Above: Riksgränsen, Sweden. February 3rd, 2016. An Afghan boy helps another refugee child up after he lost his balance skiing.
You would be hard pressed to find a more diverse place in the world than Riksgränsen. Since October, this village with a population of 40 and situated deep in Swedish Lapland has been home to 600 refugees. In this harsh Arctic climate, a thriving community has developed. Now, as the spring sun begins to carpet the landscape and the slopes are prepared for skiing season, we went to see how people would reflect on their time at Riksgränsen.
Children swing off what appears to be a steel mesh, separating the reception staff from the hotel’s temporary inhabitants. On nearing the desk, it turns out to be made of flimsy plastic and we join three cherubic faces in peering through the opening. Above the desk, there is a note, written by a child who has now been relocated, it reads Riksgränsen-Beautiful Days, Remain a Memory. The children ask Michaela, one of the hotel staff, how to say certain phrases in English. She has learnt Arabic in her 3 months at Riksgränsen and patiently translates their phrases. The plastic mesh throws shadows across the foyer, where a group of Afghan men converse in Farsi, two peripheral characters remain silent, engrossed in a game of chess. All semblance of formality crumbles as a child drives his mock scooter behind the gated reception by using the open door next to it.
This temporary Arctic refugee centre, situated in the northernmost municipality of Sweden, is a place of contrast. An eclectic mix of language, ethnicities, cultures, beliefs and socio-economic backgrounds. A mix that has created a community; one family is what you hear many of them call it and you can see the logo emblazoned across many of the polo shirts worn around the hotel. The snazzy logo contains a Swedish flag alongside the flags of all the nationalities represented at this lodging. Now this community is being spread around the country; the arrangement with the hotel was only for 4 months and already many have left.
Ali, 31, used to have his own radio channel in Iraq and is quick to provide a picture of his old recording suite, his Facebook photo shows him at a political demonstration, an indication of why he felt he needed to leave. ‘Everyone has acted as a form of family, the staff, the other refugees and the teachers’. The migration office, can only confirm placements 24 hours before departure, yet they have indicated he may be transferred to Finland. He laments having to leave, ‘since people have started going, it feels like I am losing my family’. Ali talks to us with limited English, connecting broken phrases with body language and pictures on his phone. He, like most at the hotel, shows a stoic determination to use their Swedish and English rather than rely on a translator. He can’t contain his smile as he recounts how a Syrian couple met and got married at the hotel. The party (as is later re-confirmed by many people) was crazy, the staff had never seen such an event and celebrated with us the whole night’. Ali becomes frustrated with his lack of English; he is saying that the staff and the interaction with the small pool of locals is the reason why he is determined to stay in Sweden. As if on cue, a Swedish staff member called Jimmy, bursts through the restaurant door bouncing two children on his shoulders; Ali looks at us content, he has made his point.
The weather is unseasonably mild, fluctuating between -15 and -10 degrees; the children, now veterans of the harshest of winters, bask in the relative warmth, playing in the snow wearing just long sleeved t-shirts. Inside the hotel, Moaz, from Salma in Syria, sits watching Brooklyn, a romantic drama, on his phone. Like many at this hotel he has found his role in the community, he has proved invaluable as a translator. Today his duties will include: helping people with their Migration slips, notifying them of where they will be taken by bus the next morning and working with a Farsi translator in overseeing his brother’s haircut by the resident Iranian Barber, Mehdi. The language divide is representative of the many cultural differences that exist within the group. ‘I have many Swedish friends, I spent Christmas with my friends in Kiruna (2 hrs south) and attended many parties; I understand the Swedes more than I do the Arabian or Asian People’. Moaz is quick to draw on how they are presented in the media, as if there is more than a situational commonality between them, ‘we are very different, for example, there were around 100 Sudanese people when I arrived, I mean I had no idea about this country!’ This congruous spirit and harmonious atmosphere took time to develop and at first there were some teething problems. The weather was a challenge and Moaz had to translate for many of the doctors; he describes severe skin diseases that developed from exposure to the -40 degrees, dry cold. Many were taken on the 2,000 km journey from Malmö in the south of Sweden to Riksgränsen within 24 hours of arriving in the country and weren’t prepared for the climate. ‘There are always some issues when you have this amount of people arriving, but now it is good. On TV you always see problems but in reality we only saw solutions’. Moaz is needed by the hotel staff and has to leave abruptly, later I manage to ask him how he enjoyed the film: ‘I cried, I just don’t understand, why did the sister have to die?’
