Iraqi refugees get 18-month crash course on Sweden

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

Iraqi refugees get 18-month crash course on Sweden

“Hello everyone and welcome to Södertälje.” The Arabic interpreter repeats the Swedish spoken to a group of 40 refugees, mostly Iraqi, who have chosen to settle in this small town south of Stockholm.

This is the first step toward their integration into Sweden: after receiving permanent residency status, these men and women are attending the first day of an introductory programme offered by Södertälje municipality.

The class lasts 18 months and its main goal is to get refugees into the job market.

The classroom is packed. Extra chairs are brought in, but there are not enough to go around and some refugees will spend the entire three hours standing up at the back of the room.

“The goal of the programme is for you to become financially independent… Everything will be done so that you can find a job,” says Belhira Kajevic, an employment councillor for the town. The interpreter, a woman from Syria, translates for the group.

The immigrants take notes diligently, many of them still bundled up in heavy winter parkas as the temperature outdoors plunges toward zero.

They are aged between 20 and 60, and the majority of them are men.

Once their language and professional skills are evaluated, the refugees will quickly be signed up for Swedish language classes, vocational training and meetings with advisors.

They will be monitored closely by the municipality throughout the 18 months.

Participation in the programme is not obligatory.

“It’s optional, but I’ve never heard of anyone who has turned down the offer. Many are entirely dependent on the financial aid they get through the programme,” explains Erika Berndt, in charge of the introductory programme.

There are currently 1,500 refugees registered for the classes, for the most part Iraqis. That number is up sharply from a year ago when there were 630 participants.

One of the participants this day is Georgis, who is 25 years old and arrived in Sweden 11 months ago. He is originally from Kirkuk in northern Iraq.

“I was working with the US soldiers … I was threatened. Letters were sent to my family,” he says in good English, his woolly black hat pulled down low over his forehead.

He fled Iraq after his 18-year-old brother was murdered.

“I want to learn to speak Swedish, that’s very important. I’m learning the rules here. I want to know everything about this country. Who knows, maybe I will die here,” he says with a smile.

The second speaker to address the participants is Ginbot Abraha, an Eritrean. He himself came to Sweden as an asylum seeker in 2003.

When he starts explaining how much social aid they will receive from the municipality, worried expressions appear on their faces.

A young pregnant woman raises her hand and asks how much money she will get after her baby is born.

A man says his expenses are already higher than the amount he will be allocated, while another asks about the health care system in the Scandinavian country.

According to Södertälje town officials, 50 percent of refugees are financially independent after two years.

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.