Iraqis find haven and hard­ship in Swe­den

The refugees come in by the thou­sands, but ‘life is so up­side down.’

Los Angeles Times - - Front Page - By Jef­frey Fleish­man

upp­sala, swe­den — The words are strange here, the air is cold, and the girls give their hearts so eas­ily away. The fruit is less sweet too, the win­ter ice thick, and the thrum of bi­cy­cles makes an odd mu­sic across the cob­ble­stones.

Mariam Lutfi at­tends to th­ese un­ac­cus­tomed rhythms. There are many like her. They’re eas­ily spot­ted around town, nod­ding to one an­other, stop­ping to talk in their na­tive tongue while car­ry­ing note­books scrib­bled with a for­eign al­pha­bet that has too many sounds for the let­ter G. The call to prayer doesn’t war­ble across the chim­neys, the meat isn’t slaugh­tered ac­cord­ing to Is­lamic tra­di­tion, and find­ing a glass of strong tea is dif­fi­cult amid the clat­ter of lat­tes and es­pres­sos.

“Life is so up­side down. I am at zero,” said Lutfi, one of hun­dreds of Iraqi refugees at­tempt­ing to build a new life in Upp­sala. “I am learn­ing the ABCs of a new lan­guage. I can’t show any­thing to any­body here. I keep it inside. And when I go for a walk and there’s no one around, I cry and show my ner­vous­ness and re­gret only to my­self.”

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Leav­ing fam­i­lies and un­re­lent­ing sec­tar­ian vi­o­lence be­hind, they are pho­tographed and fin­ger­printed, their lives slipped into fold­ers too slim to hold all that’s been en­dured. They won­der about rein­ven­tion. They wres­tle with the mun­dane and the epic, shar­ing tips on where to get a cheap dress and how to find the Turk­ish ven­dor at the edge of town whose veg­eta­bles are nearly fresh and not too ex­pen­sive.

“We have safety and free­dom here, but our tra­di­tion dif­fers so much from the Swedes’,” said Amer Mazin, a Pales­tinian born in Bagh­dad, who paid a smug­gler $13,500 and ar­rived here in De­cem­ber. “From my bal­cony, I can see into other bal­conies. I see a man in an apart­ment liv­ing by him­self, and on the bal­cony next to his a wo­man is liv­ing by her­self. They don’t be­lieve in mar­riage like we do, they don’t be­lieve in fam­ily. My lan­guage teacher tells me he has a dog and doesn’t need a child. It seems strange.”

This is life adrift. More than 2mil­lion Iraqis have fled their home­land since the U.S.-led in­va­sion in 2003. Most are liv­ing in Syria, Jor­dan and other Mid­dle East­ern na­tions. Now, a grow­ing num­ber are head­ing to­ward Europe, es­pe­cially Swe­den, which for decades has of­fered refugees and asy­lum seek­ers gov­ern­ment aid and gen­er­ous fam­ily re­uni­fi­ca­tion plans. Nearly 9,000 Iraqis, more than half of all those who ar­rived in Europe from the wartorn coun­try in 2006, made their way to Swe­den. Euro­pean of­fi­cials es­ti­mate that as many as 40,000 more Iraqis may reach the con­ti­nent this year.

Since the over­throw of Iraqi leader Sad­dam Hus­sein, the United States has taken in 466 Iraqi refugees. Wash­ing­ton has been re­luc­tant to ac­cept them for fear that do­ing so would run counter to U.S. pol­icy to one day re­turn them to a se­cure Iraq. There also have been con­cerns about mis­tak­enly grant­ing asy­lum to mil­i­tants.

In­creased vi­o­lence in Iraq and crit­i­cism by hu­man rights groups, how­ever, ap­peared to have prompted the White House to an­nounce in Fe­bru­ary that the United States would ac­cept as many as 7,000 Iraqi refugees by the end of this year.

The Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion has pledged $18 mil­lion — a sum the U.S. mil­i­tary spends in Iraq in less than two hours — to United Na­tions re­lief ef­forts for Iraqi refugees this year.