Moaz and his brother, Maed, have both had work permits accepted and will be employed by the hotel when Ski season arrives in late February. However, for many of the refugee’s working is a matter of pride and something to keep them busy. They work voluntarily as chefs, teachers, translators, hairdressers, musicians and gym instructors. The question: what do you plan to do now when you are relocated? becomes redundant, the answers are all the same, ‘First learn Swedish, then work’.
For the children, the hotel is an oversized playground. The steel mesh at reception has become a climbing frame, the foyer a racing track and Jimmy a six-foot climbing frame. Michaela admits, ‘they are so frustrating, they just climb everywhere, but how can you be angry with them, just look at them’ she squeezes the cheeks of one of the smiling children and he responds by giving her a hug.
Above: Riksgränsen, Sweden. February 1st, 2016. The main road leading from Riksgränsen to Kiruna.
There is one place where you behave yourself and that is the classroom. Moaz, slows as he nears the makeshift school, you can sense trepidation from the group who are showing us to the classroom; he points at a stern looking teacher, called Gunn Britt, and turns back down the staircase. The room, designed for conferences, contains a mock wooden cabin and a number of old maps hang on the wall. A child sheepishly, spits out some chewing gum into the bin Gunn Britt has thrust at him and the class commences. The classes are smaller than a month before and now there is roughly one teacher to every child, with a couple of children receiving private tuition. The class seems to flit seamlessly in-between Maths, Swedish and English. Elyas is the best at pronunciation and is asked to read the number 68 in English and Swedish; the class repeat what he says, as he leaves he is asked how to say it in Farsi and the teachers repeat. Mathematics is the children’s strongest subject, a child writes on the board, there is some uncertainty amongst the teachers, she reveals the correct final answer and they appear relieved, she is congratulated and returns to her seat; it turns out that they use a different mathematical notation system. The teachers are from the city of Kiruna and lodge during the week at the hotel. They have created an ad-hoc syllabus out of photocopied textbooks. Teaching Swedish was a challenge as they had no texts that showed translations from Farsi or Arabic. English, was even more of an issue, as the teachers were holding classes in a language which they are not entirely fluent in. Parsa has a cold, he is coughing (in Swedish) is written on the board, as Parsa returns to his seat, Gunn Britt’s face softens, he is sniffling and she asks him if he is ok.
Standing a foot above the children at the end of the class is Abbas; the children are competing to see who can climb onto his shoulders. Abbas is 22 and determined to learn Swedish, so he joined every class he could, including all the children’s classes. He was an engineer in Afghanistan and has heard that you can study mining at Luleå University, also in the north of Sweden. His commitment is not unusual, Anita, one of the teachers, describes how she has never seen such a high level of motivation from such young children (between 5-12) ‘I have never met most of their parents but the children come here everyday by themselves and just want to learn’. It becomes obvious that there is an air of melancholy as the class nears its end, the numbers are already depleted and next week all the children will have been placed elsewhere in Sweden. Gunn Britt calls the end of class and we take our leave.
