Eleanor Beardsley |
Temperatures hover around freezing outside, but it’s warm inside this university building that now serves as a migrant reception center in the southern Swedish town of Ronneby. Migrants come in out of the cold to join Swedish volunteers, who show up twice a week to help them fill out forms or study the language.
One of those volunteers is 77-year-old Mia Gustafsson. She says the migrants are very eager to learn, and the experience is rewarding.
“Here in Ronneby, we have a very old population and it’s very stimulating to get to know other cultures,” she says.
In the past three years, her town of 30,000 people has taken in nearly 2,500 migrants — including 200 unaccompanied minors. Refugees now make up nearly 12 percent of the population of this 18th century spa town, known for its mineral waters and baths. It also has a university and strong IT sector.
Per capita, Sweden has taken in more migrants than any other country in Europe. It accepted 160,000 refugees in 2015. With a population of only 10 million, that’s the equivalent of the U.S. taking in around 5 million migrants. Because of this, the Parliament recently enacted a law mandating that all municipalities take in their share of migrants.
In Ronneby, two families are gathered around the table learning Swedish words with Gustafsson. They’re from Afghanistan’s Bamyan province. Twenty-seven-year-old Zahra Jafari arrived in Sweden seven months ago with her 4-year-old daughter — on foot.
“We walking in Afghanistan, next Turkiya [Turkey], next Yunan [Greece], next Autriche [Austria], next Denmark. One month — one month walking,” she says.
Jafari says she had no choice. Her life was threatened by the Taliban and ISIS. She says she decided to come to Sweden for her child’s future.
“People say Sweden is very good for children,” she says. “So I’m coming to Sweden just for my daughter.”
Sweden has long had a generous refugee policy, which includes a vast network of welfare benefits for asylum seekers. But many say the recent numbers are straining the system. The far right has surged in the polls. And for the first time, Swedish officials talk about setting a limit.
These mirror feelings in Germany, which has taken in the most number of total migrants. Sexual assaults, suspected to have been carried out by foreigners and perhaps migrants over the new year, further dampened German enthusiasm for migrants.
I ask Swedish volunteer Margareta Waldolf if some people in Ronneby get upset by the number of migrants coming.
“Yes, of course they do,” she says. “People get scared and worried and think that it will be — that it will influence their life.”
Waldolf had a career teaching Swedish to foreigners as her country opened its doors to refugees. In the ’70s, she taught Argentines and Chileans fleeing military dictatorships. In the ’80s and ’90s, she taught Poles and Kosovars.
She says Sweden has always absorbed its newcomers. But Waldolf admits this time, things may be more difficult — especially with the hundreds of unaccompanied minors. She says some people fear an increase in crime.
“Youngsters who arrive here, they have been brought up with no parents, maybe. They are kind of street children,” she says. “Wild. And that can be difficult. Make problems.”
In a far corner, retired engineer Kent Norman is poring over a book with a neatly dressed Syrian teenager.
“I try to teach Mohamed, who is 16 years old. And you have been here for how long?” he asks, turning to Mohamed.
“Three months,” answers the youth.
And then in nearly fluent Swedish, Mohamed Obai talks about fleeing Syria with his parents to join a brother here. And of how he is waiting for a place in the local school. But until then, he says, he is grateful for the instruction he’s been getting from Norman.
Norman says there has been a lot of talk about the migrants coming to Sweden.
“But they’re here now,” he says. “So the only thing you can do is to help them. And I have a lot of time to do it. That’s why I’m sitting here.”
Norman says he had his first Syrian meal with Obai’s family last week. And now he plans to invite them to dinner at his house.