Locals in the western Swedish town of Kalv call Sameh al-Saghir, his mum, and brother "the successful family" - but when they first arrived in the country after fleeing Syria, they were worried by the stories of other asylum seekers.
The family was told it would be hard to get a job, find accommodation and learn the language, and that there would likely be delays in getting their asylum cases processed.
Their words were so discouraging that Sameh, aged 20, says: "We stopped talking to other refugees, trying to avoid the negative vibes - we felt scared. I tried to meet Swedes because I wanted to feel encouraged."
Having left behind a country ravaged by war following five years of bloodshed, it's understandable that Sameh was eager for some positivity. He was welcomed by a Swedish family whom he began to visit regularly, and when the family were moved to another camp in Kalv, they were given a warm welcome there too.
"We were treated really well, but we still knew nothing about our new country and surroundings," says Sameh. "We had no-one; it was just the three of us; me, my brother and my mum."
But to their new neighbours, the family weren't just three refugees from a far-off country; they were "the successful family" who had travelled across Europe and were determined to make something of their new lives. The locals helped the family learn Swedish, since it wasn't possible to start SFI, the state-run classes, before receiving an asylum decision, and all three were able to secure internships in schools, largely thanks to their English skills.
"All the difficulties and negativity turned to joy," says Sameh.
He looks after 3-6-year-olds at work, leading activities such as camping, hiking and dancing.
"I really love what I’m doing. Even my contact person at the migration office told me that the kids really enjoyed playing with me - I don't know how they found that out!" he laughs. "The greatest feeling is when I see the school pupils running toward me every morning. My happiness is indescribable."
Sameh and his family are continuing their Swedish studies alongside their work, and he hopes to go to university - when he left Syria, he had been in his second year of studying Law at Damascus University.
He also enjoys sports; when they first arrived at the camp, the brothers told the organizers about their love for football, and they were put in touch with a local club. At first they began on a three-week training course, but have since become full members, playing in the local league.
"There’s a big difference in football compared to Syria, they actually care more about the player here and they keep following up on your needs – coaching feels more efficient in Sweden. In our first match I managed to score a goal, but unfortunately, we lost the game. But we have fans who cheer us on!"
Sameh and his team. Photo: Private
Sameh agreed to answer some frank questions about his life in Syria for The Local Voices.
If the war ended today in Syria, would you go back?
I would – of course – still be longing for Syria, but I wouldn’t want to let go of Sweden. To put it frankly, Sweden props me up in a way that doesn’t exist in Syria nowadays. The Swedes take care of me and support me more than is possible in Syria, I won’t forget that and would always feel a belonging and attachment to Sweden. The Swedes deserve my love and respect.
Do you see yourself becoming a Swede at some point of your life?
Yes. For sure.
What does Sweden mean to you?
Sweden is my future.
If you had a sister, how would you react to seeing her living the Swedish lifestyle?
If she wanted to live her own way and mix with other guys at school or college, that would be her choice. Everyone should be free and responsible for themselves. No-one should intervene in other people’s choices – never.
In the camp we’ve witnessed some men who don’t allow their wives to leave their rooms and have lunch at the restaurant – that’s not right, and it doesn’t fit in Sweden. The employees at the camp heard about it, and they met the men and said they needed to let their families go out – but some people just don’t listen.
What do you like most about Sweden?
The best thing is that there’s always electricity and light (in Syria due to the war, the electricity goes off for several hours at a time, on a daily basis). It’s nice that wherever you go you find people queued up in lines and everything works.