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Kabul to Kiruna: a new life in the Arctic Circle
Afghan student Terina Asadi takes a stroll in the snow.

Kabul to Kiruna: a new life in the Arctic Circle

Published: 20 Jan 2010 17:12 GMT+01:00
Updated: 21 Jan 2010 12:36 GMT+01:00

Adjusting to life in the far north of Sweden can be tough at the best of times, but coming as a refugee presents an extra set of challenges. Malin Nyberg speaks to two women who are more than happy to adapt.

When Freiweni sets off to work in the morning it’s still dark outside. The temperature shows minus fifteen Celsius. “Life in Sweden is very different to Eritrea,” the single mother of two tells The Local.

Freiweni Ghiedei Ghebregzizberher, 51, has been living in Kiruna for the past three years. Leaving her war-torn East African homeland behind, Freiweni and her children arrived in Stockholm in 2007. Soon they were transferred to the refugee facility in Kiruna, a town located some 250 km north of the Arctic Circle and famous for its ice hotel and endless summer days.

But basking beneath the midnight sun was not on the cards when Freiweni first arrived in Sweden.

"It was winter and my children complained. They would ask: 'Mum, why did we have to come here? It’s so cold'," Freiweni says.

She admits to feeling scared at the time. "On our way to Kiruna I had no idea where we were going, my kids were crying and it was very traumatic. It hurts to think about it."

The family spent a year at the refugee facility, where they received, among other things, financial assistance that enabled them to buy warm clothes and shoes.

"We had not been prepared for the cold and had arrived in very thin clothes," Freiweni remembers.

Having received a residence permit in 2008, the family moved from downtown Kiruna to Vittangi, a village of just 800 people.

"There were no apartments in the centre. I felt sad about it at first but now I think it’s the best thing that could have happened. The people in my village are so nice," she says.

After two years of Swedish studies combined with a work placement scheme, Freiweni has now landed her first job.

"I’m so, so happy." Her days are long and the job at the old people’s home requires some travelling. "I get up at 6 o’clock every morning, taking the bus in to Kiruna," she says. "But I don’t mind at all, I’m just so glad to be working."

It took Freiweni and her children about a month to get used to the cold in Kiruna and today she is grateful for ending up so far north:

"I wouldn’t like to live anywhere else. I love the little village we live in. My children don’t want to move either. It’s safe here. There were so many problems in Eritrea, with bombs falling and all. Now I have the chance to give me children a good upbringing."

22-year old Terina Asadi, originally from Afghanistan, is another newcomer who is happy to be living in the very north of Sweden. She arrived from Turkmenistan in February last year and already speaks Swedish fluently.

"People are so nice here, and very talkative. I practise my Swedish on the bus," she says.

Terina spends her days taking courses at the municipal adult education centre (Komvux) in order to continue the medical studies she started at a university in Turkmenistan.

"The only bad thing about Sweden is that my qualifications don’t count," she says. "I have to start all over again."

Terina regrets that she will have to leave the area one day: "Unfortunately I have to move from Kiruna later as there is no university here. It’s a shame because I love the snow and the summer here is even better. It never gets dark; it’s amazing."

New figures from the Swedish Migration Board show there are currently 35,000 asylum seekers living in Sweden. Spokesman Johan Rahm says they are not expecting an increase from last year, but adds: "It is always hard to tell as you don’t know how things will develop in conflict zones around the world."

The municipality of Kiruna currently plays host to around 500 asylum seekers, but less than ten percent are likely to stay.

"The ones who do get a residence permit are most likely to move down south," says Maud Lantto, head of the board's refugee reception division in Kiruna.

But she does not think the cold climate is a decisive factor:

"The people who come here seem to like Kiruna a lot, but many have friends and family in other parts of the country. Also, there is a huge lack of apartments in the town and many people don’t want to live in the small villages."

What's more, unemployment is on the rise in the area. "The recession has reached Kiruna," Lantto confirms.

Kiruna first set aside temporary housing for asylum seekers in 2001 and Lantto admits some citizens were cautious at the outset. "There were a few protests about having a refugee facility in the area, but I rarely hear complaints these days."

"In my opinion, meeting people from other countries can broaden your horizons and give you a new perspective on life. And from what I can see, it seems people are becoming more understanding about why people leave their countries in the first place."

Malin Nyberg (news@thelocal.se)

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Your comments about this article

22:28 January 20, 2010 by peropaco
Congratulation to these people for adjusting to a life up yonder and even moreso that they have managed to find talkative people. Yet I am puzzled by what the Eritrean lady said about bombs falling. I wasnt aware there was a war going on there. Then again there are so many small little wars taking place in Africa so I am not surprise if many of them dont make it to mainstream media.
09:28 January 21, 2010 by Pont-y-garreg
A heartwarming story.

