Södertälje, Sweden’s Little Baghdad

When we think of refugees today, we picture African of Middle Eastern people of muslim faith fleeing Ethiopia, Syria or Iraq. That’s what the the chaos in the Middle East, from the Gulf War, to the war in Iraq, the Arab Spring and now the war against ISIS has shaped in our minds.

But we forget that before these countries were Muslim, they were Christian, and among those fleeing are also Christian minorities.

Christian minorities in the Middle East and Africa are some of the most persecuted in the world. Their place in their homeland increasing insecure because of hardline religious extremist who view them as target practice and impurities to be washed away.

And one place in the world, has become home to many Syrian and Iraqi Christians Refugees. That place is Södertälje, a small industrial town 30 minutes south of Stockholm.

Södertälje is a safe haven and oasis for middle eastern Christians in the heart of the Nordic region. Over the course of the Iraq War, more Assyrian/Syriac refugees were accepted into Södertälje than into the United States and Canada combined.

A young Asyrian/Syriac man feeds the ducks along the waterways of Strandgatan

Out of the over 70,000 people who stay in Södertälje, it is estimated that about half of them are of Assyrian/Syriac origin. Syriac/Assyrian people number some 120,000 in Sweden today.

Assyrian/Syriac people arrived in Sweden in waves. The first arrivals came in 1967 mainly from Lebanon during the Lebanese Civil War, the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974 saw another wave of Assyrian/Syriac people arriving in Sweden. A few years later Iranian refugees arrived fleeing the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Then came the Gulf War of 1991, Iraq War of 2003 and now the Iraq/Syria Civil War.

It is human instinct to seek out safety, and we tend to gravitate to who and what we know. The Assyrian/Syriac population is as human as any of us, and it soon became sensible to move to Södertälje if you were Christian Assyrian/Syriac. Most refugees do not live in the city centre, although they work there, they live in suburbs of Södertälje.

There are drawbacks to this however, because of safety in numbers hot heads that forget that they are in a new country are fueled with dutch courage and take their anger for their former oppression on innocent bystanders. In this case, people who happen to be muslims, especially those of Arab origin are treated with hostility in the Södertälje, some have even been attacked for simply being muslim. The anger boiling over from the treatment they were given in the Middle East. Hot blooded youths from a very different cultural mindset clash with the way the world works in Sweden. In 2008, 20 youths of immigrant background attacked a young girl and only stopped when 6 youths stepped in to defend her and were attacked instead.

At the same time, uncomfortable native Swedes have been reported as having left the city for other parts of Sweden.

But from the darkness comes more positive stories.

With such a large number of Assyrian/Syriac people, Södertälje has taken on some of the cultural and culinary traits from the Middle East. The city is the home to two football clubs, an Assyrian satellite television station as well as the main churches of the Chaldean, Syriac Orthodox and Syrian Catholic churches in Sweden. The football clubs are not massive money making enterprises but also forces of social good to help the youths arriving from Syria.

Moving from heavy heart to a heavy stomach (and a vastly lighter topic), to my eye, there were more Kebab and Falafel stalls in Södertälje than other kinds of cuisine.

 Among these is what some people claim as the best Kebab stall in Södertälje and Sweden, Kebab Palatset.

I haven’t found a better one in Stockholm yet. So there might be some truth in that statement.

Matching the demographics of the city is the library, that has a small section dedicated to Assyrian/Syriac literature.

The life for these once persecuted religious minorities, one would imagine is a great improvement from what they once lived under. No more the fear of being attacked by extremist groups, rather their day to day concerns (one imagines) centres on how to give their children a better future.

A young Assyrian/Syriac couple with their children cross the road

Children of a all races/ethnicities play together at the central mall district of Södertälje city

A Assyrian/Syriac businessman sets up stall in front of the church, selling second hand clothes

The larger numbers have stoked concerns about security risks. A police station was destroyed in 2005 and some papers have described the city as a base of crime (others have looked at the statistics and disagreed). This flies in the face of a cultural war being caused by Islamic refugees, because the refugees are not muslims – they hate Islam.

The problem is not about religion, it is probably not also about race or culture. The need to vilify and pin blame for pain on someone (or something) is not specific to a religion, race or culture. Most of the rising, bile filled, grassroots movements arise from the same tap – the tap of helplessness. This is the closeness of Brexit (immigration from the EU), the rise of Donald Trump (Mexico and China), the rise of ISIS and extremist terror organisations (the West) and the rise of the far-right movements in Europe (the Muslims).

The Södertälje I saw felt like a city working through the discomfort of change, it has been a trailblazer for most of Sweden and the world in refugees and immigration matters.

Here’s hoping the Södertälje experiment succeeds.



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