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Catholic Near East Welfare Association

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A Nordic Refuge No More

Iraqi refugees in Sweden face an uncertain future

On an early December morning, 33–year–old Ramiz Toma stops his taxi in front of a home in one of Stockholm’s posh residential neighborhoods. Mr. Toma waits a few minutes until his client, a well–dressed businessman, approaches the car and swiftly takes a seat in the back. Mr. Toma then drives off down the street, still white from the night’s snowfall, and heads to the airport.

After a short while, the man glances at Mr. Toma’s identity badge on the dashboard and breaks the silence. “Where are you from?,” he asks.

“I am an Iraqi Christian,” responds the driver.

“Christian?,” replies the man with surprise.

Mr. Toma nods with a faint smile.

“I didn’t know there were Christians in Iraq,” the man continues.

Mr. Toma catches the man’s regard through the rearview mirror. He politely but briefly tells him that, though a minority, Christians have always lived in Iraq. The man says nothing. After a few moments, Mr. Toma turns up the radio and drives on.

Mr. Toma knows his employer, the largest taxi company in Stockholm, discourages its drivers from chatting at length with clients, especially about politics and religion.

After dropping off the client at the airport, Mr. Toma admits he had wanted to say much more about Iraq’s Christians — their ancient history, different denominations, the suffering they have endured since the 2003 U.S.–led invasion, even the recent memorial service he attended at his church in Stockholm honoring a Christian woman brutally murdered in her home in Baghdad.

Mr. Toma first came to Sweden in 2000, when the country’s policy toward Iraqi refugees still ranked as the most generous in the world. Believing Sweden a promised land, thousands of Iraqis clamored for asylum at its embassy in Baghdad.

With support from his family, the 23–year–old managed to travel to Sweden and obtain refugee status. However, as do most refugees, the young man struggled at first to adjust to life in Sweden, facing the usual challenges of language and culture.

However, a much larger and more complex problem afflicts Sweden’s Iraqi population: an alarmingly high unemployment rate. According to a recent study, among Iraqis living in Sweden for ten or more years, 73 percent of women and 60 percent of men are unemployed. Some experts attribute the high unemployment rate to the fact that Iraqis in Sweden, particularly Christians, are often well educated. Many had once belonged to Iraq’s affluent middle class. As a result, they have difficulty either landing or settling for one of the mostly unskilled jobs available to them.

Bucking the statistics, Mr. Toma has clearly made his way in the Nordic nation. Relatives already settled in Stockholm helped him navigate his new homeland, its society and culture. Local authorities found him housing and sponsored courses that helped him learn the Swedish language and hone other marketable skills. Mr. Toma, however, credits much of his success to his Christian faith and the support he receives from his local parish.

“My faith is the foundation for everything that matters in my life. Just as Jesus showed us his love, we learn to view other people with love when we go to church and listen to his words,” he says.

Mr. Toma’s parents still live in Iraq. And during his first few years in Sweden, he thought for certain he would one day return there and reunite with them. But as the years passed, he planted roots and now considers Sweden home. To his surprise, he even feels more comfortable now among Swedes than he does among his compatriots back in Iraq.

“When I go to Iraq to visit my family, I can’t stand being there for more than a week. It’s not the same people,” he explains. “Everything has changed. Here in Sweden, maybe I haven’t yet been accepted as a Swede. But I feel accepted in Swedish society. And for that I am grateful.”

Today, more than 170,000 Iraqis or persons of Iraqi descent live in Sweden. Iraqis first began coming to Sweden in the early 1980’s during the Iran–Iraq war. Immigration, however, reached its peak in 2007, when Swedish authorities granted asylum to 85 percent of the 20,000 Iraqis who requested it.

In April 2008, Anders Lago, the mayor of Södertälje, a Stockholm suburb, addressed the U.S. Congress on the issue. He boasted about his city, which has absorbed more Iraqi refugees than the entire United States and Canada combined. The mayor called it the most significant, successful demographic shift in a Swedish municipality in the modern era.

