Syrian artist Racha Allababidi fell in love with her Swedish librarian. Now the couple are “like peas in a pod”, painting together and learning each others’ languages, as she builds a new life far from her war-torn homeland.
Racha Allababidi, a fine arts graduate from Damascus, worked as a graphic designer in Egypt and her native Syria before the war prompted her to seek asylum in Sweden.
In Höganäs, the southern Swedish town closest to her asylum centre, she quickly got in the habit of visiting the library where she tried to make sense of books in Swedish.
She had been in the country just two months when she first clamped eyes on Thomas Svensson.
“We kept eye-flirting with each other for around four months before we first spoke. He sometimes popped up in front of my face while I was looking for specific books.”
'I tracked him down on Facebook'
An asylum seeker friend who knew the librarian noticed that the pair were shooting glances at each other and offered to make the introductions.
“We spoke. It was nice. After that I tracked him down on Facebook and sent him a message,” Allababidi recalls.
“Then we started chatting. He asked if we could have a cup of coffee and we did. The first time we met he thought I was engaged to the guy who had introduced us.”
They cleared up the misunderstanding, drank their coffee, and entered each others’ lives.
“I love that he is very honest, direct and knows what he wants. I feel like his mind is just well attuned to mine and we understand each other,” she says.
“He has many similar interests to mine, and we have many things in common. Most importantly he is an artist, and both of us love painting.”
Her sense that they had a bond grew stronger still when he first showed her one of his paintings.
“I was really surprised. It was so similar to the way I draw, it just felt like it came from the same soul. We feel like two peas in a pod."
Respecting religion and speaking the same language
The couple communicate mostly in English but are busy learning each others’ native languages.
“I sometimes forget that he is a Swede and talk to him in a Syrian dialect, and surprisingly in these arbitrary moments he understands me – I just love that.”
She describes her partner as a sociable romantic with a sense of humour.
“He respects me and my religion, and vice versa. Even during Ramadan he tried to support me, and made zaqqat with me.”
'Painting is my obsession'
The war in Syria affected her deeply and for some time she stopped doing some of things she loved. But as her new life in Sweden took shape she endeavoured to take up painting again.
“I went to a church in Brunnby to volunteer in different activities, such as organizing clothes for refugees. There I met a lot of Swedish people who helped me. In the camp I was living in I met a man named Jan Nilsson. We talked and it turned out he knew all about me; he knew that I was an artist and had no painting supplies.”
A week later, in September last year, he supplied her with all the painting equipment she needed to get back on track. With the foundations laid she quickly got in contact with artists in Höganäs who helped with guidance, a studio for painting, and an array of other practicalities.
A few months later, earlier this summer, the photographer Torsten Nilsson helped ensure she was able to exhibit her new paintings in Ängelholm.
“It meant a lot to me; painting has been my obsession since I was a small child,” she says.
“People expressed a real admiration for my drawings and that made me feel satisfied, and very optimistic for the future.”
One of the paintings she exhibited, called New Beginning, depicts how she views her life in Sweden.
“A façade-less building that needs to be carefully given shape and ornamented. It might seem hard, but still it’s worth working on that building – giving shape and meaning to your life.”
Her boyfriend also took part in the exhibition.
“Having him next to me gave me all the love, peace and security that I needed; we motivated each other.”
If he has imbued her life with colour and passion, others too have marked her new life in positive ways.
“I just want to thank everyone who has helped me so far in Sweden; I am proud to know all these people. They’ve lifted me up at every stage.”
And at the end of August she will exhibit her work in Höganäs, back where her love story began.