(By the way, it's "Arctic Circle" not polar circle.
11:50 January 21, 2010 by Nemesis
A good sucess.

Good luck to them.
22:01 January 21, 2010 by Farfalla
This is a good example of how Sweden is helping and trying to help those unfortunate people from war zone area seeking a peaceful and secured life. I wish all of them good luck and God Bless!
23:52 January 21, 2010 by Lea
@peropaco: Eritrea really exists as an independent country for just over 15 years. Out of these 15, I think there was not a sinle year that Erithrea was not involved in some kind of war. Also, there was a big fight for over two years between Ethiopia and Erithrea, two world poorest countries, which happened in 1998-2000 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eritrean%E2%80%93Ethiopian_War). I guess Freiweni refers to this one. Yet, I am not sure why she was granted the assylum in 2007? when there was no hostility in progress. Could be that the paperwork took 7 years, even though unlikely.
14:31 January 22, 2010 by asgoodas
@Lea u are right there is no war in eritrea coz the war ended in 2001 but still the eritrean people are suffering on endless military service and the country is run by a ruthles leader worst of all they don't have any right of religion or freedom of speech or work....in other words they only work for the government and once they get out of the country they can never get back coz they fear execution and torture and trust me i'm one of them........
23:54 January 22, 2010 by Malmoman
It is nice to see people succeeding in Sweden. As a fellow invandrare I toast their success!
15:22 January 23, 2010 by JoeSwede
Now that's the way it should be done. She learned Swedish. She obtained a job. She gets up early every morning and commutes to work. Was willing to settle where the job existed.
15:39 January 23, 2010 by Marc the Texan
Well good for her in becoming a success. As a matter of policy though, how does this help Eritrea get on track? Also as another commenter noted, the war ended years ago. Why grant asylum to economic immigrants. Much of the world is poor and exporting poor people is no way to become wealthy.
16:24 January 23, 2010 by dsc
The far right extremists who hate to see non-EU people make it in Sweden won't show up here to spit the usual venom. They hate it when an article about immigrants is positive.

Hat's off to The Local for showing the xenophobes that immigrants are not all the same.
18:56 January 23, 2010 by Nemesis
@ dsc

Good point.

However, something you need to realise.

The far right also want rid of Euroepan non swedes. Get one drunk and you will realise what I am talking about.
01:00 January 24, 2010 by dsc
@Nemesis

That will be Phase II on the far right agenda. I've heard.
12:16 January 24, 2010 by fridayz
@ Farfalla Totally agree with you

Though I didn't know there are talkative people living somewhere in Sweden!!! Very good news , I should take a vacation to Kiruna ... these people may be considered as national heritage or something !
00:51 January 26, 2010 by DAVID T
great story - pitty this is not the norm
09:22 January 26, 2010 by Uncle
Marc the Texan - I agree with you. This country should invest into improving the life of the Eritreans by pressing on their government, not by accepting every possible Eritrean.

All of them are poor and live in violence. There are also Congo, Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia and Chad with poor people and bad living conditions. Why not take on 50 million from there?

Sweden has this habit of supporting "freedom fighters" Mugabe/Amin type and then running around collecting money FOR and refugees FROM the "liberated" countries.

I am really glad for the 2 refugees that adjusted here of course. The problem is that this is so rare that one needs to write an article in a newspaper about it.
14:17 January 26, 2010 by Suntiger
@Uncle

"So rare that one needs to write an article in a newspaper about it."

*laughs* Oh dear, that was funny!

You don't know many immigrants, do you?

The majority actually *does* adjust to a life in sweden. And become employed. And pay their taxes.

It's just that, as usual in the media, people who just get along with their life aren't interesting to write about, except for when you need to do a human interest story, so you rarely hear of them.

Do many have a hard time adjusting? Yes.

Do some fail to adjust? Yes.

However, the last part is a *minority*.

Even in the ghetto suburbs to Stockholm, Gothenburg and Malmö where the immigrants are proportionally the most numerous and have the most problems it isn't as bad as it's usually made out to be. The unemployment rate is rarely above 50%, which while abominably large still means that over half do have a job.

Admittedly the adjustment is harder there because they can frequently remain with enough people that they don't have to adjust as much (which can be scary as well as hard, particularly if you're old).

Not that either the media, swedish democrats and their ilk, nor the politicians cares much. They rather talk about the problems rather than trying to solve them in a constructive way (obviously I don't think "send all the brown people away" constitutes a constructive solution. ;) ).
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