The gym is crowded, not more than 30 sqm and not designed to be a focal point of the hotel. Despite most of the machines being used, a wide berth is always awarded to Mahmud, a decorated bodybuilder in his native Egypt. He loads every weight he can find in the gym onto the leg press, leaving his friend with only a bar, and with his Havaiana flip-flops squelching under the weight completes a few lifts before being distracted by his phone. Many of the men have kept themselves busy by exercising. Talking with them, it becomes obvious that the gym’s popularity may be more a relief from boredom than a genuine pursuit of fitness. Mohammed, 19, from Babylon in Iraq, uses the gym to keep himself occupied. He is happy in Riksgränsen but he is getting restless and tells us he is eager to find somewhere to study Medicine, his father who is using the bicycle machine behind him, nods approvingly.
During periods of the day, the boredom is palpable. People sit in corridors, surfing the Internet on their smart phones, the devices that had for so many, dutifully guided them across Europe. Mohammad, 28, from Mosul in Iraq, has enjoyed his stay, but now with many of his friends leaving he wants to join his girlfriend in Stockholm. With a flick of the wrist he dismisses the possibility of moving right now ‘I have read the news, Stockholm is not good right now, we hear there are many problems’. Perhaps encouraged by our surprise, he finds renewed hope and leans in ‘you live in Stockholm, is it this bad?’ With 163,000 asylum applications in 2015 and a fatal stabbing at a refugee centre in Gothenburg, public opinion has become increasingly polarised. For many who had dreamed of making the move down to Stockholm, this has manifested itself as a form of paranoia. Mohammed and his friends are happy to stay in the north of Sweden for now.
Above: Riksgränsen, Sweden. February 3rd, 2016. Zakera plays in the snow with her son, Taha.
Zakera apologises profusely at not being able to provide us with chocolates. She asks her husband, Mahdi, to translate despite possessing impressive English. Her family’s journey from Afghanistan was a treacherous one; the overcrowded boat they took between Turkey and Greece ran out of petrol, stranded, they had to be rescued by the coastguard. She hopes to move to Stockholm and is eager to hear more about the culture and what the shops are like. Mahdi, is amused by his wife’s questions, ‘we are fascinated by the differences here, Swedish people are very kind but things like marriage are very different’. The discussion moves to our personal lives and our partners, they sit fascinated by the cultural gap that pervades this particular tradition. There is a bang at the door, startling everyone but their young son, who is fixated on the phone in his hand. Two representatives from the Swedish migration office are here to tell them they will be leaving the next day for new housing. Neighbours come in and general confusion ensues, Zakera looks to her husband in a nervous excitement, their son completes a level on his game and joins them in the corridor. They are to be placed in Torpshammar, no one, including the Migration officers know where it is. One officer jokes that they must be at the bus stop for 18.00 the next day, otherwise they are to sleep on the mountain. It is taken literally for a few seconds and concern returns briefly to Zakera’s face. After the officers leave, we look at Torpshammer on the map, it is 1,000 km south of Riksgränsen, that means, for Zakera, 1,000 km closer to Stockholm. For many families like theirs, this will be their last placement. Perhaps sensing the importance of the situation, their son leaves them to digest the news, he takes their neighbour’s hand, and referring to him as ‘uncle’ he instructs him that they are to play.
Housing refugees in Riksgränsen would never have happened if Sweden had been prepared for the amount of refugees that have arrived since this crisis began. There was not enough housing available; sport halls, camping sites and student accommodation have all been utilized as a temporary solution. The decision to house these 600 refugees in the most remote area of Sweden was as resourceful as it was desperate. The four month contract is nearing an end and it is hard to see this emergency measure as anything other than an unprecedented success. Compared to the hustle and bustle of the big cities, there has been an opportunity for the refugees to acclimatise in a calm and secure environment. Riksgränsen translates as national border, with Norway only 1 km from the hotel. It turns out that this peripheral location has, for many of the refugees, created a form of cultural decompression before they continue onto the larger cities. A four month interlude, preparing them for what life in Sweden will be like. As we wait for our night train back to Stockholm, Moaz tells us why he wants to stay in Riksgränsen, quoting a Swedish priest who has befriended him ‘when you have found good people, you have found a good place'.