Far From War, A Town With A Well-Used Welcome Mat (Sweden)

Far From War, a Town With a Well-Used Welcome Mat

Sodertalje Journal
Published: June 13, 2007

Dean C. K. Cox for The New York Times

SODERTALJE, Sweden, June 11 Walking down the carpeted aisle of Sodertaljes low-slung St. Johns Church on a recent morning, Anders Lagos broad, blond features looked out of place among the crowd of hundreds of black-clad Iraqi mourners at a memorial service.

Mr. Lago is the mayor of this scenic Swedish town of 60,000 people, which last year took in twice as many Iraqi refugees as the entire United States, almost all of them Christians fleeing the religious cleansing taking place next to Iraqs anti-American insurgency and sectarian strife.

So the mourners are now part of Mr. Lagos constituency, and their war is rapidly becoming Sodertaljes war to the mayors growing chagrin. Sodertalje, he says, is reaching a breaking point, and can no longer provide the newcomers with even the basic services they have the right to expect.

About 9,000 Iraqis made it to Sweden in 2006 almost half of the 22,000 who sought asylum in the entire industrialized world. This year, when the United States has promised to take in 7,000 Iraqis, around 20,000 are expected to seek asylum in Sweden.

Many of them are expected to find their way to this thriving town nestled among cold lakes and steep pine and birch-covered hills about 18 miles southwest of Stockholm. During 2006, following a migration route for Middle Eastern Christians laid down almost half a century ago, more than 1,000 Iraqis arrived here. This year, up to 2,000 are expected to come.

Now areas like Ronna and Hovsjo, with the seven-story, boxlike apartment buildings typical of these Swedish versions of Frances blighted immigrant neighborhoods or Americas urban housing projects, are being nicknamed Little Baghdad and Mesopotalje, complete with shops hawking Iraqi delicacies, crowded apartments and innumerable stories of carnage and loss.

In one Ronna apartment, where newly arrived refugees gathered recently for an introduction to their new homeland as part of a municipal program, tragic stories were in abundant supply.

Mariam, a 36-year-old teacher from the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, came to Sodertalje in late March. She told of being grazed by a gunmans bullet while trying to leave Mosul with her family, and seeing one of her sons shot in the stomach.

We left everything to be safe, and we came here to start a new life, said Miriam, an Assyrian Christian who did not want her full name used because her husband and two of her three sons had not yet managed to leave Iraq. In Iraq, we were deprived of even the simple right to go to church, and we want to hold on to our religion.

Sweden grants asylum to all Iraqis except those from the relatively stable Kurdish areas, and the immigration authorities do not even register their religious affiliation.

But Sodertalje has been a magnet for Christian refugees since the late 1960s, when Assyrian immigrants from Lebanon, Syria and Turkey established a thriving community here. After the Persian Gulf war in 1991 and now, as extremists in Iraq step up their persecution of non-Muslims, more and more are trying to get here.

They come here to survive, said Jalal Hammo, the chairman of St. Johns, a Chaldean Catholic church, who arrived from Iraq in 1994. The terrorists do all they can to make all Christians leave Iraq.

Culture shock for newly arrived Iraqis is felt far less here than it would be practically anywhere else in Sweden or the West, for that matter. Here, they can speak their native Arabic almost everywhere, and have their choice of churches for the Christian denominations common in Iraq: Chaldean Catholic, Syriac Orthodox and Syriac Catholic.

In addition, they can see the games of two successful Assyrian soccer teams at the local stadium, as well as Suroyo TV, an Assyrian satellite TV station. But even though Sodertalje is the choice for many Iraqi Christians, it is becoming increasingly clear that their new lives present many challenges partly as a consequence of Sodertaljes status as a haven of choice.

Most who make it here were relatively affluent almost all have paid $10,000 to $20,000 to get the papers they need to get out of Iraq and they are often highly educated. But work in Sodertalje is scarce, especially for those with little knowledge of Swedish, and Iraqis who arrive now will have to wait several months to start regular Swedish classes.

Housing is also a problem. Like most of the refugees, Mariam has been living with friends since she arrived, and worries that she has greatly overstayed her welcome.

After everything I had in Iraq, I have to suffer this humiliation, she said. I want to work, I want to provide for my family, but what can I do here?

Town officials are wondering that themselves. The Swedish system for taking in refugees is broken, said Mr. Lago, the mayor. Because Iraqis are free to settle where they want in Sweden, he said, a place like Sodertalje faces an overwhelming burden of providing them with housing, schooling and work.

And even here, 2,000 miles from Iraq, the war continues to make its presence felt, as with Hazim, a wealthy, 50-year-old businessman who fled from Baghdad in March. Sitting among a group of compatriots in the Ronna apartment recently, he received a threatening cellphone call from Baghdad.

For us, Iraq is a never-ending story, he said. We came here, and we are still followed by the war.

And then there are Swedes like Mr. Lago, who learn about the horrors of Iraq as a part of their job.

The service in St. Johns Church, where Mr. Lago was a guest, was held in memory of the Rev. Ragheed Ganni, 35, a Chaldean Catholic priest from Iraq who worked at the church until last fall. In November, he decided to follow the tracks of those leaving Iraq for Sodertalje, but in the opposite direction.

On June 3, Father Ganni was shot to death, execution style, after celebrating Mass at the Holy Spirit Church in Mosul.