One Syrian refugee family’s warm welcome in Sweden shows what a difference richer countries can make by giving some of the world’s most vulnerable people a lifeline.
The path towards the newly built apartment blocks in this quiet Stockholm suburb is blanketed by snow. The shining sun makes the ice-clad tree branches glisten.
This tranquil winter scene could not feel further away from Syria’s devastated streets, where 190,000 people have been killed and 4 million forced to become refugees since 2011.
At the end of the path nestles an apartment belonging to Jamila and Mahmoud from Aleppo, a city in northern Syria. “It’s very cold here!” they laugh.
“It can be tough struggling with the wheelchair in the snow.” Mahmoud, a former taxi driver, was left unable to walk by a car accident in 2005.
Not human beings anymore
Life in Syria was tough, even before the war. Mahmoud says he was arrested by the security forces, and “tortured because I am Kurdish. Almost every Kurdish person was taken for investigation.”
In 2013, he and Jamila had to flee their home with their small twin boys. “Rockets fell everywhere. We saw dead bodies in the streets. I felt like we were not human beings anymore,” says Jamila. “The children took nothing with them.” They sheltered in an abandoned classroom with many other people, before eventually making it to Lebanon.
Life continued to be a constant struggle for survival – they couldn’t afford a place to live or the medical treatment Mahmoud needs because of his disability.
And then, last November, the UN’s refugee agency, UNCHR, offered them the chance of a new life in Sweden through so-called “resettlement”.
This is a lifeline offered to the most vulnerable refugees, including those, like Mahmoud, who have serious medical conditions or have been tortured.
The first phrase I learned in Swedish was ‘can I help you’?Mahmoud
A warm welcome
Their new Swedish home is well-equipped for a wheelchair user and immaculately clean. Nuts, chocolates and fruit are laid out on the coffee table to welcome us.
“The first month was difficult,” says Jamila. “We were a bit afraid – it is so quiet here. But you feel safe – it’s not like Syria.”
Most of their neighbours are Swedish. “The Swedish people are warm,” says Mahmoud. Everyone has a smile for you – when I am alone outside [with the wheelchair] they ask: ‘do you need help?’ The first phrase I learned in Swedish was ‘can I help you?’.”
Mahmoud and Jamila have been especially humbled by the kindness of an elderly couple in their building: “He came with clothes for the children, and at New Year they brought traditional Swedish sweets,” says Mahmoud.
They now attend daily Swedish classes. And their four-year-old twin boys, Mazen and Bilal, are making friends at nursery. “For the first 10 days they were screaming and crying,” says Jamila. “Now they can’t wait to go inside.”
Although many children are from multicultural backgrounds, Mazen and Bilal are the first to have fled a war zone, explains their teacher, Franziska Forssander.
“It’s important for them to have fun – it’s therapeutic and builds self-esteem.” Franziska believes bringing refugees into this idyllic corner of Sweden is good for the community too. “It helps us grow,” she says.
A promising future
Mahmoud has high hopes for his family’s future. He wants his sons to study medicine and is interested in becoming a professional manicurist. Jamila is hoping to work with people who have special needs.
And they would like to have another baby. “A girl!” exclaims Jamila. “She would have many more opportunities to study and work here than in Syria,” agrees Mahmoud.
To this close-knit family, resettlement means the world. Most of their relatives still face daily threats, including from Syria’s government forces and the armed group that calls itself Islamic State (IS). Even now, Jamila and Mahmoud are afraid to be photographed, in case it puts their loved ones at risk.
They are deeply grateful for the warm welcome Sweden has given them, and know they have been lucky: 95% of Syria’s refugees are still sheltering in just five countries in the region.
And while just over 162,000 resettlement places have been offered globally (by 11 December 2015), just a fraction of those who qualify have so far started their new lives abroad. We think the world’s richer countries should share more of the responsibility for Syria’s most vulnerable refugees.
Some names have been changed to protect the people involved.