Sweden: Stories from Stockholm
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The exodus from war-torn Syria has led to an influx of asylum seekers in distant Sweden. The Scandinavian country has acquired a reputation among Syrian refugees as a welcoming haven, and it is the biggest host country for Syrians outside the Middle East. Sweden now routinely offers permanent residency to Syrian refugees.

Up to 30,000 Syrians have come to Sweden since the unrest started. Most arrive by plane from Turkey after travelling clandestinely for months with the help of human  smugglers – a journey which can set a refugee back thousands of dollars.

The Swedish Migration Board maintains arrival centres across Sweden.  The centres are the first port of call for Syrians seeking asylum. At one, in the Stockholm suburb of Märsta, there is a constant roar from the airplanes arriving at and taking off from the nearby international airport. “It sounds like Syria,” says Alan.


“If you Google ‘I want asylum’ in Arabic , then ‘Sweden’ automatically comes up." Alan, 24 years old from Al-hasakah, Syria

At the Märsta arrival centre, asylum seekers walk in carrying whatever possessions they have managed to keep with them through their long journeys. They report to the reception and a check-in process begins, much like at a hostel. 

The arrivals receive bed sheets, are allocated a dorm room and are shown the shared, unisex bathrooms. Meals are served at set hours in the common dining room. The arrivals have their finger prints taken and are given a time slot for their asylum interview.

The Märsta arrival centre - establishments like this are the first port of call for Syrian refugees in Sweden.
Left, applying for asylum. Right, applicants watch TV while they wait for an application interview.

The Märsta arrival centre is basic, clean and dreary. But the asylum seekers are only meant to spend a night or two here. The mostly young, mostly female staff aim to process their applications as quickly as possible so they can be bussed off to proper accommodation in towns across Sweden. 

And so a new life begins.

We meet three Syrians who have just arrived at the centre in Märsta and two others who are about a year into their stay in Sweden and have started to learn the language and to look for work.

 The Damascus radio station where Asped worked for just over a year was under constant threat. When a second bomb exploded outside his office, Asped decided to quit and took up a job as a website editor instead. 

 "Sweden has a reputation for respecting human rights and for offering protection for asylum seekers."
 Then, a friend living in Sweden recommended that he come over because, Asped says, “Sweden has a reputation for respecting human rights and for offering protection for asylum seekers.”

It took Asped three weeks to get to Europe. “My journey wasn’t dangerous, but it was a bit difficult. But, then, anyone could do anything to get to a safer place,” he says. 

Asped’s family is still in Syria. “They have good jobs and own many properties. After years of working, just leaving everything to come to Europe feels a little heavy for them.”

Now, Asped lives in Stockholm where he is taking Swedish language classes and hopes to get a job in journalism or to continue his Master’s degree. But he sees his stay in Sweden as a temporary respite. “If the war stops, I think I will go back to Syria. They will need people to build up the country again. But since I’m here in Sweden now, I should learn the language and get integrated in society.”


Alan was in the second year of his law degree when the conflict forced him to end his studies. The fighting in his home town, al-Hasakah, had become so intense that simply leaving home had become extremely dangerous.

“Because I stopped going to university, I had to join the army so I decided to leave Syria,” says Alan. 

Alan has spent around $9,000 in fees to people smugglers. When he arrived in Turkey, he encouraged his best friend to come as well. Three weeks later he found out on Facebook that his friend had stepped on a landmine near the Syria-Turkey border. “I think I helped him die because I told him to come,” says Alan.

Would he eventually like to go back to Syria? “I want to visit my friend’s grave,” he says. But Alan is not sure where his friend is buried. He cannot bring himself to call his friend's parents. “I can’t. I don’t know what to say. He was my best friend. His father was my teacher.”

Alan did not want to give his real name.

 “I was sure that the regime was killing people under the pretext that they were terrorists… I didn’t want to be part of the crimes committed against the Syrian people,” says Khalid, a defected Syrian diplomat with a 14-year-long career behind him.


Khalid is now on the Syrian regime’s wanted list, he says, accused of high-grade terrorism - a crime punishable by execution.

Khalid has a brother in Sweden, but his other two siblings and parents are still in Deir ez-Zor. “They are living under a huge security threat,” says Khalid.

 “The challenge for me now is that I have to forget that I was a diplomat...The only jobs available for me here are in cafés or restaurants... 

Before, I hoped that one day I would return to my old job once the regime is gone and I would do something for my country and my people, but now every day something depressing happens, something that makes every Syrian everywhere in this world feel that the space for hope is narrowing.”


Daniel Abu-Asali went straight to the arrival centre in Märsta to apply for asylum after arriving in Sweden by plane from Turkey. He used a human smuggler to get out of Syria. Had he stayed home he would have been forced to join the military and, he says, “whoever goes to the military just goes to die”.

Daniel was a men’s hairdresser back home in Sueda. He hopes to find work in Sweden and to make a good life for himself here. 

But if things improve in Syria, he would like to return, he says. 

Text, video, photos and audio by: Nathalie Rothschild

Design: Ilan Moss