Welcome to Sweden's Aleppo

It is afternoon recess at school. Children are chatting away in Arabic and Assyrian, a language spoken by the Middle Eastern Assyrian Christian minority, congregating around games and drawing pictures. But their snack gives away that there’s something unusual about this school: the children are having Scandinavian-style open-faced cheese sandwiches, not Middle Eastern food. Elafskolan is, in fact, the world’s first Assyrian-language school outside the Arab world. Its location is Södertälje, a Stockholm suburb that has turned into a haven not just for these seventy-six children who’ve fled violence in Syria and Iraq but for thousands of other Middle Eastern Christians as well.

“We’re getting a lot of new arrivals,” reports Helmut Lavicka, headmaster of the seven-month-old school. “In addition to speaking Arabic and Assyrian, they quickly pick up Swedish as well. It’s amazing that they do so well, considering the trauma they’ve experienced and the fact that many of them haven’t attended school in years.”

That’s because they’ve only just arrived in Sweden. Ever since the first Assyrian families from Iraq, Syria and Turkey—arrived in Södertälje in the 1960s, this rather nondescript suburb some forty minutes by commuter train from central Stockholm has been a Middle Eastern hub in the chilly North. Back then, they settled in Södertälje not because it reminded them of anything from home but because it offered jobs: good factory jobs with Scania, the truck manufacturer. Those original immigrants, escaping persecution that seems mild in comparison with the fate that is currently befalling Christians in the Middle East, now lead established middle-class lives; Swedish success stories though they lovingly preserve their ethnic heritage. At the city’s outskirts, the many elegant villas owned by those original Middle Eastern arrivals bespeak their industriousness. And these days, they find themselves welcoming a never-ending stream of brothers and sisters from the homeland of Christianity. Since the beginning of the Iraq war, the number of Middle Eastern refugees making their way here has skyrocketed. According to municipal statistics, 10,002 of Södertälje’s residents now have Iraqi background, 2,505 are Lebanese, and 7,632 Syrian. There are also 5,393 Turks. Although Swedish law bans registering refugees’ religion, unofficial estimates show that the vast majority are Christians of different persuasions.

Thanks to Sweden’s pioneering decision to grant Syrians permanent residence in Sweden last year, Södertälje’s Syrian community has grown even faster. Last year, 30,583 Syrians applied for asylum in Sweden, an 87 percent increase from the year before. That accounted for more than half of all Syrian asylum applications to European Union countries. “Middle Eastern politics is a matter of kitchen-table conversations in this city,” notes Mayor Boel Godner. “When it comes to Middle Eastern Christians, we’re in a league of our own. So when Islamic State started growing, it immediately became a Södertälje issue.” Some 1,200 new refugees have already arrived this year, 90 percent of them Syrians. Indeed, Södertälje has lately become a mirror image of the ethnic demographics of the Middle East, that region’s persecuted minorities finding refuge in Sweden. According to the Pew Research Center, Christians made up 5 percent of the Middle East’s population in 2010, down from 10 percent in 1900, and that was before the arrival of Islamic State. Iraqi Christians, who once numbered several millions, have now dwindled to less than 400,000, and Iraq’s Patriarch now warns of impending disaster. And in Syria, the U.S. State Department notes that Islamic State has carried out mass killings of Christians and other minorities. As the recent gruesome beheadings of Christian Egyptian migrant workers in Libya showed, not even Copts, a relatively safe community in a country where they make up 10 percent of the population, are secure anymore. The Islamic State is even holding two Middle Eastern bishops hostage.

Since he arrived in Södertälje twenty-five years ago, Archbishop Julius Shabo of the Assyrian Orthodox Church has seen his Swedish flock quadruple. “The majority of people who’ve come here for the past three years have been from Syria and before that from Iraq,” he tells me during a meeting in his office, located above the Assyrians’ imposing cathedral here. “Middle Eastern people like being close to their families and relatives, so that’s why they come to Södertälje.” Swedish law aids the collective voyage to Södertälje by allowing new refugees to settle wherever they like as long as they can show that they have a place to stay. That place, naturally, is mostly with friends and family, even though it means moving into homes that are already crowded. Those unable or unwilling to make private arrangements are divided up between municipalities willing to take them, with each respective municipality responsible for their housing and welfare.

