Friday, May 30, 2008

The Small Swedish Town

Last April,The Washington Post had a story about Södertälje, the small Swedish town that has received more refugees than the US and Canada combined since 2003. The town is in the news again, in the Arab media this time. Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, a London-based Arab newspaper, featured the town’s struggle to cope with the big number of Iraqi refugees resettled there. Following is an informal EPIC-translated excerpt of that report:

The story of Iraqi refugees and their suffering is not new; it is a continuous tragedy inside and outside Iraq. A small Swedish town gained international fame because of the tragedy.

Södertälje’s mayor, Anders Lago, addressed Congress last April, with criticism for the way it is dealing with the Iraqi refugee crisis. Södertälje, a town of 83,000, has received nearly 7000 Iraqi refugees since 2003, and Sweden in general has received 40,000 while the number of Iraqi refugees resettled in the US does not exceed six thousand. Lago renewed his appeal to the world to help Iraqi refugees. His appeal comes as the international community is congregated in Sweden’s capital, Stockholm, for an economic conference on Iraq. Lago took advantage of the presence of more than 350 journalists covering the conference and held a press conference in Södertälje, 18 miles southwest of Stockholm and home to 5% of the total number of Iraqi refugees in Europe. But Lago was not the only speaker about Iraqi refugees (10% of the town’s residents); he also had some of the refugees as participants to speak about their harsh conditions.

Lago insisted in his interview with Al-Sharq Al-Awsat that “the time has come to say no, enough, we don’t want more refugees”. Swedish refugee law does not prevent refugees from resettling in a certain area and Lago explained that he is in talks with the Swedish government to amend that law so that refugees will resettle in different areas instead of being all resettled in the same place. At the moment, Malmo, Södertälje, Stockholm and Gothenburg are the cities where most Iraqi refugees are resettled. He also added that “Sweden is in need of refugees since it is a big country with low rates of population growth. There is no problem preventing Sweden from resettling 30,000 refugees; the issue is: the majority of them are resettling in one area”. Between the years 2006-2007, Södertälje has received nearly a 100 refugees a month from Iraq and the number is not expected to decrease. That is given the fact that resettled Iraqi refugees are already applying for family reunions which means that each refugee will bring at least one family member from Iraq.

Lago also said “last year we received a number of Iraqi refugees bigger than the number received by both the US and Canada. But for this year we hope to have better balance between Södertälje and the US”. He also drew attention to the problems of resettling a huge number of refugees in Södertälje dividing them into three main parts, “first part is schools that are having difficulties absorbing the number of new students. Södertälje already has 8000 students, 500 of them need special classes to help them with the language”. He added “the second part is housing explaining that the Municipality provided refugees in need of money with homes but 2000 of them do not have housing so they are obliged to live with relatives.” The third is “employment difficulties” adding “we cannot as, a small town, create 1000 jobs a year. It is impossible” but he continued: “40% of Iraqis here are college-educated and have important experience so we have to help them by providing appropriate jobs instead of letting them be taxi drivers”. Lago also explained that “the conference is very important because it represents a new situation for Iraqis displaced inside or outside the country; he added that “[I] will ask for extra protection for Christians in addition to demanding a shared international responsibility towards Iraqi refugees”, concluding “the US started the war and a small town like Södertälje is taking the huge burden of refugees”.

Raji Al-Yousif, a refugee from Mosul with a degree in engineering, appealed to the Swedish government to help Iraqi refugees saying “there is no one to protect us”. Christian groups criticized the Iraqi government on the conference eve, asking them to protect Christian minority in Iraq which is targeted like other Iraqi ethnic groups. Protests started in the past few days in Stockholm and other Swedish cities while several Iraqi societies were preparing to meet Iraqi PM tomorrow in a series of meetings organized by the Iraqi community in Sweden.

Some of the refugees said “we demand from the Swedish government to adapt a courageous position as they did with Bosnia and Herzegovina and to grant Iraqi refugees applications”. There are fears of turning back refugees and send them back to Iraq especially the ones whose applications were denied in the past few months. The Swedish government signed a memorandum of understanding with Iraq last January; the memorandum does not consider Iraq a conflict zone which means “asylum seekers have to prove that they are under personal threat as opposed to fleeing the general violence”. This policy is resulting in “tens of denied applications a day and most of the people denied have lost everything in their country”, said some of the refugees.

Concerns were obvious for Iraqi refugees regarding the denial rate of their applications and fear of being sent back to Iraq. Dr. Sundus, an Iraqi refugee could not hold her tears when talking about her future “I feel pain when I talk about my future, what else one could feel when they lose country, home, job and all they had achieved?” Dr. Sundus was a professor at Baghdad University for 12 years before applying for asylum in Sweden after arriving with an expensive forged passport. She added “I came to a safe place to get a new life and settle down” but she was shocked when she arrived last December to hear that denied applications were more than the granted, she sighed saying “I don’t know about the future everything is dark, vague and news about sending refugees back scares me”.

Town’s officials stressed that there is no resentment among Södertälje’s natives towards the new arrivals; noting that forty percent of Södertälje’s population is not born in Sweden. The media attention on the small town seems to be taken its toll, though. A number of residents refused to answer Al-Sharq Al-Awsat’s questions about their opinions while students at a school welcomed journalists by throwing eggs at them. The school which is located in a poor neighborhood of Södertälje has 200 students, 15% of them attend special language classes in Swedish language for 2 years before merging into other classes. Ema Fagerstrand, an official in charge of municipal policy explained “students are tired of the media circus around them”. And as a result of the huge media attention on Södertälje, the municipality decided to appoint a special communications director.

Dr. Sundus, the university professor, said she will ask the Iraqi official delegation “where is the money that was spent on reconstructing Iraq and how do you say Iraq is reconstructed now? How many of your families live with you in Iraq now and how do you expect us to live there?

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