Welcome to Mosul - on Stockholm

Sweden's taken in more Iraqi refugees than any other country in Europe. But as one small town begins to feel inundated, are the locals having a change of heart? Claire Soares investigates
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There's a new joke doing the rounds in this Swedish town. An Iraqi father and son are walking down the street and come across a blond-haired blue-eyed man. "Wow! Look!" squeals the little boy, "here's a real-life Swedish person!"

Lying just outside Stockholm, surrounded by tranquil lakes and slopes of fragrant pine trees, it might be marked on the map as Sodertalje, but many of its newest residents quip that it could easily be dubbed Mesopotalje.

That's because last year, this unassuming, unremarkable Swedish town welcomed 1,069 Iraqi refugees. That's twice as many as the entire United States and one in 20 of every Iraqi seeking asylum in Europe.

Michael is one of the people who sold everything he owned to try to build a new life 2,000 miles away. Even now, almost a year after arriving, he's so scared by the violence back home and the potential consequences for friends and family still there, that he prefers to use a Western alias.

"I was a Christian working for foreign companies, and as the extremists see it, I'm betraying my country twice over," he explains.

First came the threatening emails. Then it was the heavy breathing phone calls. The final straw was an envelope delivered to his home in Baghdad. There was no letter, just a single bullet.

Michael sprang into action selling off jewellery and hi-tech gadgets to buy his wife and five-year-old daughter one-way tickets out of the country. Four months later, he'd managed to sell the house and got on a plane to join them in Sweden. He now has a flat in Sodertalje, he's mastering the local lingo thanks to free Swedish lessons provided by the council and his daughter is enrolled at a Swedish school.

"She's learnt the language very quickly. When she's angry with me, she insults me in Swedish," he recalls with a smile.

It is this generous welfare system as well as the country's lack of involvement in the conflict raging back in Iraq that draws refugees to Sweden. What attracts them to Sodertalje in particular is a Middle Eastern migration route dating back to the late 1960s when Assyrian immigrants from Lebanon, Syria and Turkey put down roots here. And that means today's refugees find themselves feeling at home.

You can speak Arabic almost everywhere. You can stand on the terraces and cheer on Assyriska and Syrianska, two Assyrian football teams, at the local stadium. In neighbourhoods like Ronna, it's almost like a "Little Baghdad" with Iraqi delicacies on offer in the local stores, and the apartment blocks dotted with satellite dishes picking up two Assyrian channels.

And when it comes to religion all the Christian denominations common in Iraq have churches in Sodertalje, so whether you're Chaldean Catholic, Syriac Orthodox or Syriac Catholic, there's a ploace to worship.

At the Chaldean Catholic Church this month, families gathered for the baptism of three Iraqi babies. Celebrating the budding new lives was clearly a welcome relief from the incessant stream of death, whether a relative in the wrong place at the wrong time when a suicide bomber struck or a friend killed by insurgent hitmen.

"More and more people are coming here because the situation in Iraq is so bad," said Soran Mansour Hanna, a member of the St John's congregation whose son Gabriel was one of the three baptised. "At Sunday mass, it's totally packed upstairs and we have to spill over downstairs. Christian people cannot stay in Iraq, if you're seen wearing a cross you could be killed."

There was a stark reminder of that just last month when Reverend Ragheed Ganni, who used to work at the Sodertalje church, was gunned down in Mosul shortly after celebrating mass. Although his death might be commonplace in post-Saddam Iraq, in life he was a rarity for being one of the few trying to go back to Iraq. But there is a flood coming the other way and it is pushing Sodertalje to breaking point, as Mats Pertoft, the head of the council's integrations committee explained.

"Already it's putting tremendous pressure on the town and the exodus shows no sign of slowing," he said. "In the first five months of this year, 500 people had arrived and that's more than the same period a year ago."

Estimates for this year range from a conservative 1,400 to a possibble 3,500. And all the extra people are stretching the town's resources.

"Right now the most frequent question from refugees is 'When do we get a flat?' but it's difficult when housing is a real problem already in the Stockholm area. Of course that's a source of conflict... Sodertalje locals don't like to see the newcomers getting flats first," Mr Pertoft said.

