Million, Snegh and Feven are happy children; they are together and feel safe again. Their parents are from Eritrea. The family found shelter in Sweden, and there is another reason to be cheerful, the temperature has gone up from minus 40 to minus 20.
Here we are above the Arctic Circle in a tiny place called Riksgränsen, a Swedish village in the far north. The next town is a two-hour drive over frozen roads. Never mind, the girls just love winter in Europe.
Snegh Yohannes could not hide her delight: “This is the first time we are seeing snow. It is amazing. It is too cold, I am not used to it.”
Feven, her sister, actually enjoys the unfamiliar conditions: “I like cold, I like cold and I want to play with him and I want to play with you,” she said.
Feven means heaven. She was born in Saudi-Arabia where their parents settled to escape the Eritrean/ Ethiopian war.
Hundreds of Refugees Find a Sanctuary at
Riksgransen</a> Resort in Sweden! <a href="https://t.co/uJwBFoRxLp">https://t.co/uJwBFoRxLp</a> <a href="https://t.co/T4viZevAyI">pic.twitter.com/T4viZevAyI</a></p>— SNOCRU (SNOCRU) December 18, 2015
There are six children; their father worked for 15-years as a taxi driver in Saudi Arabia, an Islamic country.
The family are Christians. Feven and her sister Snegh learnt about Christianity in secret at home, in their parents’ language, Tigrinya.
At school, they were forced to learn and recite the Koran by heart in Arabic. The girls felt the pressure to convert.
Feven said: “At school they would say to me you will be Muslim ! Like this. They said Christians go to hell and Muslims go to God.”
Her mother, Adhanet Tekle, spoke about the specific restrictions in Saudi Arabia: “We are Christians. But when you go out of the house without the veil, the police arrest you and take you to prison and you have to stay many days in prison.”
Snegh adds:“My experience in Saudi Arabia is that it is very hard to live there because of the religion. They do not treat you well. When you walk on the street, you know, they curse you and all that. And at school they don’t teach us – for two years or something, they stopped us going to school.”
One-year-old Sarah is everybody’s darling. After a gruelling trip from Saudi Arabia to Turkey, Greece and further north to Sweden the family looks back, without the burden of religious pressure. They decorate their shelter with the few items they rescued from home. One is a picture of Jesus Christ.
The father Brahane Yohannes says the situation in Saudi Arabia is getting worse: “Before the children were born, at that time, life in Saudi Arabia was OK, a bit better, but for some years, it is getting worse.
“There are cases of groups that started to kidnap Christian teenagers and rape them, it could have happened to my daughters. I decided to leave the country and try to find a more secure environment.”
His wife, Adhanet, was pregnant as the family made the hazardous journey from Saudi Arabia.
“Because of my pregnancy, I was sick during the dangerous journey, very tired, I felt really bad,” she said. “I had to throw up all the time because of the baby, in the boat, on the water, I couldn’t stand it, I was vomiting, vomiting, vomiting. It was very hard for me.”
As many as 163,000 refugees made their way to Sweden last year. Quite a challenge for the sparsely populated country. And more people are on the way. However, Sweden is beginning to cool on refugees. Public opinion has turned frosty, the welcome is no longer warm.
Most asylum seekers coming to Sweden are from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and to a lesser extent Eritrea.
Having found no other solution, 600 refugees have been accommodated in Riksgränsen, the country’s most northern ski resort.
The Swedish government has tightened border controls with neighbouring countries and is preparing to implement further measures to limit the number of new arrivals.
Soon, most asylum seekers will be offered temporary residence, valid for three years, instead of the permanent ones that have been available up until now.
That is a sharp U-turn in Sweden’s asylum policy following similar changes in Finland, Norway and Denmark.
The residency permits will also only be for close family, not extended family.
In the kitchen we meet four friends who made their way to the Arctic Circle from Syria and Iraq.
Ali, Mogdad, Wael and Wela fret about the changes in Swedish legislation. They are concerned they travelled first, ahead of their children with most of the kids still back home. But Swedish laws on family reunification are getting tougher.
Ali Hussein, an Iraqi refugee, said: “I left Iraq three years ago because I was threatened. First I went to Jordan. I asked the United Nations for protection and the possibilities of going to Australia, France, Italy or to Canada and other countries. I tried everywhere, but no one let me in. Finally I got to Sweden. It is my second home-country now.”
Mogdad Al-Jaburi, another Iraqi, has his priorities: “The most important point is to get the resident permit and then to bring my family and my children here. Only afterwards will I start to think how to build a new future and try to find work.
Wael Al-Shater is a Syrian with ambitions. “Just give me five years in Sweden and I will have a real reputation,” he said.
“I will have developed 50 special chicken recipes. Fifty special recipes because I am really good at cooking chicken. This new life will bring a real change. I will be the master of chicken recipes, that’s my dream. My chicken recipes will make my name.”
Wela Al-Chahani had to leave Iraq after repeated attacks: “In Badgad they blew up our restaurant three times. There was major damage.
“We changed the name of the restaurant: Old Kalifat, they bombed it. The Moon of the Hachemites, they blew it up. We rebuilt the family restaurant a third time, but it was destroyed again. My uncle is the owner. It was attacked three times. Right now it’s down, totally destroyed.”
Later in the hotel lobby, Wela showed a video from Baghdad of his third child, a daughter, who was born on January 1. If Wela gets residency he might see her again. But the wait is likely to be long, with a backlog of refugee cases waiting for approval.
The stream of bad news follows Wela: a cousin killed, friends dead; it is difficult to bear.
Outside in the bracing air we meet Ghafor and his daughter Pareya, from Afghanistan, who are attempting to ski for the first time in their lives.
All winter long they stayed above the Polar Circle, experiencing days without any sunlight. Today they are happy, the sun is shining again at least for two short hours.
This family made it from Kandahar to Riksgränsen. First, they went to neighbouring Iran. But without a legal work permit Ghafor ended up in prison.
“They took me from the room to the court yard and officers started kicking and punching me, calling me a liar,” he said.
“They took us to a camp that looked like a stable. There were about 60 to 70 people in a narrow corridor with just one light and a toilet. It was an open space and I slept just beside the toilet.”
Forozan Sharefee, his wife, said: “We are all the same human beings. We all have the same human rights and we all should respect each other as human beings.
“We are from the same kind, there is no difference between us. We have our roots elsewhere. We don’t want to leave our home country but we have to. All those people migrating are doing it out of desperation and misery.”
The day finally arrives, the family is being relocated.
Since November, the Swedish Migration Agency could no longer offer shelter to all asylum seekers and they asked refugees to arrange their own accommodation.
Families with children get priority for housing. The 600 refugees who found temporary shelter at the Riksgränsen resort have been redistributed all over Sweden; in mid-February the skiers arrive to occupy the rooms and the slopes.
Ghafor, Forozan and Pareya take the early afternoon train to Hoting, a location in central Sweden with 700 inhabitants.
It is the beginning of a new adventure.