"MY LIFE IN SYRIA WAS AMAZING, I had everything.” Seated in his barren, wooden room in the southern Swedish village of Strövelstorp last December, Salah Debas remembered what he deemed the best days of his life. Until two years ago, Debas was a DJ for a radio station in Damascus belonging to Maher al-Assad, the brother of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. Debas shuttled between gigs at radio studios and nightclubs across West Asia, from Cairo to Dubai, from Beirut to Istanbul. The pay was good, at least $1,500 per event, and the lifestyle enviable. The contrast with his current existence couldn’t be starker. “I feel like shit,” the 23-year-old said. “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.”
Debas’s old life fell apart after the start of the Syrian civil war in early 2011. Disgusted by what he described as the pro-government propaganda broadcast by his radio station, he quit his job and became a media activist for the rebel Free Syrian Army. When Syrian intelligence started looking for him, he fled. Using all his savings, Debas went to Istanbul and paid a smuggler to hide him in the trunk of a bus bound for Stockholm, the Swedish capital. He spent the seven-day journey breathing through an oxygen mask, and arrived in Sweden on 17 March 2013. Seven months later, he was granted asylum.
Sweden is currently the only country to grant permanent residence to Syrian asylum seekers as a general policy, and offers them citizenship after five years of stay. The country has been widely praised for its immigration and asylum practices, and has a large number of naturalised citizens. A 2011 study by a government statistical agency counted almost 1.5 million foreign-born people among the country’s 9.5 million nationals, and an additional million born in Sweden to at least one foreign parent. Sweden’s welcoming policies, combined with the fact that the country regularly ranks among the richest and most developed in the world, have attracted a stream of those fleeing the turmoil in Syria. More than 2,700 Syrians applied for asylum in just the first month after the policy of blanket asylum came into force, in September 2013, and around 12,000 were granted residence that year. Syrians are now Sweden’s single largest group of asylum seekers; most of them are young, single men hoping to quickly find jobs and send money back to their families. But integration is far slower and harder than many expect, leaving them, and the Swedish government, struggling to reconcile ideals with reality. Debas, for instance, is still unemployed, and is struggling to adapt to life in a house shared with two others on a former farm converted into a residential complex for asylum seekers.