Welcome to Sweden's Aleppo

April 29, 2015 Topic: Society Region: Europe Tags: SwedenSyriaCivil War

Welcome to Sweden's Aleppo

Tragedy is bringing Europe and the Middle East together... in interesting ways.

That’s the less rosy side of Sweden’s generous welcome to Syrians. Swedish politicians enjoy the admiration directed their way by other European leaders grateful that Sweden dares to open its doors in a way that no other country does. Sweden, to be sure, isn’t Europe’s refugee champion: last year, according to UNHCR figures, Germany again claimed that place, followed by France and Sweden. 436,000 people applied for asylum in the EU last year, a 25 percent increase from the year before. And Italy, refugees’ closest port of entry as they escape to Europe, occupies an exposed position as it has to house and care for tens of thousands of people—87,000 of them during the first seven months of 2014 alone—who arrive at its shores. Some even arrive on ghost ships, the crew callously having abandoned their rickety vessel and human cargo as things got tough. But Sweden, comfortably isolated in northern Europe, doesn’t face such mass arrivals. Instead it has gone out of its way to welcome refugees, which means a starring role for Boel Godner’s city.

Though Södertälje is remarkably peaceful for a city in such transition, there’s been some gang activity. And in the city’s often chaotic schools, Middle Eastern scenarios are playing out in unusual ways, with Christian pupils at times bullying their Muslim classmates—payback, perhaps, for what brought them here in the first place. And on the national level, it’s no secret that Sweden’s newly arrived Christians are apprehensive of increasing Muslim radicalization. “When I arrived here you never saw a radical Muslim in Sweden,” reports Bishop Julius. “Now you see and hear about them all the time.” That may be an exaggeration, but terrorism researcher Dr. Magnus Ranstorp at the Swedish Defense College reports that many Swedish cities don’t even know how to identify—and thus monitor—radical islamist youth. And Sweden’s new housing minister, Turkish-born Mehmet Kaplan, recently caused an outcry when he suggested that radicalization among young Muslims in Sweden was the result of pervasive Islamophobia, which he advised would best be cured with government funds for more mosques.

Considering the trauma that Södertälje’s new residents have experienced, their new collective life amid the Swedish snow and concrete runs surprisingly smoothly. It also adds a distinctive color to this otherwise unremarkable city, which in this new incarnation as Aleppo-upon-the-Baltic features no less than four Middle Eastern bishops, a multitude of Middle Eastern churches including a new one for Syrian Christians who prefer speaking Arabic over Assyrian. The churches also function as community centers, with men and women congregating to socialize with their friends. “When I arrived five years ago, we had five parishes in Scandinavia; now we have 22,” the Scandinavian Copts’ Södertälje-based bishop, Anba Abakir, tells me during a meeting in his church, which is located next to the Mayor Godner’s office but gives one the impression of having been transported to Iraq. “And we need a lot of new parishes and a lot of new priests.” In fact, Bishop Anba—who like his fellow Södertälje bishops cuts an exotic figure in his flowing robes and distinctive onion-shaped headgear—is in the process of identifying young Copts raised in Sweden who would make good priests. For now, the recently ordained Father Josef Gobran has his hands full tending to the Södertälje church, which is located in the city’s former tax office.

Every refugee does, of course, deserve the safety of Södertälje or another place like it. But with Christians being forced to leave the region that has been their home for two millennia, could the Swedish way of life to which Södertälje’s new residents will eventually adapt actually be a kiss of death for Christianity in the Middle East? Bishop Julius, noting that Christian communities in cities like Mosul have practically vanished, confesses to praying that he won’t get any more members. Indeed, he reports, they don’t want to be in Sweden either. “The vast majority are sad to be here. God bless Sweden, but it’s very cold. And we want to be in our countries, where we’ve been for 2,000 years.” Last July, Islamic State issued an ultimatum to the city’s Christians, commanding them to convert to Islam, pay the jizya tax, or leave. Most, if not all, have understandably left their ancient home.

But where should they make their new, if temporary, home? Does a particular country—say, officially Christian Sweden—have an obligation to receive them? In a strange convergence of views, Jimmie Åkesson, a right-wing politician, shares Bishop Julius’s position, albeit for very different reasons. Sweden should not give Syrians permanent residence permits, the leader of the Sweden Democrats has repeatedly argued, suggesting that Syrian neighbors such as Jordan should instead receive more Syrians. According to UNHCR statistics, the impoverished kingdom now hosts nearly two million refugees.

Åkesson, a telegenic man who has almost single-handedly turned the far-right Sweden Democrats (SD) into an electable party, now presides over a forty-nine-member-strong parliamentary group, making it Sweden’s third largest party. Indeed, the Sweden Democrats are so popular that after they caused the fall of the center-left coalition government last December by voting for the center-right opposition’s budget, their support leapt by two percentage points compared to the election results the several months earlier. The reason? Now, many Swedes apparently thought, there would just be no way around forming a government with them. In the end, the center-right and center-left parties agreed to disagree, agreeing that keeping SD out was the most important item on the agenda, and the government remained in place. SD’s views, of course, continue to resonate with a sizeable minority of Swedes. That is Sweden’s dilemma today: a laudable goal that clashes with the desires of many citizens. And while many establishment voices passionately support liberal immigration policies, they choose not to live in Boel Godner’s city.

But there’s no doubt that Middle Eastern Christians of all persuasions (and indeed their Muslim compatriots) are enriching this concrete-heavy city. Community organizations and businesses such as the Aramaic Democratic Organization and the Syriac Property Company cater to the new population’s needs, as do a wide range of Middle Eastern grocery stores and eateries. Södertälje’s two immigrant soccer teams, Assyriska and Syrianska (named after their respective religious communities), now play in Sweden’s top division, and the local soccer field is habitually referred to as Jalla Field (Jalla-Valla) in a nod to the Arabic word for “run.” Assyriska’s star player, defender David Durmaz, teaches anti-bullying in Elofskolan.

And from a state-of-the-art studio in an office building down the street from Saint Afram’s Syriac Orthodox Cathedral, Suroyo TV, the world’s first Assyrian-language TV and satellite station broadcasts news, entertainment and chat shows along with updates on the two bishops held hostage by Islamic State to viewers in eighty-two countries. During my visit, Syrian cameraman Sabah Nuri Salo and producer Daniel Haddo, recently arrived from Iraq, were preparing for the next newscast. “I’m working on my Swedish,” Salo gamely announces. “But it’s not easy.” Indeed, Swedish is completely unrelated to his native Assyrian and Arabic.

Boel Godner, too, is keeping a steady eye on the news, having become a geopolitical sage of sorts. During a recent visit to a refugee camp in Turkey, she discovered that virtually everyone was familiar with Södertälje; indeed, many knew her face from television. “The steady stream from Syria will continue,” she predicts with a stoic look. “And the situation in Iraq will escalate.” She’s already trying to figure out where to get money for more teachers.

Elisabeth Braw is Newsweek's Europe correspondent, currently with a strong focus on security issues. She joined Newsweek following a visiting fellowship at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University. Previously she was a senior reporter at the Metro International newspaper group, focusing on interviews with political and business leaders. Elisabeth has lived in Germany, from where she has an MA in political science and German literature, Italy, Washington (DC), and San Francisco. Based in London, she frequently also reports from Germany, and is currently working on a book about one of the Stasi's most successful operations. Follow her on twitter: @elisabethbraw.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Russavia