Stockholm, Sweden – Mohammad was on the verge of starting his adult life in Damascus. He’d graduated with a degree in engineering and was looking forward to starting a new job.
But he and his cousin went to a protest in Daraa in 2011. Soon after, his cousin was arrested and Mohammad fled. The 25-year-old spent time in Jordan and Turkey before making his way to Sweden in November 2012.
“The Swedish are the most warm, comforting, most kind people I’ve ever seen,” Mohammad said over a latte in a suburban Stockholm cafe. “But now I have to start from scratch: a new language, new laws. There are many cultural differences.”
Mohammad, who has an internship with a Swedish company and takes language lessons at night, is just one of thousands of Syrian refugees who have been welcomed in Sweden. Unlike most other European countries, Sweden offers the refugees permanent residence.
Many Syrians end up in Sodertalje, a municipality just south of Stockholm. Of the 90,000 denizens, 30,000 are immigrants – and that puts additional strains on local services.
Mayor Boel Godner said the town does not have enough housing stock for the new arrivals, so refugees end up living in cramped quarters with relatives or friends.
|From the archives: Syrian refugees seek safety in Sweden [11 December 2012]|
“Teachers hear children say they’re tired. They say: ‘My four hours went so quickly.’ The children are sleeping in shifts,” Godner said.
The municipality, the Swedish national government and the European Union are all chipping in to support the refugees.
A training centre – named K2 – has been set up in a redundant Sodertalje school, funded by the EU. The maze of classrooms and long halls are filled with men and women learning to navigate their way around Sweden.
New immigrants learn what it takes to enter the job market, everything from language skills to paying taxes. There’s a call centre where the unemployed learn how to staff the phones, in “the Kilimanjaro room”, there is a specialist gardening class.
The centre manager, Lena Lago, said the experience often comes as a shock to some.
“They have big dreams to be an engineer or a teacher as they were before, but that can take time,” she said. “They may have to first work as cleaners or bus drivers as they master the language or wait for the right job. Some have sorrow about that.”
Schools in Sodertalje have had to hire extra counsellors to cope with the growing number of children traumatised by war, or the hellish journey they have undertaken to escape it.
Of the 800 students at the Ronna School, 99 percent have an immigrant background, officials told Al Jazeera.
The playground is a hive of activity, footballs being kicked, pockets of children gathering. Principal Lina Axelsson Kihlblom navigates the ice and whirling children, some grab at her long legs. She is a strong supporter of the benefits of multiculturalism, and is proud of the school with its steadily improving results.
“We have more people with social issues, but this is a regular school,” she said.
It is the perceptions that surround schools like this that fuel support for the nationalist-populist Swedish Democratic party. They hold just 20 of the 349 seats in parliament and are unabashedly anti-immigrant.
“We want to cut immigration by 90 percent. We are taking too many Syrians, it’s irresponsible,” said Kent Ekeroth, a Swedish Democrat MP.
The message has resonated with some Swedes, and support for restrictions on immigration is growing.
“Immigration costs a lot of money for the welfare budget. There is only so much we can spend,” said 32-year-old Ekeroth.
The right-wing party is expecting to double their number of MPs in the autumn elections.
Follow Jessica Baldwin on Twitter: @JessicamBaldwin