The broken cello: Abboud’s journey to Sweden

It’s a classic question: If your house was on fire and you had to leave as quickly as possible, what one item would you bring?

The broken cello: Abboud’s journey to Sweden

“I just want my cello,” says 23-year-old Abboud.

For Abboud it’s not theoretical. It happened. Only it was his country which was on fire, and the escape route was a dinghy from Turkey to Europe.

“When I saw people carrying the dinghy across the beach, I saw it as a tomb,” Abboud recalls. “I was sure something would happen.”

As it happens, he wasn’t able to bring his cello. The driver requested an extra $1,000 to carry it on the boat. But it’s just as well – as with 46 people crammed into the dinghy, everyone’s baggage ended up tossed overboard.

Now living safely (but uncertainly) in Sweden, Abboud still remembers the journey clearly.

“The journey lasted two hours. The motor stopped working and there was just mist everywhere. I just thought, ‘For god’s sake, where is the island?’”

The group was eventually rescued by a Spanish volunteer who was able to fix the motor and accompany the group to the Greek island. After that Abboud eventually made his way through the Balkans and up to Sweden.

His childhood seems like it was in another universe entirely.

Abed al-Rahman Koujer grew up in Damascus, Syria, surrounded by music.

“When I was young I had many private classes,” he says. “My dad first taught me to play the oud, a classic oriental instrument, and then my mom asked me to play the violin.”

But he soon fell irrevocably in love with the cello, and in high school his devotion led him to seek studies at the Higher Institute for Arabic Music at the Egyptian Academy of Art – leaving Syria as the revolution began.

“I practiced 8 to 12 hours a day,” Abboud says. “I wanted to be ready to enter the Institute.”

Scraping together the money to apply was difficult for Abboud and his family, and the audition was rigorous. But it worked out – Abboud was accepted, and received an incredible 100 percent score on his audition.

But there was a catch: Abboud still didn’t have residency in Egypt.

“If you have no residence your situation is going to be hard. I went to get a certificate of registration from the university, in order to use it for the residence application, and the employee told me I had to pay the ‘foreign’ registration fee in British pounds,” Abboud says.

In short, due to an application deadline mix-up and the complicated rules applying to Syrian citizens, he was required to pay massive extra fees each year – fees which he quite simply couldn’t afford.

“This happened three months after I had started university, and I continued studying the entire year – knowing that I couldn’t take the exams and couldn’t progress,” he says. “So I had no residence permit and no way of completing my studies.”

After that Abboud tried studying in Turkey – where he had heard that Syrians could study for free – but it didn’t work out there, either.

“So I decided to leave,” he concludes. “I took the perilous route with so many others. It was a tragicomic sort of journey.”

The irony, of course, is that he still doesn’t have a residence permit. But here he sits in the asylum centre in Sweden with a smile on his face – for at least he has his cello.

“When I arrived in Sweden I spent almost a month without it, and my skin started to itch,” he remarks. Not being able to play was like going through withdrawal. “It was suffocating.

He asked his mother to ship the cello to Sweden, and eventually she did.

“I told her I didn’t want anything else, not even the residence permit, if I can’t have my cello,” he says. “I dreamed about it.”

When Abboud finally received the instrument in November last year, he was shattered to discover that it was broken. There was a large crack down the back of the cello and a chunk broken off.

“I called my mom and started weeping,” he says. “My instrument is the most valuable thing in my life.”

But Abboud is no stranger to adversity – and once again, he did as he has done so many times before. He picked up the pieces and marched on.

“I bought adhesive tape and fastened the broken part back to the cello’s body,” he says.

The sound isn’t the same, and playing the instrument – like the process of waiting for residency – has become exhausting.

But still, it’s a piece of home, and it’s a piece of his identity – put back together here in Sweden.

He admits it’s rough waiting so long for the residence permit. But luckily he has the cello – and Abboud is enjoying sharing his love of music with Swedes.

 “After playing at a recent event, a Swede told me, ‘Your music goes straight into the heart without any barrier,’” he says.

“I like the idea that our classic oriental music can be beautiful and appealing to people from other cultures too. I’m very excited about that.”




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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.


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

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