With more Syrians en route, Sweden struggles to maintain identity as country where refugees are welcome

ASTORP, — This country prides itself on welcoming refugees, but with an unprecedented number from already here and many more on the way, there is no longer a clear consensus about what to do.

The two solitudes are evident in the main square of this bucolic farming town of 15,000 in southern Sweden, where one of every four residents is officially a refugee or seeking refugee status.

sits in the sunshine on a park bench, eyeing a few Arabs 20 metres away on another bench. The scene repeats itself every day, with nary a word being spoken between the two groups, said Nilsson, a 74-year-old retiree who obviously has lots of time on his hands.

So does , 35, a school teacher who arrived this year with seven other men from Syria. None of them has a job, so they spend hours in the square, exchanging news from their homeland or gossiping about the status of their asylum applications.

BAX LINDHARDT/AFP/Getty ImagesBAX LINDHARDT/AFP/Getty ImagesMigrants, mainly from Syria, walk on the highway 12km north of Rodby, Denmark moving to the north on September 7, 2015.

“I was born here and will die here,” said Nilsson, adding Astorp no longer felt like home. “This is the wrong time for immigrants. There are no jobs for them. Our government just gives them money.”

Mohammad knows he is being glared at from across the square, but takes the high road.

“Until now, I like Sweden. The people are lovely and kind, but we understand they are afraid of us because of all the blood that has been shed in Syria,” he said. “We hope to one day get the chance to explain to them that this is not Islam. We are human beings, too, and we also love peace.

Mohammad’s family did not come with him on the tortuous trek through Turkey and the Balkans to Sweden.

“I didn’t have enough money to pay the smugglers,” he said. “Anyway, it would have been too dangerous to bring them.”

Once he gets his residency permit — he hopes by the end of the year — his family will be allowed to fly to Sweden to join him.

Credit:  Matthew Fisher/National Post Credit: Matthew Fisher/National Post With no job, Yassir Mohammad (second from left) and three friends who escaped with him from Syria have lots of time on their hands to exchange news about the war in their homeland and the status of their asylum applications.

The drama of Rune Nilsson and Yassir Mohammad, and how or whether they will find a way to get along, is being played out across Sweden and Europe today as millions of Muslims flood in.

The exodus from Syria is challenging traditional notions about Sweden, a country of only nine million which has long prided itself as a refuge for those fleeing war. About 85,000, mostly Syrian refugees, have arrived so far this year, making it by far the greatest recipient, per capita, of asylum seekers of any country in Europe. This week, the government said it would take even more.

The influx has been a boon to the anti-immigrant Swedish Democrats party, which elected its first member of parliament only five years ago. In last year’s general election, it doubled its vote to about 13 per cent and won 49 of 349 seats. Over the summer, as the refugee tide became a tsunami, its support in the polls rose above 18 per cent.

“We are not racist. Racists hate people because of the colour of their skin. We do not hate anybody,” said Eddie Ek, a party member and Astorp municipal councillor.

Matthew Fisher / National PostMatthew Fisher / National PostWe do not hate anybody, says municipal council member Eddie Ek, who is a member of the anti-immigration Swedish Democratic Party, which favours drastically cutting the number of refugees that Sweden takes in.

Foreigners were taking public money and committing crimes, he said, but this was “not because they are immigrants. It is because the flow is so big into Sweden. We want to lower the intake to about 10,000 a year so that we can make them part of Swedish society.

“I am very proud that we are tolerant, (but) you can be very tolerant of other cultures without having them here.”

Speaking for what he said was a growing number of Swedes, he added, “In the depth of my heart I hope this won’t become an Islamic country.”

As a Polish-Iraqi who emigrated more than 30 years ago, Azad Jonczyk sees the growing debate from different angles. Since 2006, he has been the chief of integration for refugees setting in Astorp.

His task is complicated by the cultural divide. Swedes are generally quiet and introspective, and relatively relaxed about relationships between the sexes. Arabs tend to be garrulous and show their emotions, but are deeply conservative regarding social issues.

Matthew Fisher / National PostMatthew Fisher / National PostAzad Jonczyk is the chief of integration responsible for smoothing the way for refugees in this town in southern Sweden.

Another point of division is language  — most refugees have trouble mastering Swedish.

That helps explain what has happened in Rosengard, a suburb of Malmo, Sweden’s third-largest city 80 kilometres from Astorp: more than 80 per cent of residents speak Arabic.

“I love it here because it feels like the Middle East,” said Taghrid, a young hijab-wearing Palestinian from Syria as she pushed a baby carriage past other women in similar attire. “It’s special. You know, people in the streets, the smell of spices.”

Such segregated enclaves are part of the problem, said Jonczyk, who moves easily between Astorp’s Swedish and Arab communities.

“What they do at home, they want to do in Swedish society and they want Swedish society to accept that,” he said.

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“It is (Swedes’) country and their culture, and I think that people who come to this society have to acclimatize, not the other way around.”

Sandra Johansson is annoyed by the Arabs’ unwillingness to adopt their hosts’ mores and customs.

“To be honest, I don’t like them at all,” said the 26-year-old waitress. “I don’t want to kick them out, but we must think of ourselves first.”

Such opinions upset Lisa Adelquist who teaches 28 children of 13 nationalities and a few ethnic Swedes at a school in Astorp.

“When I work with these children, I am very optimistic for their future and the future of Sweden,” she said.

“But when I think about the politics of this situation I become a little worried about the future … My friends can have stronger opinions. Most of them are negative, but some of them are positive.”

Matthew Fisher / National Post Matthew Fisher / National Post

Bengt and Anvy Wahlgren were not hostile to the newcomers. But the couple, who have been married for 41 years, were anguished about what Sweden should do in future.

“I worry because it isn’t easy to take so many people into our society,” said Bengt, a retired schoolteacher.

“It is true that we took in the Hungarians in ‘56 and the Yugoslavs after that and they have become like us now,” Anvy said. “But they got jobs because there were jobs available then.”

With unemployment among refugees well above 40 per cent, finding them work was one of Jonczyk’s major preoccupations. But to reach the point where they were employable was not possible if Sweden did not do a much better job of making them feel part of their new environment.

“We need these people,”  he said.  “It is good that they are coming. We have to help them, to show solidarity.”

Lurking in the background of every conversation in Astorp was the rise of anti-immigration sentiment and anti-immigrant political parties.

“For 20 years they have had such parties but now they are in all the parliaments of Europe,” Jonczyk said

“They will become stronger and stronger if something is not done about this situation.”

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