In com­ments on the cri­sis, Bill Fre­lick, refugee pol­icy di­rec­tor at New York-based Hu­man Rights Watch, said, “Wash­ing­ton is spend­ing about $2 bil­lion per week on the war in Iraq, but has barely be­gun to ad­dress the hu­man fall­out from the war.”

Pay­ing smug­glers as much as $15,000 per per­son, Iraqi refugees bound for Europe travel with doc­tored pa­pers and forged pass­ports from dif­fer­ent coun­tries. They spend weeks or months wait­ing in Jor­dan or Turkey be­fore be­ing hid­den in cars and trucks and driven by cir­cuitous routes across the con­ti­nent. The lucky among them board planes in Am­man, the Jor­da­nian cap­i­tal, or Is­tan­bul, Turkey’s main city, and land in Stock­holm, where they turn them­selves in to im­mi­gra­tion of­fi­cials and ap­ply for asy­lum.

They have es­caped war’s dev- as­ta­tion, and now must nav­i­gate the con­fus­ing idio­syn­cra­sies of new coun­tries. In Upp­sala, a univer­sity city threaded by a river, Iraqis at­tend lan­guage classes be­low a down­town church steeple and then ride buses to neigh­bor­hoods such as Gottsunda, where they wear sec­ond­hand clothes and live in boxy brick apart­ment build­ings like the refugees who ar­rived af­ter the 1991 Per­sian Gulf War and con­flicts in Africa and the Balkans.

A fam­ily’s di­as­pora

Mazin feels like just an­other name on a list. His wife and four chil­dren re­main be­hind in a Syr­ian refugee camp. War has killed or scat­tered ev­ery­one close to him: His mother and a sis­ter are in Bagh­dad, a brother is in a hold­ing cen­ter on the Iraq-Syria border, two sis­ters are stuck in Syria, an­other brother and a sis­ter are in Jor­dan, and one sis­ter made it to Canada.

All this hap­pened af­ter June 20, 2005, when a third brother was shot and killed in the fam­ily’s elec­tri­cal con­tract­ing shop in Bagh­dad.

Wear­ing an ironed shirt and a beige jacket, Mazin totes a ny­lon bag full of pa­pers. He seems like a man go­ing to work, but there is no work for him, not un­til he learns Swedish. He is await­ing his res­i­dency per­mit and per­mis­sion to bring his fam­ily to Upp­sala, which has a pop­u­la­tion of 180,000 and is about 45 miles north­west of Stock­holm. Like other refugees from Iraq, Mazin, who lives with a group of men who have fled Iraq since 2003, re­ceives a monthly bus pass and just un­der $10 a day from the Swedish gov­ern­ment.

“I’d like to start a heat­ing and cool­ing busi­ness,” said Mazin, who prays in his bed­room be­cause there is no mosque in his neigh­bor­hood. “But mainly I just want to get my fam­ily and live in peace. It’s hard to con­cen­trate on learn­ing a new lan­guage when I worry about them. I know Iraq is go­ing from bad to worse. It will split along sec­tar­ian lines. There’s no so­lu­tion. But my pas­sion and my heart are there.”

Emad Ab­bass has the busy hands of a man who doesn’t sleep. His wife, 4-year-old son and 2-year-old daugh­ter are still in Bagh­dad. A chem­i­cal en­gi­neer, Ab­bass was at a train­ing sem­i­nar in Aus­tria in Jan­uary when a friend of his was killed by mil­i­tants. The man was one of two en­gi­neers and six elec­tri­cians slain within two months at the power plant where Ab­bass worked for the Iraqi Min­istry of Elec­tric­ity.

“My wife and mother in­sisted that I not come back to Iraq,” said Ab­bass, a Shi­ite Mus­lim. “I think about my friend who died. He had two daugh­ters. What will hap­pen to them now? What would hap­pen if I died? My un­cle was also killed by Al Qaeda while work­ing at the Dora power sta­tion in Bagh­dad. I col­lected his body from the morgue.

“No one should have to see the things in that morgue. Have you been? I saw they made one man like a shish ke­bab, run­ning a pole through him.”