Receiving so many new members has left Bishop Julius, himself a Syrian, with feelings of both joy and grief. “The saddest thing is that we’re welcoming them from death,” he explains. “People are leaving their homes not because they love this cold country but because they’re afraid of being killed.” That fear brought Shamoun Zitou and his family, Orthodox Assyrians from Aleppo, here. Aleppo is both Syria’s largest city and home to its largest Christian community. “I just have to assume that things will get worse in Syria; otherwise I’ll be disappointed,” he says of his realization that his children will grow up in Sweden. “No matter how much my wife and I tell them about it, they’ll forget Syria. They’ve already forgotten which city they’re from.” Zitou reflects that in Aleppo, his children were half-Arab and half-Assyrian: two rather similar cultures. Sweden, by contrast, is very different. “If they grow up to feel half-Assyrian in addition to half-Swedish, I’ll feel that we’ve succeeded,” he concludes.

That’s a big “if.” Södertälje now has so many immigrants that several municipal schools boast only a handful of Swedish pupils. In a multicultural society, that ethnic distribution would not pose a problem but for the fact that without Swedish classmates, new arrivals have nobody from whom to learn Swedish. Swedish classes, offered to adults as well, are hardly an equivalent source of knowledge. As a result, both the young immigrants and their parents are facing life as perpetual outsiders in this haven of security. “If I want to meet Swedes, I have to leave Södertälje,” acknowledges Zitou. “Sweden is not Syria, so it’s not good that we’re a mini-Middle East here. We should live like Swedes. But it’s easier to be with people whose habits and way of life you know.”

At tables arranged café-style at the back of Saint Afrem’s Syriac Orthodox Church, an imposing building surrounded by snow, several dozen men are having coffee and chatting away. The church, which has ministered to Sweden’s Assyrians ever since those early Scania years, doubles as a community center, with new arrivals often making their first stop here. I meet a nineteen-year-old who fled Syria last year with his two older brothers, the eldest deserting from the army (because his parents are still in Syria, he asked not to be identified). “We sold our possessions, paid the smugglers and then walked and walked,” he reports. Now he attends high school here in Södertälje, planning to train as a plumber. Even so, he speaks only single words in Swedish. “Sweden has brought in too many refugees at the same time,” says Afram Yakoub, the young chairman of the Assyrian Federation of Sweden, who himself arrived here as a child. “It’s a tragedy for people to have fled from war and misery and be stuck as permanent outsiders here.”

At the municipal offices—virtually indistinguishable from local government facilities elsewhere in Europe but for the fact that they offer a host of lectures and presentations on current Middle Eastern politics—Boel Godner governs with social compassion befitting her social democratic ideology. Though energetic by temperament, she seems withdrawn when I come to see her, and it’s not hard to understand why. A national policy intended to make refugees’ experience more humane has created a stampede on her city, which—she argues—it can’t handle on its own. She wonders why wealthy Stockholm suburbs don’t volunteer to receive Syrians and Iraqis feeling for their lives. As far as Godner is concerned, this divided society serves no one. She has a point.

Many Swedish municipalities, including the wealthiest ones, receive only minimal numbers of refugees, knowing that Middle Eastern Christian refugees in particular will most likely find an abode in Södertälje, which is now 48 percent immigrant. That leaves this low-income municipality with a 15 percent unemployment rate among native-born Swedes, and a 27 percent unemployment rate among immigrants, with huge costs for everything from teachers to interpreters. Meanwhile, many Muslims, in turn, settle in the southern city of Malmö. “The most important thing is for the refugees to learn Swedish and to make sure they get a permanent place to live rather than moving around between the homes of friends and family as is currently the case,” Godner argues. “If the rest of the country doesn’t want to receive refugees, the rest of the country should at least help us help the refugees here in Södertälje.”

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.