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A Nordic Refuge No More

Once a promised land for Iraqi refugees, Sweden is now deporting thousands

text by Anna Jonasson with photographs by Magnus Aronson

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On an early December morning, 33–year–old Ramiz Toma stops his taxi in front of a home in one of Stockholm’s posh residential neighborhoods. Mr. Toma waits a few minutes until his client, a well–dressed businessman, approaches the car and swiftly takes a seat in the back. Mr. Toma then drives off down the street, still white from the night’s snowfall, and heads to the airport.

After a short while, the man glances at Mr. Toma’s identity badge on the dashboard and breaks the silence. “Where are you from?,” he asks.

“I am an Iraqi Christian,” responds the driver.

“Christian?,” replies the man with surprise.

Mr. Toma nods with a faint smile.

“I didn’t know there were Christians in Iraq,” the man continues.

Mr. Toma catches the man’s regard through the rearview mirror. He politely but briefly tells him that, though a minority, Christians have always lived in Iraq. The man says nothing. After a few moments, Mr. Toma turns up the radio and drives on.

Mr. Toma knows his employer, the largest taxi company in Stockholm, discourages its drivers from chatting at length with clients, especially about politics and religion.

After dropping off the client at the airport, Mr. Toma admits he had wanted to say much more about Iraq’s Christians — their ancient history, different denominations, the suffering they have endured since the 2003 U.S.–led invasion, even the recent memorial service he attended at his church in Stockholm honoring a Christian woman brutally murdered in her home in Baghdad.

Mr. Toma first came to Sweden in 2000, when the country’s policy toward Iraqi refugees still ranked as the most generous in the world. Believing Sweden a promised land, thousands of Iraqis clamored for asylum at its embassy in Baghdad.

With support from his family, the 23–year–old managed to travel to Sweden and obtain refugee status. However, as do most refugees, the young man struggled at first to adjust to life in Sweden, facing the usual challenges of language and culture.

However, a much larger and more complex problem afflicts Sweden’s Iraqi population: an alarmingly high unemployment rate. According to a recent study, among Iraqis living in Sweden for ten or more years, 73 percent of women and 60 percent of men are unemployed. Some experts attribute the high unemployment rate to the fact that Iraqis in Sweden, particularly Christians, are often well educated. Many had once belonged to Iraq’s affluent middle class. As a result, they have difficulty either landing or settling for one of the mostly unskilled jobs available to them.

Bucking the statistics, Mr. Toma has clearly made his way in the Nordic nation. Relatives already settled in Stockholm helped him navigate his new homeland, its society and culture. Local authorities found him housing and sponsored courses that helped him learn the Swedish language and hone other marketable skills. Mr. Toma, however, credits much of his success to his Christian faith and the support he receives from his local parish.

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Tags: Iraq Refugees Immigration Assimilation Sweden