Robert Kouki and his family fled northern Syria. They are safe now in Sweden, in the town of Södertälje.
The industrial centre is well known among the Christian minorities fleeing Syria and Iraq: 30,000 of its 90,000 inhabitants have roots in the Middle East.
Since autumn of last year Sweden has given permanent residence permits to a growing number of Syrian refugees.
Robert and his family were welcomed by Ayoub Stefan, the Syrian-Orthodox priest at Saint Gabriel, one out of six Assyrian churches in the town.
The family fled their home-town Al-Hasakah where Robert, a successful entrepreneur and IT engineer, left behind his computer business.
In the coming months more Christian refugees are expected to arrive in Södertälje – from Syria but also from Iraq.
“Our people who come from Iraq as Christians, they are suffering so much. If there is no government, if there is no civilization system, it is difficult for Christians to live there. We have so many people killed,” Stefan told euronews.
Millions of Syrian and Iraqi refugees stay in camps in or near their home countries. Only a relatively small number try to reach Europe.
The first Assyrians reached Södertälje 50 years ago, so many Syrians and Iraqi have relatives there.
Saint Gabriel is a small church installed in the ‘Ronna centre’ between shops and services. It is a modest neighbourhood, some call it a social hot spot – the jobless rate is higher than elsewhere in Sweden.
Many refugees cannot find work and some Iraqis do not have a permanent residence permit, although they lived through a nightmare too.
In the Middle East, Christians are persecuted, Iraqi refugee Kheder Elias says and the choice is between paying or dying: “At the beginning we paid… but when they came again I found it difficult to pay… They kidnapped me and my daughter… but my good luck made the driver to collide with another car – I opened the door and run away.”
The priest, who is himself from Syria, regularly visits Robert in his new home. The family is highly motivated to integrate into Swedish society, and has learned the new language quickly.
Robert tells us, in Swedish, about the flourishing kidnapping business run by the terrorists: “I know two Christians, a young man and his father, who were hijacked and killed. Right now, the kidnapping is directed against poor people, middle-class-people, rich people… everyone… so I was really afraid, not just for myself, but for my children.”
The extortion racket scares minorities such as the Christians out of Iraq and Syria.
His daughters Merella and Adella try to make as many Swedish friends as possible, and when there is a birthday party, Robert’s home looks very Swedish.
“When I came to Sweden, I learnt every single day about 10 new words and I spoke Swedish with my cousins who had already been living here for some time. They know Swedish pretty well,” said Adella.
Euronews met Ibrahim Touma. He arrived from Syria six months ago and joined the youth team of Sweden’s most exotic football club ‘The Assyrian Super Stars’.
Most players are middle-eastern Christians, but Muslims and other religions are welcome too. While there is some tolerance in Sweden, in war-ridden Syria and Iraq it fades away.
“There is real pressure against Christians in Syria: Christian women are sexually attacked. Christian men are discriminated against too when they openly wear their Christian cross, they are considered to be faithless outsiders,” Ibrahim Touma explined.
While Ibrahim’s father, a blacksmith, got a work permit and thereby a legal way to enter Sweden, Aho Gabriel was smuggled out of Syria illegally, through Turkey, Greece and Latvia. His family paid a fortune.
“To get to Sweden I had to pay the traffickers more than 12,000 euros,” he claimed.
Ninous Toma is Assyriska Föreningen’s youth team trainer:
“Now with these Islamists and their so-called Islamic State it’s completely different. They want to drive the Christians from the region as quickly as possible. Fear is palpable in the Christian community, the region is on fire.”
Ibrahim lives on the outskirts of Södertälje. He is happy to have come so far. Södertälje is run by a Social Democratic mayor, but during the last elections the anti-immigrant party got more votes than usual. Local politicians want better burden-sharing among municipalities.
We asked Ibrahim why he left Syria.
