SWEDEN (BP) — Inside a coffee shop on a damp and dreary afternoon, I sat next to Ahmed,* a 32-year-old Iraqi refugee I first met in Milan, Italy, two months earlier. Thousands of miles from northern Italy, the married father and former information technology worker sat drinking a cappuccino as music blared in the background.
The scene in Sweden was quite different from our initial encounter: Sitting in the packed Milano Centrale train station with hundreds of other refugees, Ahmed had recently arrived on Italian shores, months after fleeing the Middle East and paying $6,000 for a boat ride from Turkey to Italy.
Amidst the flurry of activity in the station, he had recounted how a bomb killed his mother and how he survived the distressing trans-Mediterranean journey that followed. Now united with his brother and father in northern Europe, Ahmed seemed a bit more refreshed, yet no less burdened.
His facial expressions alternated between profound worry and beaming pride as he took out his cell phone and displayed ultrasound pictures. His wife, who remains in Syria — the country to which they immigrated years ago — is several months pregnant.
As he scrolled through photos on his phone, he came to one of a structure with a gaping, bomb-induced wound. It was his family’s apartment building. The juxtaposition couldn’t have been starker. New life amidst carnage and chaos; hope in the throes of war.
Ahmed recounted the story of how his wife was kidnapped after he left their city outside Damascus. Targeted because she wasn’t wearing a head covering, she was beaten and threatened with death. Fortunately one of Ahmed’s friends was part of the group of men and recognized her. After the family friend pleaded with the group’s leader, Ahmed’s wife was released. Despite her internal bleeding, her unborn child was safe.
“God was merciful,” Ahmed said.
Different stories, common struggle
Ahmed’s struggles represent only one of thousands of similar stories in this Scandinavian country, as Sweden’s generous asylum policies have led to an influx of Syrian and Iraqi refugees. More than 70,000 individuals applied for asylum in Sweden in 2014, with even more expected to arrive in 2015.
Another refugee Amir,* a 28-year-old from Syria, reached Sweden six months ago after a two-and-a-half month journey. A former insurance broker from Aleppo, Amir said his home country had been destroyed.
“It’s more than Hiroshima, the destruction,” Amir said. “No hospital, no doctors, no food, no electricity. Nothing. And if you find something, you have to pay more than 10 times extra to get it — like gas, like diesel. It’s too hard to live there; you can’t live there.”
Paying more than 15,000 euros, nearly $17,000, Amir traveled to Turkey before taking a boat to Greece. Although there were challenges amid the journey, he said the thought of dying in Syria eclipsed any hesitations.
Amir now lives in Södertälje, a city of 65,000 residents southwest of Stockholm. The burgeoning industrial community with a long-standing immigrant tradition served as a rich labor market for Syrian immigrants in the late 1960s. Years later, more of them continue to arrive.
‘It’s a new land here’
Sitting at a table in a small convenience store, Amir took a break from his job training. He said he hopes to have a permanent job in a matter of months and will continue to plant himself in Sweden. “It’s a new land here,” he said.
As far as Syria is concerned, Amir does not have plans to return, and he holds out little hope for progress in the region.
“In Syria, maybe for 20 years it won’t be fixed,” he said.
“We see Iraq, and Iraq still [has] problems. What happens in Syria is more than [in] Iraq. Sweden now is our country, and we like it. We live here, we work here, and we like this country so much. It’s good for everything.”
Once refugees arrive in Sweden, they are taken to welcome centers for processing and interviews. They are then moved to more permanent housing across the country and receive governmental social assistance, including housing, insurance and Swedish language lessons.
“She treats you like a Swedish man, like I was born here,” Amir said of the Swedish government. “There’s no difference between any Swedish man and me.”
Despite the opportunity to begin anew, the terrors of Syria continue to haunt Amir and his fellow refugees, he said, particularly as he continues to hear news from his homeland.
“I can’t watch,” he said. “I’m always crying. We can’t imagine what was Syria before. … Everything was perfect, everything was good.”
A Christian worker living in Europe shared about the situation in Sweden and described the chaos refugees left behind:
“They say how the war seems like it will never end in Syria,” he said. “Many of them seem like they do not know where their families are. They go by word of mouth about where some are and where some aren’t. Others are just glad to be out of Syria and the Middle East, and some just say they’re glad [Sweden] is their new home.”
The Christian worker said refugees continue to search for answers regarding the situation, which provides an avenue to share the Gospel.
“There is an opportunity for churches to reach out to them while they are in their desperate need and show that the church is not just about talking, but about doing,” he said. “They’re looking for answers [and] they’re looking for hope. They’re asking the questions of, ‘Why is this happening to us?’ We can bring them hope through the Gospel in their lives.”
For more information about how God is answering prayers for refugees and new ways to pray, as well as how your church can be involved with refugees in Europe, send an email to [email protected] or go to globalhungerrelief.com.