Iraqis find refuge in land of lutefisk and Lutherans

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c. 2007 Religion & Ethics News Weekly

MALMO, Sweden _ This Nordic nation has long prided itself as a humanitarian society, with cradle-to-the-grave welfare benefits. But to the fastest growing segment of its population, Sweden offers, more than anything else, safety.

At a Friday prayer service here are refugees from some of the world’s most violent conflicts: Bosnia, Somalia, Afghanistan _ and increasingly these days, Iraq.

“I was working for a government ministry in the electricity department,” Haider Kassam al Tamimi, an auto mechanic and Iraqi refugee told the PBS program Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly. “A private American company came in to work with the ministry, and the Mujahideen were against the Americans. They sent me a threatening letter because I did not quit my job.”

The U.S. invasion of Iraq has forced millions of people to leave the country. Most of these refugees have stayed in the Middle East, but the country outside the region that has taken in more Iraqis than any other is not the United States but Sweden.

Sweden took in some 9,000 Iraqi refugees in 2006 _ about half those who reached Europe or North America. The United States, by contrast, took in just over 200 Iraqis last year.

“If the United States had taken in as many Iraqi refugees as Sweden has done so far per year, it would have been approximately 500,000 that the U.S would have accepted so far if you compare the amount of the populations,” said Tobias Billstroem, Sweden’s migration minister.

While there have been some reports that Sweden planned to clamp down on the number of newcomers, Dan Eliason, who heads the agency that processes asylum applications, says the basic asylum rule is unchanged.

“If you are individually threatened or tortured _ or something like that _ then you can of course have the right to stay,” Eliason said. “I would say that probably we have the world’s most liberal and generous legislation when it comes to asylum matters.”

About one-fifth of Sweden’s 9 million people come from immigrant stock, and the influx is closely linked to the country’s post-World War II economic boom. It brought migrants from Yugoslavia, Greece and Turkey, and in the 1970s, political refugees from Iran and Iraq.

Iraqi refugee Mustafa Diner is one of them. Today he owns a Halal butchery where revenue mirrors the new demographics: $20 million in annual sales of meat butchered according to Muslim religious rules.

“We began in 1995 with four employees including myself,” Diner said through an interpreter. “Now we have 27, and could get much larger if we had more space. People want Halal meat.”

The steady growth of the refugee population causes concern among some Swedes, even as they like the idea of Sweden as a safe harbor.

“I think it’s quite good, but maybe we have difficulties in taking care of all the refugees because they have so many problems,” said one woman in Stockholm, Britt Nordebrink, raising the issue of psychological problems that have traumatized some refugees.

Asked if he thought there were too many refugees, Nordebrink said, “Yes, I think so.”

Others see a link between immigration and increased crime.

“Unfortunately, we have imported a lot of crime from different countries,” said Ulf Wistroem, also in Stockholm. “The immigrants that commit crimes make all the other immigrants look bad. This problem has made the right wing party get a lot of votes. We should accept less immigrants.”

For their part, some immigrants say some refugee policies are misguided.

“We don’t see people as ambitious people who want to make a living and to contribute something to the society, to their new home,” said Farbod Rezani, a refugee from the Iranian revolution who came to Sweden in the early 1980s. “We rather see them as victims _ people who need to be taken care of, you know. I didn’t come here to be a refugee.”

Others, however, resist becoming fully integrated into Swedish society.

“We don’t want to stay here,” said Hamid Feyli, speaking through a translator. He and his family have been in Sweden for 15 years. Three of their four children were born here. Still, they say they’ll never be Swedish.

“Our Iraq is rich,” he said. “Our Iraq is powerful. We have petrol, agriculture. We have everything. We hope that the leaders will do the right thing. We hope Iraq will be like Sweden. Actually it can be better than Sweden.”

Complicating Sweden’s integration message is that technically the government still expects refugees to go back to their home countries.

“We want to help people to return home to help rebuild their country, because if we don’t, Iraq will remain an unstable nation for a very, very long period,” said Billstroem, the migration minister.

“And it doesn’t do Iraq any good that the doctors, engineers, the technicians, the bureaucrats, the administrators, even a few politicians sit here in Sweden.”

Photos of Iraqi school children and Rezani and Billstroem are available via

Eds: A version of this story first appeared on the PBS program “Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly.” Please use the Religion & Ethics Newsweekly byline.


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