The first fire swallowed the centre in 2009. Reconstructed, it burned again a year later. On Friday, however, after a near four-year battle to pull in insurance and get new funding, the new and improved centre stood ready. The appeal was evident as hundreds of Södertälje residents braved sheets of autumn rain to attend the first party on Saturday evening.
“I got married in the old centre, and there were tears when it burned down,” recalls Katja Saado. “This is a new building, but you can still feel it in the walls.”
“It” being the importance the centre had, especially but not exclusively the activities for teenagers – including help with homework and movie nights.
“As a mother, I knew they were well taken care of here. I didn’t matter if they came home late, because I knew there was no alcohol, no cigarettes,” said Maha Chamoun, who served as the community association’s first female president between 2007 and 2011.
She said the police’s failure to apprehend those responsible for the suspected arsons had created frustration, and paved the way for much speculation about motive.
The second fire took place in the wee hours after the community’s Assyriska football club beat hometurf rivals Syrianska FC, and there was a well-recorded history of posturing and spats following derbies. The split between Assyrians and Syrianer is something Chamoun said doesnt exist outside Sweden, an off-shoot splintering of a diaspora with shared roots.
Police called at 5am to tell Chamoun about the fire. With hands shaking from the shock, she quickly dialled her sister.
“I could hear my mum whispering on the phone so I knew something was up,” recalls her nephew Rabi Masso, whose wedding was supposed to take place in two weeks in the centre that was now nothing but smouldering ruins. “I suggested we skip the party and go on honeymoon straight away, but that didn’t go down well with my fiancée,” he laughed.
Instead, the couple held the party in the nearby church, which also welcomed the now homeless choir and the homework support group, as well as other activities from the centre.
The teens, meanwhile, who had no recourse to a youth centre in the immediate vicinity, were ferried away on ski trips and engaged in outdoor pursuits by the association’s youth wing, keen to keep them busy.
“Civil society is incredibly important,” said Södertälje mayor Boel Godner, seated at the honour table as music kicked off on Saturday. “We make a point of keeping in touch with all associations to make sure we support them and explain what funding is available to them.”
Party-goers hoped the festive mood would continue, yet another derby could be on the cards as football teams Assyriska and Syrianska are back in the same league.
“We joked that it is only a question of time until they burn this centre down too,” said Saado as cars shuttling new guests to the party kept trickling into the beladen car park.