Sweden | Northern Flight

Syrians try to rebuild their lives in a welcoming but unfamiliar country

Sweden is the only country to guarantee asylum for all Syrian arrivals. Salah Debas, aged 23, is one of the 12,000 or so granted sanctuary in 2013. Matilde Gattoni
01 September, 2014

"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.

Many of the new arrivals are successful professionals—architects, academics, businessmen—from Syria’s middle and upper classes, who could afford the ¤10,000 or so (roughly $13,600) necessary to purchase fake documents and be smuggled into Europe. Unlike the many economic migrants Sweden receives from elsewhere, most of them would not have left their country if not for the war. In December, at a Syrian community centre in Vällingby, on the outskirts of Stockholm, I met Elias Kasgawa, a happily settled 47-year-old originally from Al-Hassakah in north-east Syria. Kasgawa’s family came to Sweden as economic migrants in 1970, when he was only five years old. He now runs his own construction company, and also heads the community centre. Kasgawa explained that many refugees “had very good positions in Syria and they want the same positions here.” But, he added, “they will not get them.” Besides differences in food, weather and language, he said, asylum seekers also confront a radically different society and political system. “Syrians are raised in a more hierarchical way,” Kasgawa said. “You always have a leading figure, be it your parents, your relatives or your teachers … In Sweden you don’t have many guidelines. The system here lets you develop yourself.”

Under the government’s current policy, all asylum applications are processed by the Swedish Migration Board, a government agency that is also responsible for housing and feeding applicants until decisions on their status come through. The average wait is around ninety days, but with the recent rush responses can now take six months, or in some cases more than a year, during which applicants are not allowed to work. Those

granted asylum receive permanent residence for five years, and enter a two-year introduction programme managed by the Arbetsförmedlingen, the Swedish Public Employment Service. During that time, asylum seekers are paid the equivalent of about $900 for attending forty hours of Swedish language instruction every week, and are encouraged to seek job training or part-time employment. The Arbetsförmedlingen also subsidises part of all newcomers’ rent.

“Everything looks nice on paper, but in reality authorities are not looking for the competence of these people, their experiences or their dreams,” Lena Schroeder, an associate professor at the Swedish Institute for Social Research, complained when we met in Stockholm in December. “Quite a lot of them have high levels of education, yet they are put in labour courses to drive a bus.” Educated Syrians must invest time to learn Swedish before trying to continue their chosen professions, or settle for menial jobs.

That is the choice before Giwara, a 28-year-old Syrian Kurd from the city of Aleppo who arrived in Sweden almost two years ago. Giwara owned and managed a factory producing clothing dye that employed ninety people until it was forced to close two months before the Free Syrian Army entered Aleppo, in the summer of 2012. He asked that his name be changed to protect members of his family in Syria. “The rebels ransacked all the factories, selling the machinery and components to Turkey,” Giwara said. Over a month after fleeing Syria, having passed through Greece and Italy and spent around $22,000, Giwara settled in the city of Helsingborg, in southern Sweden, where he now shares a house with ten other migrants. “We have only one kitchen and one bathroom. Some of these guys have stayed in this place for 15 years,” he said, visibly worried at the possibility of sharing the same fate.

Sweden is struggling to find accommodation for all the new arrivals. In December, Veronika Lindstrand Kant, a departmental head at the Swedish Migration Board, told me that “Syria is by far the biggest emergency we have had after the war in the Balkans” in the 1990s. Alongside blanket sanctuary for all Syrian asylum seekers, who apply directly to the government once on Swedish soil, this year the country has allocated almost a third of its refugee quota—600 out of 1,900 places, filled through UN programmes—to those fleeing the Syrian war. “Eight thousand people are now waiting for a house,” Johan Nylander, an analyst at the Arbetsförmedlingen, told me in his Stockholm office. The agency has been settling new arrivals in isolated villages ever farther north, where more housing is available but conditions are tough and job opportunities rare. “With this high influx now, we are happy to find them any place to stay,” Nylander explained.

That influx is also stoking political tensions. The far-right Sverigedemokraterna, or Sweden Democrats party, which openly rejects the current immigration policy, first entered parliament with twenty seats and almost 6 percent of the vote in 2010. It is projected to win 10 percent of the vote in general elections due in September. Many newcomers to the country are also frustrated by the difficulties of integration. In the spring of 2013, riots erupted in Husby, a poor suburb of Stockholm with a relatively high immigrant population. There was further alarm after a suicide bomber who attacked the Iranian embassy in the Lebanese capital of Beirut last November was discovered to have lived in Stockholm, where, according to friends, he was radicalised by an extremist imam.

Those events, and the enmities of the Syrian conflict, have also sharpened divisions within the Syrian community. Several people I interviewed spoke of frequent clashes between Syrians with opposing political views at Swedish Migration Board facilities where they are hosted. When we met, Kasgawa acknowledged that the current situation in Syria is a taboo subject at the Vällingby community centre. “Here we have Christians and Muslims, but we don’t talk politics,” he said. “It’s a red line.”

Kasgawa is firmly connected to both Syria and Sweden, and is an example for many new arrivals. His wife is Syrian, and part of his family is still in Al-Hassakah, but Kasgawa’s three daughters were all born in Sweden. He recalled his own struggle to adapt to his new home with little aid. “In the 1970s, the Swedish accepted us, but they wanted us to spread around the country and marry local people,” he said. The Syrians arriving now, he said, have much more help and freedom of choice.

But many young Syrians I met could not look beyond their immediate difficulties to see the opportunities before them. Like Kasgawa, many earlier arrivals whoovercame the initial problems of resettlements have done quite well. Kamal Rifai, a former political activist who is now 44 years old, was arrested by the Syrian government in 2001 and fled to Sweden in 2002. Rifai, now a successful architect living with his family in Malmö, Sweden’s third-largest city, sympathised with the new migrants. “It took me six years to overcome the shock of the hundred days I spent in Syrian jails,” he told me in his office. “Can you imagine how long it will take for those who come now, after having experienced years of war?” Rifai also leads the humanitarian branch of a local network of Syrian migrants, which collects money for families in need. Having passed through all the stages of integration into Swedish society, Rifai said he was certain the recent arrivals will be able to build stable and fulfilling lives. “I have lived in Malaysia, Dubai, Germany, and I have travelled in more than fifty countries,” he said. “There is no place like Sweden. I give the same advice to all newcomers: first learn the language and get a good education, then help your people.”