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24 hours on Stockholm's streets with refugee protesters

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24 hours on Stockholm's streets with refugee protesters
Led by Fatemeh Khavari, refugees and their supporters have been holding a sit-down strike in Stockholm for over a month, protesting deportations to Afghanistan. Photo: Stina Stjernkvist/TT
14:29 CEST+02:00
What drives someone to spend over a month sleeping outdoors in protest? The Local spent 24 hours with refugee youngsters on Stockholm's streets to find out why they are so strongly against deportations to Afghanistan.

The sit-down protest started at Mynttorget in front of the Riksdag building on August 7th. In the month since, the season has changed as well as the location. Twice, in fact, with the protesters first moving to Medborgarplatsen in Södermalm, then to their current location at Norra Bantorget in the city centre.

The Local first met them during the opening week of the demonstration in the summer, the morning after a night in which they were attacked by a far-right group. Defiant, the youngsters insisted that violence and intimidation would not deter them from their goal of convincing Sweden to halt deportations to Afghanistan, which the youths say is still plagued by violence and insecurity.

READ ALSO: 'You can't be sure you'll come home when you leave your house, that's Afghanistan'

A month later, the weather has taken a turn for the worse, but many of the youngsters are still protesting, sleeping in the cold on the hard stone of Norra Bantorget, in a continued effort to achieve their goal. The Local decided a fresh visit was due, but this time it would be a longer one – 24 hours – in order to better understand what it is like to spend all day and night out in the open in the Swedish capital, fighting what seems like an uphill battle at best.


Norra Bantorget in Stockholm. Photo: Paul O'Mahony/The Local

When I arrived at the square at lunchtime on September 5th, the ground had just about started to dry up from a previous day of continuous rain that many of the campers admitted was the toughest of the whole month on the streets. I had expected some scepticism from a weary group as a result, but instead was greeted with smiles, and instantly invited to sit down in a circle and join in an animated dicussion.

Tea was quickly poured from a thermos and handed to me with a "help yourself" – something that would become a theme over the next day. After a failed attempt to teach me some Dari, as well as how to drink tea "the Afghan way" (by dipping cubes of sugar in the tea then holding the sugar in your mouth while you sip it), the conversation started to really get going when it turned to the universal language of football.

Soon, 12 of us were all taking part in a passionate debate about the most important question in the universe: Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi? Arguments in Dari were translated to Swedish and vice-versa, and there was certainly something amusing about a bunch of Afghans and one Scot, sitting in Sweden, debating the merits of a millionaire from Portugal and a millionaire from Argentina.

Artwork depicting the journeys some of the refugees made to Sweden. Photo: Lee Roden/The Local

This may seem trivial, but our ability to find common ground despite a lack of any shared history meant I already couldn't help but wonder if more face-to-face meetings like this between different groups would be worthwhile for everyone.

The group soon introduced me to Fatemeh Khavari, a young woman who at only 17 has taken on the role of their spokesperson. Impressively clear in her ideas and embarrassingly skilled with the Swedish language despite only two years in the country, she informed me that she had arranged for a speaker to come and try to raise the spirits of the protesters, which had flagged following the heavy rain.

Erkki Grönroos arrived and was quickly given pride of place, with everyone gathering around as he began to tell his story, listening with an unwavering interest. Now 76, he came to Sweden in 1941 when he was only five months old, one of around 70,000 war children ("krigsbarn") who fled Finland during hostilities between them and the Soviet Union in the Second World War.

"You aren't the first young refugees in Sweden. It's the same feeling you have now as we had then. It was traumatic for a lot of us to be separated from their parents, just what you're experiencing now," he began.

"In the beginning I was so poorly nourished I couldn't hold down any food, I threw up everything. Luckily my Swedish mum was a nurse – mamma Berta, as I call her, was a wonderful person. She took care of me in the best possible way and I couldn't have had it any better. A lot of other kids weren't so lucky, and were used as labour, virtually slaves," he continued.

SWEDEN IN FOCUS: An in-depth look at what makes this place tick


Protesters gathered around Erkki Grönroos and Fatemeh Khavari. Photo: Lee Roden/The Local

For two hours the group was captivated by Grönroos. Khavari, who clearly has a natural talent for languages, translated with a seemingly effortless ease from Swedish to Dari, then translated questions from some of the kids back to Swedish again. "What would you say to the Swedish government if you could speak to them now?" one of them asked.

