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AFGHANISTAN

Kabul to Kiruna: a new life in the Arctic Circle

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.

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

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.”

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2022 SWEDISH ELECTION

OPINION: The far right now dominates the immigration debate in Sweden

A televised debate between the party leaders last weekend showed how Sweden’s third party, the far-right Sweden Democrats, has shaped Swedish politics since the last elections four years ago, argues David Crouch

OPINION: The far right now dominates the immigration debate in Sweden

In the build-up to the 2018 elections, the world’s media descended on Stockholm, expecting a breakthrough by the Sweden Democrats (SD) who had been polling as high as 25 percent. In the end, SD took third place with around 18 percent of the vote.

Four years later, SD are hovering at around the same level in the polls. However, Swedish politics has been utterly transformed, as the other main parties have moved onto political terrain previously occupied by SD.

This would have been unthinkable just a few short years ago. When they first entered parliament, SD were treated as political pariahs, a racist party, held at arm’s length by the other parties who refused to cooperate with them in any way.

Attempts to bring the SD into the mainstream of Swedish politics fell flat. The leader of the centre-right Moderates lost her job after suggesting it was “time to stop demonising” the SD. Her replacement, Ulf Kristersson, said he would neither negotiate nor govern with them. After the elections, two smaller centre-right parties – the Centre and the Liberals – agreed to prop up the coalition of Social Democrats and Greens to prevent the SD gaining any influence in parliament.

It was clear, however, that the only chance for the centre-right to govern would be with SD support. After all, in Finland and Norway right-wing populist parties had entered government with the centre right. And in Denmark, the centre-right had governed with populist support. If it worked there, why not in Sweden?

In early 2019, the SD leader Jimmie Åkesson famously had meatballs for lunch with Ebba Busch, the leader of the tiny Christian Democrats, who acted as a bridge-builder. A few months later, Kristersson met the SD leader for the first time in his Stockholm office. By early 2021 the cordon sanitaire dividing the parties had been truly dismantled, and in the autumn the three parties presented a joint budget.

Meanwhile, the Moderates stepped up their rhetoric against immigration and crime. But perhaps the influence has worked both ways? Maybe the far-right have toned down their policies, compromising with the centre so the parties can work together?

On the contrary, Åkesson and other leading SD figures have stoked up the fire and brimstone in their anti-immigrant message. For the SD, the problem is dark-skinned immigrants from Muslim countries whose values conflict with Sweden’s and who should therefore be deported.

The response among the Moderates – and also the governing Social Democrats – has been a deafening silence.

After the Easter riots in six Swedish cities, the Social Democrat government proposed a package of coercive measures to help the police and social services crackdown on criminals.

A televised debate between the party leaders last weekend brought this out very clearly. More than that, it showed how the Sweden Democrats have shaped Swedish politics since the country last voted four years ago.

In the debate on Sunday, prime minister Magdalena Andersson talked about being tough on crime and boasted that Sweden now has one of the strictest immigration regimes in Europe.

It was left to the Green Party (polling 4 percent) and the Centre Party (6 percent) to challenge the SD on immigration. They pointed out that the violent minority is tiny, and that tens of thousands of recent immigrants hold down jobs, obey the law and contribute to Swedish society.

Centre Party leader Annie Lööf listed some of the SD’s more extreme proposals, including demolition of high-immigration neighbourhoods, dawn raids on refugees, and collective punishment for crimes committed by a single family member. This was “pure racism”, Lööf said – where were the “red lines”, beyond which the centre-right would turn against the SD?

All the parties agree that segregation along ethnic lines has gone too far in Sweden, that integration efforts have failed and that something must be done. But there is a paucity of bold ideas that could really make a difference.

Immigration will once more be a battleground at the elections in September, with key politicians competing to be the toughest in dealing with unruly “foreigners”. Meanwhile, the underlying problems that have fuelled disaffection among people with immigrant backgrounds are unlikely to be addressed.

A few weeks ago, Swedish journalist Janne Josefsson spoke to Ahmed, one of the stone-throwing youngsters who shocked the country at Easter.

“We are second class citizens. You let us in, but then Sweden doesn’t care about us,” Ahmed told him. “We are trapped here. I have studied, but will never get a good job. At least once a week we are stopped by the police. In the end, you feel hunted, like a quarry. Do you understand?”

It seems that Swedish politicians don’t really want to.

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.

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Listen to a discussion on Sweden and immigration on Sweden in Focus, The Local’s podcast. 

Click HERE to listen to Sweden in Focus on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or Google Podcasts.

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