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Syrian teenager Anas fled to Sweden – to play football

People said he was crazy, but Anas al-Sarmini made a beeline for Sweden because he so desperately wanted to play football after escaping the devastation in Syria.

Syrian teenager Anas fled to Sweden - to play football

His journey from Homs to Sweden was as mazy as one of Lionel Messi’s trademark dribbles. 

First he left Syria for Lebanon after his brother had deserted from his military service. Even though he was just 15 at the time he worried that an unscrupulous regime would force him to take his brother’s place. 

Next he left Lebanon for Egypt, where the rest of his family had fled. His parents put him in a private school so he could catch up on his education, but soon they could no longer afford the fees. 

Sweden – the promised land for an ambitious young footballer

Desperate to get back to school, and to kick a football, he decided to follow in the footsteps of thousands of other Syrians and make his way to Sweden. 

After a stop-off in Turkey, he was smuggled to Stockholm in October last year. 

“Yes, I got smuggled to Sweden to complete my studies and play football after I was deprived of these two in my home country. That’s what I told the migration board in Sweden when they asked me why I came here,” says al-Sarmini, who recently turned 18. 

“Even Syrians in Sweden laughed at me and told me I was crazy to come here just to play football.” 

On arrival at a refugee centre in Enköping he immediately started looking for a team, but he hit a snag: no clubs would accept a player who didn’t have a residence permit. 

He wouldn’t give up without a fight though, and is especially grateful to a couple of Swedes who went beyond the call of duty to help him out. 

An eagle-eyed coach's intervention 

His liaison officer at the asylum centre supported his plans and put in some calls on his behalf but she got the same response. His luck changed however once he started training at the local stadium with a newly formed team of fellow asylum seekers. 

A coach for Enköpings IS spotted that he was talented and approached him after the session. The skilful youngster explained his situation and the coach, Patrik, agreed to let him train with the youth team, on one condition: that he sign up to play for the club once his papers were in order. 

The Syrian teenager jumped at the chance to train regularly with a proper team and in no time he was lacing up his boots in the dressing room. 

During one session in May he took a heavy blow to the stomach and threw up. The coach, Patrik, wanted him to leave the pitch but he refused. 

This tenacity prompted the coach to contact the national football association. To al-Sarmini’s great joy, they agreed to let him register with the club’s youth team. 

“I’m very happy now, I am playing football and studying. I got what I wanted after losing everything I had in my home country.”

His next aim? To go professional and eventually to play with the Swedish national team. 

“I thank God night and day for surrounding me with the passionate Swedes who have helped me every step of the way.”

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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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