Ab­bass and his wife can’t af­ford phone calls from Upp­sala to Bagh­dad. They keep in touch through e-mail, but there is so much left un­said that way, and Ab­bass doesn’t like what he imag­ines when he fills in the gaps. He has talked to a psy­chol­o­gist, but he won­ders how any­one from a coun­try like this can un­der­stand a coun­try like his.

“No coun­try has suf­fered like Iraq. I lost many rel­a­tives in all my coun­try’s wars,” he said.

“It’s re­ally not for us any­more. It’s for our chil­dren. I miss the or­anges in Iraq. They are al­ways sweet.”

He paused, catch­ing him­self, not want­ing to ap­pear un­grate­ful.

“I’m thank­ful to the Swedish peo­ple,” he said. “They are com­pas­sion­ate. They fol­low the things Je­sus taught. They let a man be hu­man.”

An­other kind of loss

Haitham Hiti and his fam­ily fled Iraq in De­cem­ber, trav­el­ing to Is­tan­bul, where they paid a smug­gler $50,000.

“He put us in buses and trucks with no win­dows and we didn’t know where we were, what coun­tries we were cross­ing into from day to night,” said Hiti, a me­chan­i­cal en­gi­neer and a Sunni Mus­lim. “It took 12 days of trav­el­ing and hid­ing, and then a guy told us, ‘Now you’re in Swe­den.’ He gave me a tele­phone and I called my brother who left Iraq eight years ago and works in a lab in Upp­sala.”

Shortly af­ter he and his fam­ily ar­rived here, Hiti’s wife slipped on the ice and suf­fered a bro­ken leg; a new dan­ger in a new coun­try, but a tol­er­a­ble one com­pared with the car­jack­ings, school bomb­ings and ex­tor­tion and death threats the fam­ily en­coun­tered in Iraq. Hiti owned a con­struc­tion com­pany; he and his wife and three chil­dren once lived in a house in Bagh­dad with body­guards and cooks and other ser­vants.

“Some­times I say to my­self, ‘Why did you leave Iraq?’ ” he said, stroking his mus­tache and brush­ing his jacket, the mo­tions of a re­fined man caught in un­ex­pected cir­cum­stances. “I can’t walk in the gar­den at my house. I can’t see my neigh­bors. This is now my coun­try. They tell me it takes a year to re­cover from this loss.”

Mariam Lutfi, a den­tist, would like to be in her gar­den too, smelling the scents that no longer linger in the few clothes she brought from Iraq. Her gold was stolen. Her money is gone. A Chris­tian, she was ha­rassed by Shi­ite mil­i­tants for not wear­ing a head scarf. Other things must now be done. She knows the Upp­sala bus sched­ule, where to get a deal on linens and how, some­times, “Swedes give us strange faces when they see our dark fea­tures.”

But she re­mem­bers the vi­cious­ness of Iraq and the day she fled: “When the gun­men kill they drop the dead in dif­fer­ent Bagh­dad neigh­bor­hoods, so each morn­ing there are so many strange things to see. My body­guard said he couldn’t pro­tect me any­more. Four men in black came. One of them held a pis­tol to my head and told me never to come back to my clinic. I left Iraq on Nov. 27.”

On her jour­ney to Swe­den, she trav­eled in a car with a smug­gler she didn’t know. “We went through Italy, France, Ger­many and Den­mark,” she said. “I had no pass­port. I felt no trust. When we stopped so I could go to the toi­let at a rest stop I was scared I would be left be­hind. I lost my voice out of fear.”

She wants to prac­tice den­tistry again, but the Swedish lan­guage has sounds she’s strug­gling to form. That’s when she feels all balled up, but she can’t tell her brother, who es­caped Iraq in 1991 and set­tled here, be­cause he is shar­ing his house with her and wants her to feel at home.

But home is not this city sur­rounded by pine trees and forests; it is still be­hind a court­yard wall on a dan­ger­ous street at the edge of the desert. jef­frey.fleish­man@la­times.com Times staff writer Ju­lian E. Barnes in Wash­ing­ton con­trib­uted to this re­port.

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