The Finnish refugee's voice rose and he broke into an impromptu speech in response:

"Change the rules. Stop focusing on paragraphs, think with your heart. When I came here we were taken with open arms, given help and protection. Sweden was poor then. Today Sweden is rich. We can take these kids in, all of these kids sitting here today will be needed in the future in this country. It means nothing if an official goes to Kabul, surrounded by security guards, in the safest part of the city, then comes back and says 'it's safe'. Of course nothing will happen then, but how many of these kids being sent back get that? None. They're being sent to their deaths."

Grönroos was referring to Migrationsverket's official stance on the situation in Afghanistan. The agency recently insisted that safety varies between the country's different provinces and that "it is still possible to return to several areas". That's despite Sweden's foreign ministry advising its own citizens against all travel to the country, which Migrationsverket argues is because they use different criteria and because the level of threat varies depending on whether you are a westerner or a member of the local population.

"Sweden has a long tradition of taking in refugees. In the Second World War, the Hungarians who Sweden gave protection to in the 1950s, Chileans after the military coup, the war in Yugoslavia. Sweden always showed solidarity and took people in," elaborated Grönroos, explaining why he supports the protesters in their cause.

READ ALSO: The forgotten story of Sweden's Chilean refugees


Erkki Grönroos. Photo: Lee Roden/The Local

The interest the group took in the 76-year-old's talk supported the impression they gave throughout my stay: that they are keen to learn about the culture of Sweden and in no way fit the image of entitlement that some paint refugees with. That was similarly reaffirmed when several of the kids asked a Swede from an NGO to explain the history of the monument that dominates Norra Bantorget. It depicts Hjalmar Branting, Sweden's first ever Social Democrat Prime Minister, addressing a group of workers on May Day, he told them. Along with Christian Lous Lange, Branting was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1921 for his work in international diplomacy. His acceptance speech focused on "fraternity among nations".


The Branting Monument. Photo: Lee Roden/The Local

Grönroos left as day started to turn to night, and soon food was again offered around by the protesters. A homeless man who came to the group asking for a banana was given a full meal instead. The camp was well organized: some kids took turns dealing out meals, others cleaning up with brooms, and those who drew the shortest straws were tasked with keeping watch during the night – a necessity following the attack at Mynttorget, it was explained.

After dinner I started to make conversation with Hossein Akbari, who had travelled south from Umeå in August to take part in the protests. When I asked a simple, and in hindsight naïve, question about Afghan music, his answer served as something of a wake-up call, and a reminder of the nature of the place he and the other protesters had left behind. "You have to understand, in Afghanistan a lot of things aren't always allowed, it's not a democracy," he said with an uncomfortable look on his face. The Taliban, who still control large parts of Afghanistan, are not fans of music to say the least. Suicide bombers have even targeted music performances by children.

Akbari made the 5,000 kilometre journey to Scandinavia with five of his friends. One, who went to Norway, now has a residence permit. Two, who went to Finland, have received deportation notices. And of the three who crossed the Öresund Bridge into Sweden, two have had their asylum applications rejected and one is still waiting for an answer. He is one of the two who received a rejection, and has appealed, but is not optimistic.

I asked him how the protesters have kept themselves occupied during the month or so that they have been demonstrating. "I try to pass the time by studying multiplication. I didn't get an education in Afghanistan – I started working almost as soon as I could walk – so now I'm catching up," he recalled in excellent Swedish, despite only being in the country for two years and with little formal education to his name.

I had anticipated that a moment of escapism would be welcomed by the protesters, so at this point I unveiled my secret weapon: a football. The result was a game of two-touch football that drew in more and more people from the group as it progressed. The ball was treated like gold dust – a rare distraction from much heavier thoughts. The game ended up going on for almost four hours. Watch the video below.

After it turned dark things quietened down, with some of the younger kids who only come during the days heading back to their homes. Occasionally the police stationed nearby would come and speak to spokesperson Khavari to make sure everything was OK. Aside from the occasional sweeping of a brush from the youngsters tasked with cleaning, there was little more than the sound of a low murmur, finally broken when a shout in Swedish of "can someone help with this bag? It's a bit heavy?" came from the bottom of the stairs below the monument. A woman who had brought some food after passing by stood there. "It's something for breakfast. I'll be back tomorrow, what do you need?".


