"and eat and drink until the white thread of dawn appears to you distinct from the black thread. Then complete your Sawm (fast) till the nightfall" [Al-Qur'an 2:187]
These are the rules laid out by the Quran for fasting, but here in the land of the midnight sun, the white thread appears firmly woven into the rolling hills of the horizon. At 3AM, the forests of Sweden’s Norrland remain coated in the soft glow of the sun, the local lake shimmering in an ethereal calm. It is the last day of Ramadan and many of the refugees based at this camp in Torpshammar are eager to end their daily 23 hour fast.
This is not the only challenge that the thousands of refugees based in Northern Sweden have had to face. We are reunited with Mahdi, Zakera and Taha, an Afghan family who we had visited at their previous temporary housing - a ski resort deep inside Sweden’s Arctic circle. Mahdi, describes how many of the refugees at the centre fell into depression “ we had many mental health issues here, the sun would never come in the winter and we had nothing to do - just 3 hours of Swedish language classes a week”.
When we spoke to Mahdi in April, he described how the refugees felt unwelcome in the local community, “we would say salam or hej and they would just turn and go back into their houses”. Goran, a refugee from Kurdish Syria, with a deep set brow and imposing frame, smiles as he leans on a walking stick; he is watching three local men drive their vintage American cars past their accommodation, country music blaring from the windows. This local rural community, who gather in the evenings at the local bar Happy Days (named after the American show) had, until last year, almost no cultural diversity. Now, the refugees outnumber the locals and for such a previously isolated community, it isn't surprising that many of them felt uncertain of how to act towards their new guests. Today, the local community and the refugees get on along, with some of the children playing in local football teams and locals involved in the maintenance of the centres. Eva Nordin a local resident reflects on the initial reaction from the community “ I know some people who thought there were too many at once, but now many of us recognize that it could be us who need help one day, and so we should do our best to help them”.
The monotony of life in the camp is palpable; even the menu has remained the same since they arrived many months ago. “We have had the same Chinese dish of noodles with chicken everyday since we arrived, for both lunch and dinner” says Mahdi. He now fills his time by fishing at the local lake, but he would rather be learning Swedish and looking for work. “We want to be useful citizens, we want to learn Swedish; I want to be a nurse, my wife a nurse and my son wants to be a policeman”. The issue for Mahdi, is that the asylum process has left his family in a no-mans land between being granted the safety of permanent residency or being sent back to Afghanistan. They have regularly asked how long it will be before they are given a decision - the estimates vary between 1-5 years.
The emotional stress has had an effect on Zakera, who was being treated for depression. She is now pregnant and the summer light has lifted her spirits but she appears more measured, different to the woman we had met in February. She had asked us then what the shopping was like in Stockholm; she was eager to head south to one of Sweden’s larger cities. Now, 6 months later, their reality appears very different to the one they had wished for.
Their journey to Sweden was particularly dangerous; they had travelled with many other families all the way from Afghanistan to the northernmost point of Sweden. Thieves on the Iranian border had threatened their lives and crossing the Mediterranean they had been forced to hold their child above their heads in an effort to persuade the Greek coastguard to rescue them. Taha, is 3 now, and has thoroughly enjoyed himself since he arrived; playtime has been never-ending, allowing him to spend most of the day as his alter ego - Batman. Mahdi pauses to catch him as he jumps off the bunk bed, he looks at his son and concludes, “the most important thing is we are all safe and we are grateful for that”.
To read about the family's previous experience in the Arctic ski resort click on the link below;