Yet already at the time of Mr. Lago’s official visit to Washington, Swedish policies on Iraqi refugees had changed. The prior year, the Swedish Migration Board declared the situation in Iraq no longer amounted to an internal armed conflict. The statement effectively raised the bar on Iraqi applications for asylum.

Then in February 2008, the Swedish and Iraqi governments signed a repatriation agreement. Later that year, Swedish immigration authorities boarded a group of Iraqis on a flight to Baghdad, making Sweden the first country in the West to deport Iraqi asylum seekers. Since then, the authorities have sent home groups of Iraqi refugees on flights about every three weeks. Following Sweden’s lead, other European countries, including the Netherlands, Denmark, the United Kingdom and Norway, have also begun repatriating hundreds of Iraqis.

Since the new policies’ implementation, the number of Iraqis applying for asylum has dramatically declined. In 2007, 18,559 Iraqis sought asylum in Sweden. The following year, the figure dropped to 6,083. By 2010, only 1,883 Iraqis applied for asylum.

However, it is the mass repatriation of Iraqi asylum seekers that has panicked Sweden’s Iraqi Christian community, especially in light of the recent string of attacks against Iraq’s Christians — including the massacre in a Baghdad Syriac Catholic cathedral that left 52 dead last October. Currently, some 2,600 Iraqi asylum seekers in Sweden await deportation. Many are Christians with well–founded fears of persecution back home in Iraq. Last October, the European Court of Human Rights issued a statement urging Sweden to suspend the deportations. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, church leaders and human rights activists have also sharply criticized the policy.

Swedish immigration officials, however, maintain that all deportees received a fair trial in court before judges denied them asylum.

“Therefore, we see no problems, neither in saying no to people who cannot prove that they have sufficient grounds to stay, nor in seeing that these people are sent back to their country of origin,” explained Tobias Billström, Sweden’s migration minister on a radio broadcast on 8 January 2011.

Among the more vocal critics of the deportations is Father Adris Hanna, pastor of Stockholm’s Syriac Catholic community. Though he believes Swedes are overall well informed and sensitive about the plight of Iraq’s Christians, he is surprised and outraged by the Swedish Migration Board’s insistence on deporting Christian Iraqis given recent attacks.

Father Hanna is deeply concerned about the fate of Christians in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East and believes violence against them will only intensify in the near future.

Since his appointment to Stockholm in the late 1990’s, Father Hanna has emerged as a fierce advocate and media–savvy spokesperson for Sweden’s Iraqi Christian community. In 2010, Dagen, Sweden’s largest Christian daily newspaper, named him role model of the year, citing his efforts to console the dozen families in Sweden directly affected by the October bombing in Baghdad and his work keeping the press corps abreast with regular commentary and eyewitness accounts.

Father Hanna spends much of his time and energy assisting newly arrived Iraqi Christians. His parish often provides them with financial and other material support. The church also serves as a postal address for many families, especially for those whose asylum applications have been rejected and who are hiding from the authorities.

“I think it is a human act to help them,” explains Father Hanna. “During the Second World War, hiding Jews was considered a crime. However, if you look back, no one would say today that it was the wrong thing to do morally.”

Each Sunday, Iraqi families from all over greater Stockholm gather at the Syriac Catholic church, located in a southern suburb. On this frigid Sunday morning, Father Hanna cheerfully greets the families as they trickle in one by one.

Icons adorn the small chapel’s nave; wafts of incense envelope the pews. If not for the structure’s typically Scandinavian light pinewood beams and bleached brick walls, the church’s interior might pass for one in Iraq.

Parishioners fill the pews, discreetly chatting among themselves. Not until the altar servers vested in white robes enter the church does a hush fall on the congregation. Moments later, Father Hanna appears holding up the Scriptures and the liturgy commences.

Among the regular parishioners are Nadia Jarjis and Sahir Alslivi. Originally from Mosul, a city in northern Iraq, the married couple now lives in a nearby suburb with their four children.

After the liturgy, they head home directly to join their children for Sunday brunch. The dull gray concrete of their low–rise public housing project matches the overcast winter sky. Artless graffiti tarnishes the building’s elevator.

