechanical engineer employed by a Swiss company, he spent the past seven years in Dubai, where he had a nice house and a well-paid job. Last year, though, he had to choose between going back to Syria and joining the Army or seeking asylum.
After settling in the pleasant neighbourhood of Möllevången, Malmö, Bashar challenges the cold, unfriendly image that the majority of Syrians have of Sweden.
“Here they even pay me for studying Swedish,” he says. “Syrians are used to minimum effort when it comes to employment. But you won’t get a job if you don’t apply for 100.”
After completing the two-year Swedish language programme in just four months, Bashar has enrolled for a Master’s in sustainable management at a local university.
Although his parents and three siblings are still in Syria, for Bashar, going back is not an option. His liberal position of supporting neither the regime, nor the armed opposition prompted his family to ostracise him, and he doesn’t fit with the growing radicalisation of Syrian society.
“I want a Syria that is secular, free and peaceful,” he says. “Before the start of the revolution, everyone was afraid of expressing their ideas.
Giwara, 28, describes himself as ‘disillusioned by Sweden’ and wishes he’d fled to Turkey instead
Mahmoud Al Rifai, 27 and Athar Zenbarakji, 25, with their seven-month-old daughter Amanda
Unlike some of his compatriots, architect Kamal is thriving in Malmö
REPORTAGE Salah Debas, 23, lives in Strövelstorp