A voice for newcomers in Sweden

Why a gay Syrian refugee became a Jew and wants to move to Israel


Published: 16.Nov.2016 17:14 hrs

Stockholm resident Refat Rothschild has ditched his drugs, his old name, and his old religion.

Nobody could accuse Refat Rothschild of leading a dull life in Stockholm since leaving his home in war-torn Syria. 

He formed a destructive drug habit here, weaned himself off illicit substances again, rediscovered a long-held interest in Judaism, and in October this year began his conversion from Islam. Now he wants to move to Israel. Here he tells The Local Voices his story.

“In Syria I was quite focused on one thing: studying. But one of the things I always wondered was if it was possible God would allow only Muslims or Christians into heaven, for example, and would send the rest of mankind to hell. That didn’t sound logical to me at all, and nor did did it seem like God’s justice. 

“There were many other questions, especially when it came to my sexuality and my faith, which was supposedly opposed to my gayness. A Muslim can’t be gay, that’s not possible! That’s something I used to hear often until I started to question my own beliefs.”

Exploring Judaism 

“I became increasingly interested in knowing more about Judaism, and Jewish people: what is this religion about? And how do these people worship God? 

“Regarding my sexuality, I knew that it still might not be tolerated among some in the Jewish community, much like Muslims. However, this didn’t dampen my curiosity – in fact, it increased. 

“After graduating in 2006 I moved to Dubai where I had the chance to communicate with people of different nationalities and creeds. I had many western friends including some who had visited Israel or had Jewish friends. I quizzed them about their Jewish friends’ beliefs and lives, and everything sounded fine and positive to me.” 

In Sweden: liberty and drama 

“In 2012 I had the chance to apply for asylum in Sweden, and my life changed dramatically. I relished the unrestrained freedom of expression and freedom of religion in this country, and I’m still really happy about it. However, my life was anything but chilled-out. I started working, and in 2013 my cousin moved to Sweden and lived with me. This is where the drama started.”

Drugs  

“When I lived with my cousin, my nerves were always shot. I got extremely stressed out at work. I went on sick leave and began spending most of my time at home where I started getting high on drugs.”

After a while their relationship deteriorated. Refat’s cousin objected to him spending so much time alone in his room and worried he was losing his mind. Refat said he was just following his psychiatrist’s recommendations, but his housemate’s efforts to get him to emerge from his cocoon grew increasingly desperate, he says. 

Their growing animosity came to a head when his cousin accused his of pulling a knife on him. Refat vigorously denied the accusation, but the case ended up going to court.

Post-trial: Visiting the synagogue

“In December 2014 the charge was dismissed and the court released me on a two-year parole after a blood test had showed there were high levels of drugs in my body.

“I left the court, took a deep breath and vowed to start my life anew although I was emotionally devastated. I started to read more about Judaism and found friends in the Jewish community, very nice ones who accepted me the way I am. At this point I was still a Muslim. 

"I think that was my only way of dealing with the traumatic events, by reading, meditating and praying. I felt so much peace, the peace overwhelmed me and I thought I needed no clearer proof that Judaism was now my religion. It has brought tranquility to my soul.   

"This spiritual relief drove me finally to a synagogue in Stockholm. On October 11th I visited the rabbis there and told them of my wish to officially convert to Judaism, and that I wanted to pray on the holy Jewish day of Yom Kippur. They welcomed me after wondering who I was, since mine was a new face in the Synagogue. I told them all about myself, and they accepted me fully.    

“I’m still not officially recognized as a Jew but, by affiliation, I am a Jewish believer."

A new identity

“I now identify as a Jew, and that’s now what defines my relationship with God. I’m converting to Judaism because I found it to be the right belief system for me, not the I inherited from my parents. I am not pretending , I really do believe, and I wish to move to Israel whenever the opportunity arises. 

"I still consider Islam to be a good religion, although it’s not the path for my piety anymore. Islam did me a great favour; through it I already knew a lot about about my new religion, Judaism, which made it easier to convert."
 
A final wish 
 
"I have a lot of friends from my time in the United Arab Emirates who have supported me in this process. I hope one day Jews and Israelis get a chance to visit or even work in that great and beautiful country, and of course that my Emirati and Muslim friends can see up close the beauty and prosperity of Israel." 
 
 
 

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