Iraqis Finding A Haven In Sweden

Jeffrey Fleishman, Los Angeles Times, May 19, 2007

The words are strange here, the air is cold, and the girls give their hearts so easily away. The fruit is less sweet too, the winter ice thick, and the thrum of bicycles makes an odd music across the cobblestones.

Mariam Lutfi attends to these unaccustomed rhythms. There are many like her. They’re easily spotted around town, nodding to one another, stopping to talk in their native tongue while carrying notebooks scribbled with a foreign alphabet that has too many sounds for the letter G. The call to prayer doesn’t warble across the chimneys, the meat isn’t slaughtered according to Islamic tradition, and finding a glass of strong tea is difficult amid the clatter of lattes and espressos.

“Life is so upside down. I am at zero,” said Lutfi, one of hundreds of Iraqi refugees attempting to build a new life in Uppsala. “I am learning the ABCs of a new language. I can’t show anything to anybody here. I keep it inside. And when I go for a walk and there’s no one around, I cry and show my nervousness and regret only to myself.”

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“We have safety and freedom here, but our tradition differs so much from the Swedes’,” said Amer Mazin, a Palestinian born in Baghdad, who paid a smuggler $13,500 and arrived here in December. “From my balcony, I can see into other balconies. I see a man in an apartment living by himself, and on the balcony next to his a woman is living by herself. They don’t believe in marriage like we do, they don’t believe in family. My language teacher tells me he has a dog and doesn’t need a child. It seems strange.”

This is life adrift. More than 2 million Iraqis have fled their homeland since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Most are living in Syria, Jordan and other Middle Eastern nations. Now, a growing number are heading toward Europe, especially Sweden, which for decades has offered refugees and asylum seekers government aid and generous family reunification plans. Nearly 9,000 Iraqis, more than half of all those who arrived in Europe from the war-torn country in 2006, made their way to Sweden. European officials estimate that as many as 40,000 more Iraqis may reach the continent this year.

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Paying smugglers as much as $15,000 per person, Iraqi refugees bound for Europe travel with doctored papers and forged passports from different countries. They spend weeks or months waiting in Jordan or Turkey before being hidden in cars and trucks and driven by circuitous routes across the continent. The lucky among them board planes in Amman, the Jordanian capital, or Istanbul, Turkey’s main city, and land in Stockholm, where they turn themselves in to immigration officials and apply for asylum.

They have escaped war’s devastation, and now must navigate the confusing idiosyncrasies of new countries. In Uppsala, a university city threaded by a river, Iraqis attend language classes below a downtown church steeple and then ride buses to neighborhoods such as Gottsunda, where they wear secondhand clothes and live in boxy brick apartment buildings like the refugees who arrived after the 1991 Persian Gulf War and conflicts in Africa and the Balkans.

A family’s diaspora

“It’s really not for us anymore. It’s for our children. I miss the oranges in Iraq. They are always sweet.”

He paused, catching himself, not wanting to appear ungrateful.

“I’m thankful to the Swedish people,” he said. “They are compassionate. They follow the things Jesus taught. They let a man be human.”

Another kind of loss

Haitham Hiti and his family fled Iraq in December, traveling to Istanbul, where they paid a smuggler $50,000.

“He put us in buses and trucks with no windows and we didn’t know where we were, what countries we were crossing into from day to night,” said Hiti, a mechanical engineer and a Sunni Muslim. “It took 12 days of traveling and hiding, and then a guy told us, ‘Now you’re in Sweden.’ He gave me a telephone and I called my brother who left Iraq eight years ago and works in a lab in Uppsala.”

Shortly after he and his family arrived here, Hiti’s wife slipped on the ice and suffered a broken leg; a new danger in a new country, but a tolerable one compared with the carjackings, school bombings and extortion and death threats the family encountered in Iraq. Hiti owned a construction company; he and his wife and three children once lived in a house in Baghdad with bodyguards and cooks and other servants.

“Sometimes I say to myself, ‘Why did you leave Iraq?’ ” he said, stroking his mustache and brushing his jacket, the motions of a refined man caught in unexpected circumstances. “I can’t walk in the garden at my house. I can’t see my neighbors. This is now my country. They tell me it takes a year to recover from this loss.”

Mariam Lutfi, a dentist, would like to be in her garden too, smelling the scents that no longer linger in the few clothes she brought from Iraq. Her gold was stolen. Her money is gone. A Christian, she was harassed by Shiite militants for not wearing a head scarf. Other things must now be done. She knows the Uppsala bus schedule, where to get a deal on linens and how, sometimes, “Swedes give us strange faces when they see our dark features.”

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She wants to practice dentistry again, but the Swedish language has sounds she’s struggling to form. That’s when she feels all balled up, but she can’t tell her brother, who escaped Iraq in 1991 and settled here, because he is sharing his house with her and wants her to feel at home.

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