“One of our relatives was hijacked by the terrorist al-Nusra group, when he was travelling,” he said. “They wanted to cut his head off, we didn’t know if he had been killed already. That’s why my family got worried and pushed us to leave the country.”
Södertälje’s Syrian Orthodox Cathedral and the Assyrian Cultural Centre are located in an industrial area. So far there have been two suspected arson attacks.
Afram Yakoub, the chairman of the Assyrian Federation of Sweden, speaks up for stabilising the refugees in the Mideast. Pushing Christians out of the region would end a culture that is several thousand years old.
“I get news that each day between 10 to 20 Assyrian families leave Iraq right now. Christians are now being eradicated from the area very effectively. Our key demand for politicians and governments is to help the Assyrians to remain in the Middle-East,” says Yakoub.
Yakoub has a Skype appointment with a Christian friend in Iraq who fled Mosul when the terrorists approached. The former shop-owner found refuge in Dohuk in Iraqi Kurdistan. For security reasons he opts for a pseudonym – ‘Elia’.
“Did you experience any discrimination between Muslims and Christians?” Yakoub asks his friend.
“Don’t think that this has just started now,” insists ‘Elia’. “Christians never lived freely there. Christians, even during Saddam Hussein’s time, were not living freely, they were not really respected: I remember every Friday at their Friday prayer, they denounced Christianity, the Christian traditions, their values, the beliefs of Christianity.”
“What do you think about arming the Assyrians in Iraq?” asks Yakoub. The answer is unhesitating: “Of course, of course: they should be armed, they should have the right to defend themselves.”
Next morning we meet Ibrahim again, at his school in Södertälje. He wants to stay in Sweden, forever. His dream is to become an architect or construction engineer.
We ask Lena Boström, Ibrahim’s teacher, how she can ease refugees’ integration into the very different Swedish way of life.
“In the beginning I explain to them the new society they will live in from now on: we make a lot of trips to discover the capital, Stockholm, or to learn to handle everyday situations. Many of the refugees risk getting trapped in their own small world. But it’s important to participate in society,” she says.
The Swedish Public Employment Service and Swedish universities have launched an initiative to help people like Robert to establish themselves professionally as soon as possible after their arrival in Sweden. Today, Robert has another appointment with Horea Arizcurinaga, his personal career adviser.
“In the medium or long-term future I hope to be able to create my own company, just like I did in the country of my birth, Syria,” Robert says.
“Let’s be aware of the qualifications you and other refugees have, bringing rock-solid experiences to Sweden!” insists Horea. “The companies of this country will be glad to profit from your knowledge.”
Proportional to its population, no other EU country takes in as many asylum seekers as Sweden. It has became a safe haven for at least some of the persecuted Christians seeking shelter and hope. Will other European countries take the same action soon?
- This year, the number of Iraqi arriving in Sweden rose 80 percent, the number of Syrians skyrocketed 140 percent, so far (January 2014 to end of September 2014).
- Official estimates are during 2014, (January to December), Sweden will take in 36,000 asylum seekers from Syria and Iraq. Plus an estimated 20,000 Syrians arriving in Sweden by using the legal framework of family reunification. Those 56,000 new arrivals for 2014, are a minimum estimation. The real figures are probably higher.
- For 2015, officials believe there will be a new peak in the spring, with Iraqi refugees starting to arrive in Sweden in big numbers. Conservative official estimations are that the total number of Syrian and Iraqi asylum seekers arriving in Sweden next year could total at least 33,500. An unknown number of family reunifications has to be added to this figure.
The Swedish town Södertälje takes in more refugees from Syria and Iraq than most other towns in Sweden and Europe. Euronews spoke to the mayor of Södertälje, Boel Godner, (Social-Democrat). To listen to the interview you can use this link (English language).
To listen to the full interview with the president of the Assyrian Federation of Sweden, Afram Yakoub, please use this link, (English language). Euronews met Afram Yakoub in Södertälje, south of Stockholm.