Hossein Akbari (right) speaks with a passer-by who brought food for the demonstrators. Photo: Lee Roden/The Local

Moments like that helped keep the group optimistic, Akbari noted:

"You feel a genuine care when that happens. You don't feel alone, and that there are people around us who care about us. You get an energy boost when you meet other people, when people like you come here to visit and see what's happening. That helps."

Though keen to make as much of the opportunities to get an education that Sweden presents before he is possibly forced to leave, the 18-year-old decided to put his studies on hold to join the protest. For him it's about something bigger than even school – which he does not take lightly.

"I dropped everything to come here from Umeå. This is about my life. Ultimately you can hopefully go back and study a month later, but this is about living."

We were eventually joined by Benjamin Fayzi, who with a residence permit and five years in Sweden under his belt, is in a different situation to many of the protesters. Yet he still feels an obligation to show support.

"I have a permit, I have a job. I finished upper secondary school. I don't know these people – they're not my family, they weren't friends. So people ask why I'm taking part, but it's important for me. Look, if something as simple as football for example is important for a person, they engage with it, go to matches, support it. This issue is important for me, so I support it," he explained.

"For the first two weeks I continued to work then came here at night, but after that I couldn't keep it up, so I took some time off. I was drinking loads of coffee just to get through it."

Fayzi is one of the protesters who has been taking part since day one. Like Akbari, he places great value in meeting outsiders while demonstrating.

"It's even more important when Swedish people come and meet us. People who don't have the problems these kids do, but want to defend their rights. If they do that, how could I not? That gives you hope for the future. You think: OK, maybe I won't go to school this week, or maybe I won't have great food for now, or I'll maybe have to sleep on the streets for a few nights a month, but hopefully for the rest of my life I'll be able to live in security, safe and with freedom. Not being terrified all the time that I'll be killed, or being constantly at risk."

READ ALSO: How is Sweden tackling its integration challenge?


The Local's reporter Lee Roden (left) with Hossein Akbari (centre) and Benjamin Fayzi (right). Photo: Lee Roden/The Local

"A lot of people come past who didn't know about our situation," he continued. "I've spoken with many who say 'Oh, OK, it's like that? There's war?'. They've maybe heard from the government or Migration Agency that it's safe in Afghanistan, these people don't need asylum. Now, after meeting us, they start to think 'how safe is it really?'. Have they asked all the questions? Have they really looked into it?"

He is particularly critical of the Swedish Migration Agency's statistics, which say that 83 percent of lone refugee children processed to date in 2017 have been given residence permits.

"But those figures don't include the kids who were under 18 when they came in 2015, and the long processing time meant they have now turned 18 and didn't get a permit as a result. So there's a big section not included in the stats," he insisted.

Another contentious issue in Sweden is asylum seekers who say they are under 18 when they are registered in the country, but lack ID to prove it. Controversial medical age assessments have even been brought in to prove or disprove claims. Fayzi is quick to point out that Afghanistan does not have the same structures as Sweden, which complicates the matter.

"Part of the problem is that we don't have the same level of ID as in Sweden, you're not registered automatically when you're born. A lot of people don't know the exact date they were born – they don't have documents, so they don't know exactly how old they are. If those kids don't know exactly, but know roughly, that's the only answer they can give you."

He also challenges the perception that refugees come to Sweden to sponge from the country's welfare state, pointing out that he has had a full time job from as early as possible. Akbari, who has worked almost all of his life without choice, also finds that portrayal saddening.

"I don't need money – I've worked for almost as long as I could walk – I just want the chance to live."

"That's such an important thing. People say 'you're coming here for money', but I explain it's not about money, food or homes. There are still some homes and some food in Afghanistan, that's not why we came here. We didn't have security, freedom and safety – it's for those things that we came. That's why we fled. So as long as they allow us, and as long as we need to, we'll protest, arguing that," Fayzi added.


The Stockholm autumn nights are getting colder. Photo: Lee Roden/The Local

With that, it was time for bed – the point in the day I had least looked forward to. Settling down for the night was about as comfortable as you would expect with 20 people lying side by side on the cold ground under a tarpaulin. The transition to autumn is under way in Stockholm, and the nights have become cooler. One night is bad enough, but some of the demonstrators have been doing it for a month, giving up comfort in pursuit of a cause. It was hard not to admire that determination.