Once inside the family’s apartment, however, a warm coziness quickly supplants the building’s institutional quality. Thick, colorful oriental rugs cover the floors. The apartment’s windows offer splendid views of surrounding wooded parks and lakes.

After years of separation, the whole family was reunited in 2008. Everyone in the household still vividly remembers the hard times and radiates joy about their current circumstances.

“I will never forget that day,” says 25–year–old Ragad about the family’s reunion, little more than two years ago. “I had not slept so well in years. Finally, we were together and safe.”

The family split apart for the first time in 2002, when Nadia Jarjis fled to Sweden with her youngest daughter, 5–year–old Dunia. She hoped her husband and remaining children would later join them. Little did they know at the time that six long, anxiety–filled years would pass before that would happen.

For a long time, life in Sweden for the mother and daughter was extremely difficult. Relatives and friends took turns putting them up, shuffling the two among their overcrowded apartments. Traumatized by the constant moving, Dunia had trouble sleeping most nights and her mother developed an anxiety disorder, for which doctors prescribed medication.

Finally after two years, local immigration and refugee services settled them in a rooming house. Not until 2006, a year and a half later, did the Swedish Migration Board grant them asylum.

Dunia, now 14, recalls the day they were notified.

“Mom became a completely different person,” she says, beaming.

Two years later, the rest of the family moved to Sweden. The family has since adjusted to life in Sweden astonishingly well and have only positive things to say about their adopted country.

“In Iraq, you could only dream of achieving your goals,” says 22–year–old Reem. “But here everyone has a chance to study or work if they want to.”

A faithful Christian, Ragad feels relieved to express her faith freely. In Sweden, she says, she can make the sign of the cross whenever she wishes, without anyone paying any attention.

“In Sweden, no one cares about my religion,” says Ragad. “Muslims and Christians respect one another. Sometimes, I think about how they treated us in Iraq. But I know that they, just like us, have fled Iraq because they had problems there. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be here.”

Though Ragad and Reem moved to Sweden as adults, they now speak Swedish fluently.

In Iraq, Ragad briefly attended college, but had to postpone her studies when war broke out and she and the family fled to Syria. Now, she is taking prerequisites with hopes of attending one of Sweden’s pharmacy schools.

“Ragad has always been a good student,” Nadia Jarjis says. “She has lost a lot of years, but we hope she will be able to catch up soon.”

Dunia also excels academically. She began school in Sweden and has no memories of her early childhood in Iraq.

For Dunia, Swedish is her native language, and she always speaks it with her older brother, 16–year–old Ragheed, who has mastered the language remarkably well in just two years.

The family considers Dunia the “real” Swede. “She thinks in a Swedish way,” says Sahir Alslivi about his youngest daughter.

Of all the family members, Mr. Alslivi struggles the most. The 53–year–old has not yet learned Swedish and suffers from chronic back pain, which prevents him from working.

“I wish I had come here 20 years ago,” he says. “At this age it’s hard to start over.”

Nonetheless, he expresses only gratitude for the opportunities his children now have as Swedish residents. He fills his days with long walks, swimming and other exercise to rehabilitate his back. He also follows closely current events, particularly developments in Iraq, reading and watching Arabic–language news. However, he admits he often gets homesick — not for today’s Iraq, but the one he knew and loved as a younger man.

“It was more free. Shops closed and opened when they wanted to. Nobody planned anything. The climate was good, and you could buy fresh fruit and vegetables all year round. But when war erupted, everything changed,” he continues. “Today, there is hardly anyone I know left there. When I see what’s happening in Iraq today, it makes me sad. And it’s hard to know that I can’t do anything about it.”

For her part, despite years of setbacks, Nadia Jarjis remains optimistic about her future. She recently started an internship at a dry–cleaning company, which she hopes will turn into a permanent position.

“I really want to work,” she says, with a sudden, genuine earnestness. “Preferably in a kindergarten. We’ll see if that works out after a while, when my Swedish has improved.

“I am a Swedish woman until 5 o’clock,” she laughs. “Then, I come home and cook and take care of the home like an Arab woman.”

Contributers Anna Jonasson and Magnus Aronson are based in Stockholm

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