Sami has sharp features and dark, slicked back hair. He lights a cigarette with it held between his teeth and, as he breathes in the first fumes, he shoves his hands in the pockets of his red tracksuit. His English is poor, but he understands my question.
“I am happy to be here, but I miss my son and wife,” he says. He shows me his Syrian passport that confirms his identity, but asks that I only use his first name. His family remains in Damascus, and he worries that speaking out will make them a target for reprisals before they can join him through family reunification.
It took Sami a month to travel to Kristianstad in Southern Sweden where his friend Mouhammed Al-Khateeb lives. Al- Khateeb arrived in Sweden two years earlier and is now expecting a child with his wife.
A month on the road sounds like a long time, but both Sami and Al-Khateeb know that they are only in the starting phase of a new journey. It will take many years before they regain the comforts of their lives before the civil war. They have replaced one set of insecurities with another – they left inflation, violence and insecurity for a life without work, family or friends.
“In our country before the war we could do anything we wanted,” Sami explains. “We had a normal life, we felt safe and could go out at night. We met with friends and family everyday.”
A normal life
Al-Khateeb’s three-room apartment sits on the outskirts of Kristianstad. In the living room he takes out his laptop and we flick through photographs from his time in Syria. In the photographs they smile with friends, lounge in apartments, hang out in Damascus. Sami sits proudly with his wife and son.
Sami was a professional basketball player and coach, while Al-Khateeb – who insists on being called “Moe” – is also a basketball player who coached Syria’s under-18 national side. But while their lives were outwardly normal, life before the war in Syria was still hard. Corruption was rife, and it could be hard to get by without the money to pay bribes, or the right connections.
When the fighting started in the countryside, they didn’t think too much of it. But soon the violence had reached the suburbs of Damascus where Sami lived. He would regularly hear gunfire and people started dying in the streets around his home. He felt unsafe, and moved closer to the city centre.
It was only after the fighting had continued for a few months that they started to worry. The security services increased their grip on the city and checkpoints slowed the flow of traffic. The Syrian pound started to devalue and prices rapidly climbed. Companies closed and random attacks across the city maintained a constant sense of danger.
“It got to the stage where we were under constant stress about attacks and how we were going to continue earning a living,” Al-Khateeb explains. “We never had guns in Syria before the civil war, so the security services were completely unprepared for the violence.”
Sami tried to find work in Lebanon and Jordan, but without much success. Last year he returned to Syria to plan his journey. He sold his apartment and most of his possessions to raise the tens of thousands of kroner that the journey to Sweden would cost.
Together with a friend, Sami set off via Lebanon, where they flew to Izmir in Turkey. The couldn’t afford to pay people smugglers to take them the full length of the journey. Instead, they had to pay for every small step of the way through Europe. They paid cash, the money hidden in secret compartments in their underwear and shorts. They stayed away from the large groups, and instead lodged in hotels and took ordinary transport wherever they could.
From Turkey they travelled to Samos in Greece and onwards through Athens to the border of Macedonia. They used GPS on their phone to guide them when they walked, and checked Facebook groups to learn of the best routes northward. Their destination was Sweden, so it was vital that they were not apprehended and registered in another EU country before they got there.
“We have given everything up to start new lives. If we had been registered in Hungary we would have thrown our money away. We would be stuck. We couldn’t go back to Syria, we would have lost.”
In the journey through Macedonia and Serbia they hid in cornfields from circling helicopters and were aided on by entrepreneurial locals. The drive from Belgrade to the border of Hungary cost €50. Another man cut a hole in the razorwire fence for €30 per person. At a petrol station across the border, they found a car that drove them to Budapest for €330 per person.
In Hungary’s capital the train station was closed because of the high volume of refugees and migrants passing through. They sheltered for a few nights in a hotel before hearing, by chance, that the train station had reopened. From there, their journey started to flow. They took trains to Vienna, Munich, Stuttgart, Frankfurt and Hamburg.
The next stage through Denmark was less easy. The train from Hamburg joined the ferry at Puttgarden, but when they arrived in Rødbyhavn in Denmark, police boarded. Those without proper documentation were made to leave and bussed to a nearby sports facility. Afraid that they would be registered, they set off walking along the motorway north with a group of women and children.
The sun set and the police closed the motorway behind them. They reached an overpass where Arabic-speaking Danes were handing out food and water. They realised they couldn’t continue on the motorway forever, and took the chance to climb the verg on to the road crossing above.
This is where I met Sami for the first time. After hearing news of arriving refugees, I joined a convoy that was heading down with supplies. Later that evening we were stood on the motorway overpass, and when Sami and a friend asked for a lift, my driver obliged by driving them to the nearest train station in Maribo. Sami used my phone to call Al-Khateeb, and the next day I dialled the number again to find out whether he had made the journey.
He had, and a week later I was sitting with them in Kristianstad.
Al-Khateeb left Damascus in 2012 and tried to find work in Lebanon and Turkey, but without much success. In September 2013, when he learned that Sweden was granting permanent residency to Syrian refugees, he set off north. Permanent residency was important because he knew he would never be able to return to Syria once he had left.
“I have a popular name and kept getting stopped by the security services who were looking for someone who shares my name,” says Al-Khateeb.
“But now that I’ve been in Sweden I’m even more suspicious. They would want to know why I left, what I did here. It wouldn’t be safe to go back.”
He’s a mountain of a man, heavily built and with an imposing greying goatee. His photographs from Syria show a more a slender man, posing for the camera in Mongolia while travelling with the Syrian national side.
According to the UNHCR, refugees tend to head to countries where they have family and friends. Settling in a new country is easier when you have the help of their experiences, and this is certainly the case with Sami who can learn from Al-Khateeb’s knowledge of Swedish customs and traditions.
Al-Khateeb takes out a local newspaper where he is photographed teaching basketball to newly arrived refugee children. He speaks good Swedish and later, when we are outside taking photographs, he stops to talk to his neighbours as we circle the block.
Swedish society is radically different to Syria, he explains, and many new arrivals struggle to adjust to the new norms and the reality of life here.
“Many people think it’s going to be a heaven, that there’s loads of money. It takes time to get used to the labour market and that you have to work for a living – you cannot just stay home and get money from the government.”
Family life is also different here. Children tend to stay home until they are married in Syria, and their parents also have much more influence over their vocation and education. Syrian parents can have a hard time adjusting to allowing their children the space and freedom to make their own decisions.
A new home
Al-Khateeb seems passionate about helping his fellow Syrians adapt to their new lives and understands that they need to be persistent if they are to make friends with Swedes. He says he meets many new arrivals who haven’t fully come to terms with their future in the country and don’t make the effort to integrate into their new society.
Swedish housing policy, which locates refugees and migrants in specific neighbourhoods separated from mainstream Swedish society, shares some of the blame. But he still believes it’s his responsibility to reach out.
“It takes times for Swedes to understand who we are and why we are here. Some Swedes don’t like the fact we are here, but it’s still my job to show them who I am. I say good morning to them everyday, even if 90 percent of the time they don’t reply. But eventually they will.”
He speaks candidly about what he sees as faults with the Arab mentality. He says there is little space for compromise, you are either friends or enemies, and their deep religious faith opens up space for groups and individuals to pursue their own political agenda in the name of piety.
“This is my country and I am going to raise my kids here. But if we keep behaving like we did in our home country, after 50 years Sweden will also be fucked up. I am a stateless Palestinian who has lived in Syria my whole life. I have never felt like I’ve had a home. Now I finally feel like I have a home and I don’t want it to be fucked up again.” M