The sleeping spot for the night. A mop had been used to prop up the tarpaulin. Photo: Lee Roden/The Local

I eventually drifted off at two in the morning, woke up at six, then managed to get an hour or so again before being woken up abruptly once more  – this time by the sound (and feeling) of leaf blowers being used by council workers in the square. Not an alarm clock method I had considered previously, nor one I would care to repeat.


A wake-up call with a difference. Photo: Lee Roden/The Local

Afghan bread for breakfast was soon offered by a guy who, despite us not really having a language in common, I had established a friendly rapport with – he was a keen member of the pro-Messi camp, which helped. It was almost time to leave, but I still had to speak properly with Khavari, the spokesperson who so many of the group seemed to look to for advice and help.

As she ended a phone call with tears in her eyes, I asked her what had upset her. "Racists have targeted me and my family online," she said, adding that she was unsure whether there was any point in reporting it to the police. Sure enough, later that day a quick Google search revealed that several websites had decided a 17-year-old girl was their new enemy, anonymously questioning whether she was "really a man", among other insults, and posting pictures of her family without permission.

Khavari's leadership and ability to speak convincingly and intelligently had apparently irritated some people. It had left an impression on me too – a positive one. I asked her whether it was something she had always been capable of.

"I started speaking in front of people and singing sometimes when I was 13. The first time I sang in public I was still tiny, in front of 3,000 women."


At only 17, Fatemeh Khavari (right) has become the group's spokesperson. Photo: Lee Roden/The Local

Though of Afghan background, she lived in Iran all of her life before coming to Sweden:

"When I started to sing and speak, even from the beginning, I wasn't nervous at all. I don't know why. When I was a kid in Iran I was treated very badly because I'm an Afghan, so that had an impact on me, and taught me that I would need to stand up for my rights. In Iran that was almost impossible because it's not a genuine democracy, so you couldn't be public about it."

In secret, she started to write down her thoughts in poems and verses, then publish them on a website.

"Most of it was about politics. When I came to Sweden in 2015 I kept writing, and I also started painting. I do a lot, everything really."

"But all of that took a back seat to the suffering that there is here in Sweden today," she continued. "Young people from my country have been living on the streets after having applications rejected, committing suicide over the stress of the asylum process. All of that affected me. So I became someone who would stand up for them, I saw how many rights they weren't being given."


Khavari on another day at the protest. Photo: Stina Stjernkvist/TT

Khavari is determined to win her battle, noting that "until we get an answer I won't leave that task. I have a clear strategy". Her tone changed, more downbeat this time:

"If this doesn't work, then we'll have to go on a hunger strike. I don't think there's any other alternative. That's the last resort."

The longer their protest continues without any result, the less optimistic Khavari is about the outcome, she admitted.

"When I was in Iran we suffered violence and discrimination, so we fled to Sweden, which we thought was the only place left in the world where we can be free. But when I came here I was still discriminated against," she said.

"Sweden is the one place where anyone fleeing violence can seek security, I thought. But now after these 30 something days sleeping on the streets, where we still don't know what will happen to us and whether we'll be listened to, I can say for sure that we are not really accepted here. I'm trying not to lose hope but I'm saddened… I don't know," she stopped.

"Afghanistan's government can't do anything. Sweden's government doesn't want to do anything. Iran's government will definitely do nothing. Where should we go? We have nowhere. I'm thinking about that a lot now, of the possibility that Sweden will end up disappointing me and won't turn out to be the moral country I thought it was."

That has led her to considering an outcome that she has found difficult, but believes may be necessary.

"After this strike is over, I'll try to find somewhere new to live, despite having friends and family here. I won't choose to live in a country where there's no humanity. The silence there is right now has broken my heart."


The dampness had returned when it was time to go. Photo: Lee Roden/The Local

With that, the stay was over. Though some now don't feel welcome in Sweden, the demonstrators had welcomed me with open arms. After 24 hours in the company of an inspiring group of young people who, despite having experienced things difficult for most of us to comprehend, are warm-hearted, engaging and in many ways enlightening, I can only recommend that more people come and speak to them, hear them out before forming their opinion. Perhaps they would learn something, as I did.

This article is part of The Local's Sweden in Focus series, an in-depth look at what makes this country tick. Read more from the series here.

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