Despite its housing shortage, Sweden is offering Syrian asylum seekers permanent residence and a chance to resettle.
Stockholm, Sweden – It was a cold and snowy winter day, near the peak of the dark Swedish winter, and Khassan had not seen his wife and two children for more than two months.
He was living in refugee accommodation near the capital Stockholm, anxiously waiting for the Swedish Migration Board to process his asylum request.
Worryingly, his family was back in Syria’s war-ravaged city of Aleppo trying to survive, day by day.
“I had hoped to bring my wife and my children with me, but I didn’t have enough money for everyone,” said 29-year-old Khassan, who asked that his full name not be used to protect extended family back home.
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Khassan had left his home in Aleppo two months earlier. He paid $22,000 to a human smuggler who provided escort across the Syrian-Turkish border, a fake passport, and plane tickets to Stockholm.
The high cost of this relatively safe form of smuggling – as opposed to the deadly Mediterranean Sea crossings – made it too expensive for the entire family to travel.
But Khassan had a plan – apply for asylum in Sweden, and then make use of the Swedish government’s decision to allow recognised refugees from Syria to legally bring their immediate family members to Sweden.
This “Family Reunification” programme – one of few legal paths for Syrian refugees to enter the European Union – enabled Khassan’s wife and kids to flee Aleppo for Stockholm at only the cost of their flights.
Last year, 5,820 Syrians came to Sweden through the family reunification initiative.
The last ones to do so were Khassan’s family, who landed in Sweden on December 31, 2014. Prior to that morning in Stockholm’s international airport, Khassan had not seen his five-year-old daughter and baby boy for more than a year.
“I hugged my wife and then my daughter, and then my son – and then I tried to hold them all together,” Khassan told Al Jazeera about the reunion.
Sometimes now I sit with my wife at night after the children are asleep, and we talk and say 'is it true?'
“It is really difficult to describe the emotions I felt inside. You feel like you are born again.”
One-third of the nine million Syrians displaced from their homes in the past four years have exited Syria’s borders, staying mostly in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey.
Only five percent of Syrians who fled their country – such as Khassan and his family – left the Middle East.
Sweden’s family reunification programme along with its decision to grant permanent residence to Syrian refugees has turned the Nordic country into a prime destination for Syrians seeking refuge in Europe.
In 2014, about 81,000 asylum seekers came to Sweden, and Syrians constituted the biggest group.
The overall number of asylum applications from Syrians in Sweden last year – 30,667 according to the Swedish Migration Board – was five times higher than in 2012.
“Sometimes now I sit with my wife at night after the children are asleep, and we talk and say: ‘Is it true – are we dreaming or are we really here together?'” Khassan said as he sat in the two-room apartment the family is renting in Stockholm.
He is now studying Swedish full-time and wants to be an insurance salesman – his profession back in Aleppo before the war.
He said he admires the peacefulness and politeness of Swedish society.
But he also said he will never feel like he truly belongs in Sweden, and will always be thinking about his homeland.
“During holidays we had a tradition in Syria to visit our relatives, and I have a very big family. My grandmother had seven daughters and four sons, so we had a busy schedule during the holidays,” Khassan recalled.
“We needed to visit everyone and each visit should not exceed more than 10 minutes. It was exciting. I miss those days.”
So far, during the holidays he has spent in Sweden, Khassan has been alone. But now his wife and children are here, and they have a new home.
During the next Eid al-Fitr, a new tradition will start.