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

Friday - - Contents -

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

RE­PORTAGE

Un­like some of his com­pa­tri­ots, ar­chi­tect Ka­mal is thriv­ing in Malmö

RE­PORTAGE Salah De­bas, 23, lives in Strövel­storp

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