Big trouble in ‘Little Baghdad’

Part one of a three part series looking at the challenges posed by large scale immigration from Iraq to a relatively small Swedish town.

Big trouble in 'Little Baghdad'

A flood of Iraqi refugees to Södertälje is straining the infrastructure in this small Swedish town to bursting point, but integration of the newcomers remains a top priority.

Since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, more than 5,000 Iraqis have made their home in this small industrial town, which is located south of Stockholm and counts just 82,000 inhabitants, according to city council numbers.

“I understand that people want to flee Iraq. There’s nothing surprising about that, and Sweden has a generous policy of welcoming refugees,” town mayor Anders Lago told AFP.

But the influx “far surpasses our reception capacity,” added the mayor, who in recent months has sounded the alarm about the growing strain on the town.

With 18,599 applications, Sweden was the European country that received most Iraqi asylum requests last year, and the Scandinavian country, which counts just nine million inhabitants, gave the thumbs up to 72 percent of all applications handled in 2007, the Swedish Migration Board said.

Each week, some 30 new Iraqi immigrants arrive in Södertälje, according to Lago, making it, on a per capita basis, the Swedish municipality to take in most nationals from the war-ridden country.

With no sign the influx will peter out any time soon, town officials are complaining the municipality no longer has housing readily available.

Newly-arrived refugees are often forced to move in with Iraqis who have already settled in.

As many as 15 people are often compelled to squeeze into small one-bedroom apartments in parts of the city that have been dubbed “Little Baghdad”.

Swedish law allows asylum seekers to settle in the town of their choice, and since the 1970s Södertälje has been especially popular with Christian immigrants from Lebanon, Syria, Turkey and Iraq.

“This is a well-known town. It gives a sense of security that others have already settled here, that others speak the same language. It has become a tradition, and that has had a snowball-like effect,” said Erika Berndt, who heads up Södertälje’s refugee integration programme.

All asylum seekers in the town with residence permits are offered language classes, briefings on the workings of Swedish society, internships and monthly benefits, all aimed at helping them quickly land a job in their new country.

To keep up with the continuously growing flow of new arrivals, the town has however been forced to whittle the duration of the programme down from 24 to 18 months, and increase the number of municipal employees working on the project from eight two years ago to 70 today, Berndt said.

About 40 percent of all Södertälje inhabitants are first- or second-generation immigrants, but Lago says it is proving especially difficult to integrate the latest wave of refugees.

It is difficult “to learn Swedish when you go to a school that is virtually only populated with children speaking in Arabic or children of foreign origin,” he explained.

For months now the mayor has been calling for a change of the law that allows refugees to decide themselves where they want to live, insisting that a more even spread of newcomers across the country, at least during the first year after their arrival, would simplify integration efforts.

Last December, Migration Minister Tobias Billström announced the government was looking at the possibility of requiring “asylum seekers to only settle in areas where there was housing, work or education possibilities.”

Lago meanwhile said the Iraqis arriving in his town in droves appeared to be intent on staying.

“My feeling is that they’re coming to stay and to build a new life here. They want to work and to be independent,” he said.

That is not necessarily a bad thing for the town. Lago acknowledged that some 40 percent of the refugees had had university-level education, and Berndt insisted the group was “an asset for the society.”

The refugees are “extremely motivated to integrate into society and learn the language,” she said.

But while most of the refugees may not prove to be a burden to Södertälje in the long run, Lago said he worried about a wave of people leaving the town because “they feel there are simply too many refugees here.”

As an indication of the discontent the refugee surge is causing among Södertälje’s “Swedish” population, the anti-immigrant extreme right doubled its number of seats from two to four in the 65-seat city council in 2006 local elections.

With no signs the refugee influx is about to slow down, Lago has begun appealing to Iraqis to settle in other towns as he impatiently awaits a law change that would force them to go elsewhere.

AFP’s Sophie Mongalvy


Lund professor freed student from Islamic State war zone

A chemistry professor at Lund University dispatched a team of mercenaries into an Islamic State (also known as IS, Isis or Daesh) war zone to free one of her doctoral students and his family.

Lund professor freed student from Islamic State war zone
Kurdish pershmerga fighters during the battle to retake the Yazidi homeland Mount Sinjar in 2015. File photo: Bram Jansse/AP/TT
Charlotta Turner, professor in Analytical Chemistry, received a text message from her student Firas Jumaah in 2014 telling her to to assume he would not finish his thesis if he had not returned within a week. 
He and his family were, he told her, hiding out in a disused bleach factory, with the sounds of gunshots from Isis warriors roaming the town reverberating around them. Jumaah, who is from Iraq, is a member of the ethno-religious group Yazidi hated by Isis. 
“I had no hope then at all,” Jumaah told Lund's University Magazine LUM. “I was desperate. I just wanted to tell my supervisor what was happening. I had no idea that a professor would be able to do anything for us.” 
Jumaah had voluntarily entered the war zone after his wife had rung him to say that Isis fighters had taken over the next-door village, killing all the men and taking the women into slavery.
“My wife was totally panicking. Everyone was shocked at how IS were behaving,” he said. “I took the first plane there to be with them. What sort of life would I have if anything had happened to them there?”
But Turner was not willing to leave her student to die without trying to do something. 
“What was happening was completely unacceptable,” she told LUM. “I got so angry that IS was pushing itself into our world, exposing my doctoral student and his family to this, and disrupting the research.” 
She contacted the university's then security chief Per Gustafson.  
“It was almost as if he'd been waiting for this kind of mission,” Turner said. “Per Gustafson said that we had a transport and security deal which stretched over the whole world.” 
Over a few days of intense activity, Gustafson hired a security company which then arranged the rescue operation. 
A few days later two Landcruisers carrying four heavily-armed mercenaries roared into the area where Jumaah was hiding, and sped him away to Erbil Airport together with his wife and two small children. 
“I have never felt so privileged, so VIP,” Jumaah told LUM. “But at the same time I felt like a coward as I left my mother and sisters behind me.” 
Firas Jumaah and his former PHD supervisor Charlotta Turner. Photo: Kennet Ruona
Luckily the rest of his family survived Isis occupation, while Jumaah back in Sweden completed his PhD and now works for a pharmaceuticals company in Malmö. The family has almost finished paying the university back for the rescue operation.
“It was a unique event. As far as I know no other university has ever been involved in anything like it,” Gustafson said.