Child refugees call tiny Swedish town home

Buried in Sweden’s northern forest, Sorsele has welcomed many unaccompanied kids who help stabilise a town exodus.

Mubiru Yahaya, 17, scored 26 goals for the boys' under-17 team in tiny Sorsele [Sven Carlsson/Al Jazeera]

Sorsele, Sweden – A dressing room roar makes the clubhouse shake the way it only does after an important win. Sorsele’s under-17 football team has just defeated their league rivals 3-1. Cue the dressing room chants and stomping from coaches and players alike.

As always, Mubiru Yahaya is the centre of attention. But the 17-year-old is unhappy with his tally of one goal and one assist. At least his team now tops the league table.

And they wouldn’t be there without the refugees.

Sweden, a country of nine million inhabitants, welcomes more lone child refugees than any other country in Europe. In 2012, Sweden brought in 3,900 foreign children – 60 percent above Germany’s admission rate. Next year, Swedish admission of unaccompanied children will double that number.

Sorsele – a town buried in Sweden’s northern forest – tops the refugee-intake charts by a long stretch. Unaccompanied children account for a quarter of the 42 refugees that have settled here so far in 2014.

If it weren’t for that influx of teens, this town wouldn’t be able to field a boy’s football team.

It's not good to be alone when you are underage. I don't have anyone who can say to me what isn't good or what I shouldn't do.

by - Mubiru Yahaya, Ugandan refugee

“I love my life, so I had to travel to another country so I can have a better life,” Yahaya, the team’s star, tells Al Jazeera after the game. He came to Sorsele alone, at 16, from Uganda.

This past season he scored 26 goals for the boys’ under-17 team, and 30 for the men’s team, becoming the top scorer in both leagues.

Population drain

For Sorsele, a town that’s been depopulating since the 1970s, there is more to immigration than claiming the golden boot. Locals say the town centre is not bustling like it used to. Many see its refugee admissions – which add about 4 percent to its total population every year – as an injection of both labour and spending power.

“Refugee admissions are a zero-sum game,” Martin Dahlbom, head of the labour unit in Sorsele municipality, tells Al Jazeera, referring to state-administered benefits both asylum seekers and refugees receive. “So it’s all about how well one does integrating them.”

On a misty autumn morning, local teacher Inger Lundmark informs her students of the do’s and don’ts of using the school’s new tablet computers. Lundmark teaches a high school prep class for Afghan and Ugandan teenagers aged between 16 and 18.

“If a thief steals your learning tablet, you will be reimbursed,” she tells them.

“But there are no thieves in Sorsele,” an Afghan boy replies.

Sadly, many of his peers say the same applies to jobs. While some are lucky to land employment in local shops or elderly care homes, others can’t wait to leave to find better opportunities.

“I don’t want to stay,” says Nasim Haidari, who has been in Sorsele for two years. “There is only football here. Otherwise, we don’t do anything. There’s nothing to do.”

Success stories

Refugees who do end up sticking around Sorsele are touted as local success stories. Word of mouth leads to one such case: the Quinonez-Gonzales family, who came here from Colombia nine years ago.

“People who say there aren’t any jobs here just aren’t looking,” said one of the sons, Larry, in what could be the town’s thickest northern-Swedish accent.

As a high school student, he was lucky enough to be interested in a vocational programme – vehicles and transport – that’s one of Swedish teens’ most sure-fire paths to a job after graduation. Within a matter of days of finishing secondary school, he was employed at Kiruna’s iron-ore mine, a five-hour drive north of Sorsele.

But Larry Gonzales arrived in Sorsele a decade ago as one of relatively few refugee children in his school. And he came to Sweden along with his parents and younger brother.

For unaccompanied children with varying educational backgrounds, just getting up to speed with the Swedish language to be able to enter high school – typically one or several years older than their peers – is enough of a challenge.

“It’s not good to be alone when you are underage,” says Yahaya, the top-scoring footballer, who doesn’t wish to go into detail about why he had to leave Kampala, Uganda’s capital, without his family.

“I don’t have anyone who can say to me what isn’t good or what I shouldn’t do. It’s hard,” he adds. “I like to live in big cities, where I can do anything.”

Sweden Democrats advance

The anti-immigrant Sweden Democrats, the only party in the national parliament who want to curb current immigration levels, tripled their support in Sorsele in September’s elections. 

“They should have taken them in step by step rather than all at once,” Joakim Holmlund, a local plumber and football coach, tells Al Jazeera.Locals and politicians agree the arrival of 101 refugees in 2011 – about twice the usual figure – became troublesome.

Party leader Jimmie Akesson jubilates at the election night party of the Sweden Democrats in September [EPA]

Since then, Sorsele’s admissions have dropped to about 50 refugees per year. While many emphasised the challenges of integrating the newcomers, no one Al Jazeera spoke to said the current levels were a problem.

While the Sweden Democrats recently pounced on their role as kingmaker in parliament, striking down the minority government’s budget proposal and causing a snap election expected to take place in March, the party is wholly isolated when it comes to migration policies.

In Sorsele, outright opinion against immigration is hard to come by.

“It’s not like they volunteer to come here,” says Dennis Sölander who, like many others, stressed the economic benefits of adding refugees to the town’s population. “So this becomes their haven. That does not bother me one bit.”

With the Swedish parliament gridlocked and the country awaiting an additional trip to the polls, more restrictive migration policies have not crept into the political mainstream.

Sorsele, a town with one-thousandth the population of Kampala, can except one or two dozen more unaccompanied children to arrive in 2015.

Follow Sven Carlsson on Twitter: @svenaxel_

Source: Al Jazeera