Iraqi Refugees Find Sweden's Doors Closing

Sodertalje, a quiet Swedish town of 83,000, has taken in more Iraqi war refugees than the United States. The influx has caused many residents to wonder if they can continue to provide adequate education and resources. Video by Mary Jordan/The Washington Post Editor: Francine Uenuma/
By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, April 10, 2008

SODERTALJE, Sweden -- Behind the wheel of his old Ford Escort, Oshin Merzoian puttered happily along snowy streets. Back home in Baghdad, he said, he always drove at crazy speeds to avoid killers and kidnappers.

But here in "Little Baghdad," as this city that has accepted roughly as many Iraqi refugees as the entire United States is called, Merzoian is enjoying the luxuries of living in peace. He doesn't strap on a gun for protection, and he notes that Swedish police worry more about seat belts than roadside bombs.

"Even if they remake Iraq from gold and diamonds, I wouldn't go back," said Merzoian, 31, a computer programmer who said he arrived last year after a 10-day trip hidden in a smuggler's truck with his wife and two young children.

Sweden, which has one of the world's most welcoming refugee policies, has become the new home of 40,000 Iraqis since the war began in 2003. Last year alone, more than 18,000 Iraqi refugees came to Sweden. According to the State Department, the United States has taken in roughly 6,000 Iraqis in programs for refugees and translators.

Sweden's largess dates to World War II, when it was harshly criticized for remaining neutral while its neighbors suffered. But now Swedish officials say they are shouldering too much of the refugee burden and are urgently calling on other countries to do more.

"People are saying: 'Stop it! It's too much,' " said Sodertalje Mayor Anders Lago, who is to testify before the U.S. Congress on Thursday. "We are a small town in a small country. We didn't start the war. It was the United States and Great Britain. They must now take the responsibility for the refugees."

Sodertalje, a city of 83,000 about 18 miles southwest of Stockholm, the capital, was once known mainly as the home town of tennis great Bjorn Borg. Its reputation is now based more on the fact that Swedish people may soon be in the minority.

Lago said 40 percent of residents are foreign-born or the children of immigrants, many of them refugees from conflicts all over the globe. Since the Iraq war began in 2003, about 6,000 Iraqis have settled in this city, almost all of them Christians (Muslims tend to go to other Swedish cities). Iraqis are lured by the large number of compatriots already here and by Sweden's famous social welfare system.

The national government budgets $30,000 to help settle each person granted asylum. It pays for Swedish language classes, helps with housing and job training and pays a monthly allowance for living expenses.

Iraqis leave behind a country that can barely provide electricity and water. Here they attend classes that explain such benefits as 18-month paternity leaves and a 24-hour hotline for children who want to register complaints.

"In this country, when you are 65 years old, you can sit at home and still get a salary," marveled Merzoian, sitting in the cozy kitchen of his new government-subsidized, two-story house.

According to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, 4.5 million Iraqis have been forced out of their homes. Half of them are still in Iraq, and 2 million have fled to neighboring countries, particularly Syria and Jordan, where most live in poor and crowded conditions. For the Middle East, "it's the greatest refugee catastrophe since 1948," the year Israel was born, said Tobias Billstrom, Sweden's minister for migration.

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