Sweden Home to More Iraqi Refugees Than Other European Countries

ap_refugees_iraqis_file_20feb082.jpgBy Mandy Clark / Sodertalje, Sweden
Since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, more than four million Iraqis have fled their homes. About half of them left the country, altogether. Most of these refugees remain in neighboring countries, in particular Syria and Jordan, but others have sought sanctuary farther afield. Sweden has long been a haven for Iraqis and is home to more than 80,000 of them, including some 9,000 who have sought refuge since the war began. Mandy Clark reports from the Swedish city, Sodertalje, which has taken in more Iraqi refugees than the entire United States.

Fatin Kjalil is an Iraqi Christian. She was born and raised in Baghdad, earned a Ph.D. in physical education and worked at the city’s university. But, with the war in Iraq, her world started to crumble.

“After the war I can’t do anything because this very difficult for me because no security and you can’t get any safety in Iraq,” Kjalil said.
By 2004, most of her family had already fled. But, it was only after militants kidnapped and gang-raped one of her cousins and murdered another that she decided to leave.

“They kill him and leave him in the street,” Kjalil said. “After that, I decide to leave my country and come to Sweden. I come here because my father and my mother, my sisters and brother are here.”

She came to Sodertalje, a small city outside of Stockholm. In the past five years, 5,500 Iraqis have made it their home. That is twice as many as the State Department says the United States has admitted since the war began.

In addition to Sweden’s generous welfare system, what attracts Iraqis to Sodertalje is a Middle Eastern migration route dating back to the late 1960s when Assyrian Christian immigrants from Lebanon, Syria and Turkey put down roots here. And, that means today’s refugees find themselves feeling at home.

But Sodertalje Mayor Anders Largo says the added immigrants are stretching the resources of the city of some 80,000 people.

“Of course, it’s a problem with a lot of people coming in a short time,” Largo said. “It’s a problem with flats [apartments]. It could be 20 persons living on the floor in a small flat and, of course, a problem in the kindergarten and in the schools and it takes too long time before they get a job.”

Many native Swedish residents of Sodertalje agree.

“It is difficult for the city, especially education and work,” says one resident

“All of them living in a small apartment, I think it is bad for that,” says another.

“I think it is good that they can come here and be safe and get a home,” says another resident.

Now, Sweden is considering whether to change the way it looks after Iraqi asylum-seekers. The country has already accepted 50 percent of all the Iraqis who fled to Europe after the invasion. The danger of small pockets of Iraqis creating ghettoes is driving Swedish lawmakers to consider legislation that would force immigrants to accept living in a different town, away from the established community.

Iraqi journalist Iskander Bikasha says Sweden has taken on more than its fair share of refugees and says it is up other countries to help out.

“That will less [lessen] the pressure to Sweden and the Iraqi people will have another door open,” Bikasha said.

But, in nearby Stockholm, Swedish Minister for Migration Tobias Billstrom says he does not believe asylum is the answer for Iraq’s minority population.

“The Iraq people have to sit down and try to work out their disagreements, trying to resettle people and accepting ethnic cleansing is simply not an answer to the problem, in my mind,” he said.

Back in Sodertalje, Fatin Kjalil sees her time in Sweden as temporary. She says she is grateful to be surrounded by her family, but that she has not found work here. She does not want to be a burden on her host country and is not ready to turn her back on Baghdad.

“I want now, if the security is very good in Baghdad, I will return,” Kjalil said. “I can live in Sweden – it is not a problem for me. But I want to go back to Baghdad. I like Baghdad.”

In the safety of Sweden, she prays for peace in Iraq so she and thousands like her can one day return home.