Welcome to Sweden’s Aleppo

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Tragedy is bringing Europe and the Middle East together… in interesting ways.
Elisabeth Braw
It is afternoon recess at school. Children are chatting away in Arabic and Assyrian, a language spoken by the Middle Eastern Assyrian Christian minority, congregating around games and drawing pictures. But their snack gives away that there’s something unusual about this school: the children are having Scandinavian-style open-faced cheese sandwiches, not Middle Eastern food. Elafskolan is, in fact, the world’s first Assyrian-language school outside the Arab world. Its location is Södertälje, a Stockholm suburb that has turned into a haven not just for these seventy-six children who’ve fled violence in Syria and Iraq but for thousands of other Middle Eastern Christians as well.

“We’re getting a lot of new arrivals,” reports Helmut Lavicka, headmaster of the seven-month-old school. “In addition to speaking Arabic and Assyrian, they quickly pick up Swedish as well. It’s amazing that they do so well, considering the trauma they’ve experienced and the fact that many of them haven’t attended school in years.”

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That’s because they’ve only just arrived in Sweden. Ever since the first Assyrian families from Iraq, Syria and Turkey—arrived in Södertälje in the 1960s, this rather nondescript suburb some forty minutes by commuter train from central Stockholm has been a Middle Eastern hub in the chilly North. Back then, they settled in Södertälje not because it reminded them of anything from home but because it offered jobs: good factory jobs with Scania, the truck manufacturer. Those original immigrants, escaping persecution that seems mild in comparison with the fate that is currently befalling Christians in the Middle East, now lead established middle-class lives; Swedish success stories though they lovingly preserve their ethnic heritage. At the city’s outskirts, the many elegant villas owned by those original Middle Eastern arrivals bespeak their industriousness. And these days, they find themselves welcoming a never-ending stream of brothers and sisters from the homeland of Christianity. Since the beginning of the Iraq war, the number of Middle Eastern refugees making their way here has skyrocketed. According to municipal statistics, 10,002 of Södertälje’s residents now have Iraqi background, 2,505 are Lebanese, and 7,632 Syrian. There are also 5,393 Turks. Although Swedish law bans registering refugees’ religion, unofficial estimates show that the vast majority are Christians of different persuasions.

Thanks to Sweden’s pioneering decision to grant Syrians permanent residence in Sweden last year, Södertälje’s Syrian community has grown even faster. Last year, 30,583 Syrians applied for asylum in Sweden, an 87 percent increase from the year before. That accounted for more than half of all Syrian asylum applications to European Union countries. “Middle Eastern politics is a matter of kitchen-table conversations in this city,” notes Mayor Boel Godner. “When it comes to Middle Eastern Christians, we’re in a league of our own. So when Islamic State started growing, it immediately became a Södertälje issue.” Some 1,200 new refugees have already arrived this year, 90 percent of them Syrians. Indeed, Södertälje has lately become a mirror image of the ethnic demographics of the Middle East, that region’s persecuted minorities finding refuge in Sweden. According to the Pew Research Center, Christians made up 5 percent of the Middle East’s population in 2010, down from 10 percent in 1900, and that was before the arrival of Islamic State. Iraqi Christians, who once numbered several millions, have now dwindled to less than 400,000, and Iraq’s Patriarch now warns of impending disaster. And in Syria, the U.S. State Department notes that Islamic State has carried out mass killings of Christians and other minorities. As the recent gruesome beheadings of Christian Egyptian migrant workers in Libya showed, not even Copts, a relatively safe community in a country where they make up 10 percent of the population, are secure anymore. The Islamic State is even holding two Middle Eastern bishops hostage.