The night before bloodthirsty Isis fighters entered Mosul in 2014, 28-year-old Qutaiba Ad-Dagher managed to get out.
After months-long stays in Baghdad and Turkey, he wound up in Sweden for what he thought was a temporary stay before moving on to Finland. But that was before he met Tilde Björfors, a circus director who was volunteering at his asylum centre.
She convinced him that he would be better off staying in Sweden, and eventually offered him a room in her apartment. Here he describes the surreal and uplifting experience of a Muslim Iraqi’s first Christmas in Sweden.
My first time celebrating Christmas in Sweden, or anywhere
I had no clue what Sweden’s Christmas would be like, with its Lucia, glögg and saffron buns.
Iraqi Christians celebrate Christmas, but their festivities didn’t seem similar to what I witnessed here.
2015 was the year when I became a refugee, and it was also the year I celebrated Christmas for the first time.
Playing the part of Saint Stephen – and singing in Swedish for Lucia
We celebrated Lucia, both refugees and volunteers, in the makeshift asylum camp where I lived. That camp is a place of great memories.
Prior to the Lucia celebrations, the volunteers suggested I sing.
I played Saint Stephen’s role and thought I was going to sing in English. But they told me: “No! No! you are going to sing in Swedish!”
I read about Saint Stephen and later played his role, as they had asked, in Swedish.
This was one of many firsts that year. It was the first time I had read or uttered Swedish. I still didn’t know what I was saying, or how I sounded!
The preparations were simple: we created crowns out of egg cartons. Even the wreath of candles was too basic for the girl to balance it on her head. The wreath slipped and all the candles fell over the bearer at the last moment of the ceremony. It looked very funny.
Everyone pitched in to help with the preparations; we baked gingerbread biscuits and saffron buns, and we set up the Christmas tree together.
With all its spontaneity and surprise, that Lucia was nice.
I felt really happy I was doing something new, and was happy seeing all people around me delighted as well.
‘The Christmas food seemed really peculiar to me’
The circus management, where Tilde works, at Cirkus cirkör, heard about the makeshift camp and us refugees, and decided to offer us a three-part Christmas gift.
First they gave us ten thousand kronor in cash for us to spend on whatever we might need at the camp; then there was were circus festivities made up of different games; and a dinner party.
The circus performers trained us to do different games and stunts. We learned how to make a human-pyramid, and other amusing tricks.
The dinner party was the quirkiest of Sweden’s Christmas traditions. There was a big dinner table crammed with exotic food. Many dishes included seafood and pork. I ate mostly fish and inadvertently chose a dish that turned out to be sweet. That was very odd to imagine or even to taste. The Swedish volunteers told us that that the sweetened fish recipe is served only at Christmas. So I understood it’s part of the tradition!
The Christmas food seemed really peculiar to me. We are used to seeing big roast turkeys on American dinner tables in movies, but not pork or sweetened fish as in Sweden’s case.
After dinner we decided to dance together, refugees and volunteers. No-one knew how to dance. It was very awkward but funny.
No Eid al-Adha, but Christmas made up for the loss
Christmas is a religious event at heart. However, thinking about it as a festivity, it can be affected by culture and traditions. That’s why there can’t be Christmas in Sweden without celebrating Lucia first for example. While in Iraq nobody knows about Lucia.
Fleeing Iraq and later moving to Sweden had deprived me of celebrating the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Adha (Sacrifice Feast), because I simply had no-one to share the moment with. For me that was emotionally devastating. However, Lucia and Christmas came a month after to give me an unexpected heart-warming boost.
Despite its quirkiness, Christmas in Sweden was exceptional. It was heart-warming. Being with those great people, volunteers and refugees, was indeed a consolation to my soul. A consolation for the loss of my city to Isis. I found solace in the diaspora.
I have no problem as a Muslim to celebrate Christmas with Christian friends – not at all. Nothing in Islam says that I can’t celebrate Christmas. I am a Muslim; I don’t drink alcohol and I don’t eat pork and I do celebrate Christmas with my Christian friends! Why not?
Even if I weren’t a Muslim, I don't think I would have drunk alcohol anyway.