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.
The world has a "moral obligation" to help these people, Billstrom said. If the United States accepted as many people per capita as Sweden, a nation of 9 million, he said, it would have taken in 500,000 refugees.
In Sodertalje, lines for jobs and housing are long. The minister said he has heard that children do their homework in the stairwells of apartment buildings because some Iraqis are living 20 to an apartment.
"These are conditions Sweden left behind in the 1940s, and we don't want them to return," he said.
The government has started closing the gates. Last year it granted asylum to 76 percent of Iraqis who arrived seeking refugee status, but that is down to 25 percent this year. While Iraqis were routinely granted asylum because of general violence and turmoil in their home country, applicants are now asked to prove that they would face a specific threat if they returned.
Concerned that sizable segregated communities are forming, officials are planning incentives to encourage Iraqis to settle more evenly across the country.
Higher-skilled and better-educated Iraqis, including many doctors and professors, have had success at learning Swedish and landing good jobs. Some goldsmiths, such as Walid Jarjis, have set up the same businesses they had back home. But many others say that it takes years to learn Swedish and that without it, they are unable to get decent jobs.
The rhythm of daily life in this small city, where the streets are largely empty by early evening, is jarring for newcomers. Iraq is a nighttime society; as Jarjis said, it can be hard to get used to the fact that Swedes "are on their second dream" by 10 p.m.
With help from police fines, Iraqis have adopted the local custom of not honking in residential neighborhoods. But many said pickled herring for breakfast remains a hard sell. It is easy for adults to cling to the native language and traditions and live in a separate world; they can speak Arabic at stores that sell familiar food from home and at growing churches packed with Iraqis.
Many people interviewed had tried unsuccessfully to get into the United States, including Helen Eshow, 42, a former translator for the U.S. Army. She said she needed to leave Iraq because her association with the U.S. military made her fear for her life. Moving to the United States would have been easier than resettling in Sweden, she said, but American officials told her visas were limited.
Now many Swedes believe this city has reached its limit.
"We can't solve the problems of the world here," said Torbjorn Jonsson, 47, project manager for a pharmaceutical company. "It is very odd being the only country with a flag out saying, 'Come here!' " he said. "If we welcome people, we must be able to support them. We need everyone to be a first-class citizen, with the same rights, same possibilities for jobs, the same housing -- or we will have problems."
In a converted school a couple of miles from the picturesque lake in the city center, 15 men huddled around a table at a social club for Iraqis. Nearly all wore bulky winter coats, unaccustomed to the Swedish winter, their first. Thirteen of them have been waiting for months to find out whether they will be granted residency, and their fear is rising that they arrived too late.
"We didn't come here for a vacation. It was the only option to get away from the killing," said Qusay Wahid, 34, a taxi driver from Baghdad. "We are desperate. What are we going to do? Someone must help us."
"People see Sweden as a raft to grab onto at sea," said Isak Monir, a spokesman for the club. He hoped other countries would help, too.
The smell of homemade hummus and fruit-scented tobacco in water pipes filled the one large room, where a few men played cards. News reports in Arabic on the satellite TV described the latest killings in Iraq, a day of street fighting in Basra.
The newcomers include a supermarket owner whose brother was recently killed, a liquor store owner whose shop was bombed and an accountant. For hours, over cards and sweet tobacco, they worry -- about their families back home and their futures.
"What will we do if we can't stay? We sold everything to get here," said Nashwan Sulaiman, a former Iraqi policeman.
Merzoian, the computer programmer, said his family pooled about $50,000 to pay smugglers to get him, his wife and two children to Sweden. They huddled for 10 days hidden among boxes stacked up in the back of a truck until they arrived in Sweden, exhausted and looking for asylum.
"It's a quiet life here. I am so happy," said Merzoian, who was awarded residency. He described his new life sitting in the warmth of his red rowhouse, which he moved into last month. It is decorated with a wall hanging of the Last Supper and other signs of his Christian faith -- just about the only possessions brought from Iraq.
His children, Tanya, 3, and Shant, 5, attend a cheerful preschool with flowered curtains where they sing "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" in Swedish.
Merzoian lifted the sleeve of his left arm and revealed a jagged narrow scar. Back in Baghdad, he said, he was kidnapped and held for four days before his family paid a ransom. One of his captors dragged a knife across his arm and told him that was how he would later slit his throat.
"I see the smiling faces of my children, and I am so happy they can live here without fear," said Merzoian, who is determined to learn Swedish and get a job. "One day I will work and pay my tax. Others will come and I will help them."
Staff writer Walter Pincus in Washington and special correspondent Naseer Mehdawi in Sodertalje contributed to this report.