In the past couple of months Sweden has started to receive large numbers of refugees from Syria, Iraq and a few other war-torn Middle-eastern countries. The ones who claim the right of political asylum are adequately cared for by the immigration authorities. But many don’t claim that right. They may have more or less accurate information about other countries that offer better chances, so when they get off the train at Stockholm Central Station, they’re basically tourists in the eyes of the law. And the municipality hasn’t been able to care for them. Instead a major volunteer movement has sprouted, working to offer transit refugees food, housing, clothes, medical care and legal advice. To give an idea of how big this is, the main Facebook group for these volunteers has 16,400 members.
I don’t read much news and I’m not much of an activist. So I’ve joined the volunteer ranks late, being motivated particularly by the realisation that for several weeks the biggest housing establishment for transit refugees has been in my home municipality, right across the street from the County Museum and the community arts centre. It looks like a refugee camp in a hangar-like techno club. Because that’s what it is.
I know of course in abstract that Sweden receives a healthy number of refugees per capita et annum. And I live in a cosmopolitan suburb where many of my neighbours must have come here once as refugees. But wealthy conservative-governed Nacka municipality is hardly involved at all in the initial care of them as they arrive. So seeing tired and confused people with big bags and nowhere to go is big news to me. It’s as if world history has suddenly showed up in my back yard after half a lifetime of political complacency. It’s been over 200 years since the Kingdom of Sweden was in a state of war. And I find that volunteering at a refugee centre beats the hell out of spending your evenings reading a humdrum e-book.
For the past few days I’ve mainly served as a driver, making good use of what years of geocaching around Stockholm has taught me about finding my way around. And I’ve rediscovered the joy of working together with new acquaintances for a common project, like we used to for much more playful purposes in the Tolkien Society.
So many new impressions.
- The refugees are mostly young or middle-aged men.
- They travel in small groups which do not like to get separated.
- They’re in good physical shape and seem relieved to have reached Sweden.
- Young Swedified second-generation immigrants of both genders form a major part of the volunteer effort.
- The big Sunnite mosque in central Stockholm is also housing lots of people.
- The little Shiite mosque in Alby offered to help and was asked to cook dinner for 200 people. They delivered dinner for 350. One young guy explained to me, “We’re Shiites, this is our thing: we like to cook lots of food for pilgrims several times a year.”
- Most have no clear idea about where to go. Many follow an apparently outdated rumour that says Finland has accommodating laws, but they aren’t allowed on the ferry from Stockholm to Helsinki. So they take the train all the way to Haparanda at the far end of the Gulf of Botnia and walk across the Torne river bridge to Finland.
- One guy asked me about the relative merits of Sweden and Ireland (!?) as countries of asylum. One volunteer told me his twelve-year-old nephew had been asked for similar advice by a refugee.
- One guy had spent seven years making pizza in Berlin and spoke way better German than I do.
- And though my own input into the relief effort has been quite modest, I am very proud of how my fellow stockholmers are responding. They’re donating time, money and goods, and they’re making a big impression on the refugees. I’ve lost count of the recent arrivals who have told me in broken English that they think Sweden is a great country.
- But don’t donate flavoured teabags. Syrians and Iraqis are sensible people who recognise that tea is one plant and that it should not be adulterated with feckin’ flower petals.