"And we have another problem in that every month we have to open new school classes and kindergartens. There are 284 children in special preparation classes where they learn Swedish before transferring to mainstream schools," he added. And then of course there are jobs to find for their parents, usually well-educated and affluent before they had to sell everything to leave Iraq.

Because refugees are free to settle where they want in Sweden, there's not much Sodertalje can do to ease the burden. But the local authorities have come up with some pretty innovative ways to persuade Iraqis that they could be equally happy outside the town.

"Iraqis from Baghdad are used to wastelands outside the capital, so we organise bus tours to show them places outside the Stockholm area. And we bought a church in one town and 400 people moved there," Mr Pertoft recalls.

Although Sodertalje was the destination of choice for 12 percent of Iraqi refugees that sought asylum in Sweden last year, the country as a whole casts a wide welcome mat. It received 9,000 asylum applications from Iraqis in 2006, more than any other European country.

However, a decision taken at the national level might be about to change the well-trodden path from Iraq to Sweden.

On 6 July, the Swedish migration board ruled that Iraqis seeking asylum must prove they face personal risk in their homeland to avoid being sent back. It based its decision on a court ruling earlier in the year that Iraq was not an armed conflict zone.

In a decision widely seen as an abrupt change in Sweden's asylum rules, the migration board rejected the requests of an Iraqi from Baghdad and another from southern Iraq because they could not "point to any individual circumstances" to prove they were in more peril than others in their home areas.

Hikmet Hussain, who heads up the Federation of Iraqi Associations in Sweden, said many people had been in touch with him, worried about whether friends and relatives will be able to come and join them, worried about being sent back.

"It's absurd to have to... prove you are in danger in Iraq. We can't go to the insurgents and ask them for a certificate saying that they will kill us at such and such time," Mr Hussain said. "I think the decision was Sweden's way to dissuade people in Iraq from turning up in greater droves on the doorstep."

The Swedish government swiftly dismisses the accusations, keen to point out that the migration board is not a political entity and that the rejected asylum seekers have the right to appeal. Migration Minister Tobias Billstrom says that the situation is bad in some parts of Iraq but insists others are more stable and so people can stay in their homeland. "There are alternatives to fleeing the country... You also have to take into consideration being an internally displaced person."

But he admits Sweden is taking the strain when it comes to receiving Iraqi refugees. "More countries need to get involved... I have constantly argued at the EU's Council of Ministers that we need to have burden-sharing," he said. When his country takes over the rotating presidency of the European Union in the second half of 2009, it will lobby to establish a common asylum policy.

Back in Sodertalje, Mr Pertoft thinks the United States should be doing more for the victims of a civil conflict, sparked by its invasion to topple Saddam Hussein. He is critical of the fact that Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt did not raise the matter when he went to the White House in May.

"The United States has to accept the moral and ethical consequences of their military actions, but as they are failing to, then Sweden must step in and foot the bill," he said.

"It would be easy for the USA to buy themselves a good conscience," he continues "but they shouldn't be able to do that. They should have acted in good conscience in the first place."

For those like Ali Rasoul Jaber, a former Baghdad University professor, who got his residency permit at the end of last year, Sweden is a safe haven, free from the daily soundtrack of bombs, mortar rounds and gunfire.

Others like Saaor Wafer, a mechanical engineer who arrived from the Iraqi capital three months' ago, face an agonising wait for their papers to come through. Memories surface of his brother being kidnapped by insurgents and of the typed letter he receivedtelling him he deserved to be killed because his firm had contracts with American companies.

"I have a real case for coming here," he said, adding: "God bless the King and Queen of Sweden."


* UNHCR statistics show Iraqi asylum requests in Sweden quadrupled in 2006

* Sweden was the top destination in industrialised countries for Iraqis, with 9,000 applications, followed by the Netherlands (2,800), Germany (2,100) and Greece (1,400)

* The UK received about 1,300, while the United States received just over 500

* Iraq was the main country of origin for refugees in 2006, with some 22,200 asylum claims lodged by Iraqi citizens during 2006, an increase of 77 per cent compared with 2005