A refugee's journey, part 2: After risking everything to reach Europe, what next?

Earlier this year Patrick Kingsley met a Syrian family in Cairo and learned about their harrowing journey to Egypt. Patrick followed the father, Hashem al-Souki, as he gambled on crossing the Mediterranean to seek asylum for them all in Sweden. Six months later he catches up with Hashem to see what happened next

Hashem al-Souki is sitting in the little public library in Skinnskatteberg when he hears the bad news. It’s been six months since he arrived in Sweden, six months of purgatory – and he’s still waiting to find out if he has been granted asylum. Spring turned to summer, and now winter is almost here. With every passing day, he wonders more and more whether something that was supposed to be a formality will instead never come. His fears appear to be confirmed.

Hashem comes to this library a few times a week, for want of something better to do. This afternoon he sits down and starts scrolling through Facebook. There are the familiar posts about what’s going on in Syria. And then there’s one that makes him want to cry. Sweden’s political parties, someone has written, have collectively agreed to stop giving permanent asylum to Syrians, with the exception of those who have come as a family. And for the men who haven’t, the post claims, there are to be restrictions on their right to family reunification.

His head starts to spin. If this is true, everything he’s prayed for over the past six months has come to nothing. He is safe. But his family, alone and afraid on the other side of the Mediterranean, are not. And now they never may be.

This was not the limbo that Hashem had in mind when he left Syria two-and-a-half years ago. The Syrian regime had tortured him inside their jails, destroyed his home, and forced him to move from town to town to escape their bombs. So in June 2013 he escaped to Egypt with his wife, Hayam, and their three young boys, Osama, Mohamed and Milad – all of them seeking some semblance of stability. But in post-revolutionary Egypt, stability was hard to find, so in April 2015 Hashem left in a smugglers’ boat for Italy. A fortnight later he reached Sweden, after an epic journey retold in the Guardian this June. He had hoped to win asylum and then apply for his family to join him. But today in the library all that seems impossible.


“Unfortunately,” he despairs in a message he sends a friend that day, “my dreams have crashed.”

Six months earlier, it is 29 April. Hashem has just arrived in southern Sweden and things are so much brighter. As dawn breaks, he takes a train northwards and spends the night with Ehsan, his brother-in-law. Ehsan arrived here as a refugee last summer, and Hashem hasn’t seen him for two years. The next day Ehsan puts him on the train to Gävle, the nearest town with an office for Migrationsverket, Sweden’s migration agency.

“Hello,” Hashem says to the security guard when he gets there. “I’m Syrian. I’m a refugee.”

The security guard smiles. “Welcome,” he says, and takes Hashem to a receptionist. She writes down his details, gives him a key, and shows him to a bedroom upstairs in the centre. For perhaps the first time in his life, he feels like a government is treating him as a human.

Hashem spends the weekend in Gävle, and on the Tuesday he is told to board a bus that will take him to his permanent lodgings. The bus cruises serenely through the Swedish countryside, past fields and lakes, and through tall forests. Hashem marvels at the calmness of it all, the lack of traffic, the greenery. It’s different from anything he has experienced before – and so is the village they reach, a couple of hours later.

Skinnskatteberg, Sweden.
Skinnskatteberg ... a tiny, remote place of 4,000 residents, 100 miles north-west of Stockholm. Photograph: Patrick Kingsley/The Guardian

This is Skinnskatteberg, a tiny, remote place of just 4,000 residents, 90 miles south-west of Gävle, and 100 miles north-west of Stockholm. It’s not somewhere you would usually want to billet 70 frightened foreigners. But such is the flow of refugees to Sweden that the authorities are struggling to find places to house the newest arrivals.

This makeshift centre – a disused hotel – in Skinnskatteberg is the best they could find for Hashem and his cohort. His first reaction is that it’s quite pleasant. There is a little lawn outside with some chairs. Behind the building is a pretty wood. It’s on a gentle slope, so if you stand outside the door, and stroll a few paces, there is a pleasing view of the village and the spire of its white church.

Inside, however, a shock is waiting. Since being tortured inside Assad’s prisons, Hashem has suffered from some of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He tries to explain this in Arabic to the Migrationsverket staff as his condition will require specific kinds of treatment. But without an interpreter, they don’t understand him, and he’s too embarrassed to try to explain further. Soon they leave, and they won’t be back for another week. Migrationsverket officials are so stretched that they visit the centre only on a Tuesday, between 1pm and 2pm. For the rest of the time, the residents are on their own.

Still, at least Hashem has somewhere to live. At least he’s in Sweden. And at least the village is pleasant. He’s impressed by the church. He discovers a lake at the southern end of the town, and enjoys strolling around it. He is happily astonished at the absence of police or soldiers on the streets, and at the fact he never hears any fighter jets overhead. He could not be further from Syria – or Egypt for that matter.

Hashem by the church in Skinnskatteberg, Sweden.
Hashem al-Souki outside the church in Skinnskatteberg, Sweden. Photograph: Patrick Kingsley/The Guardian

Tuesday comes round again, and with it the chance to tell the migration agency about his problem. The allotted hour arrives, and Hashem turns up to the dining room to make his case. Again, there are no interpreters. Again, he tries to explain his situation. But again, no one understands him. Embarrassed, he heads back to his dormitory. The same thing happens the next week – and the week after. It’s a miserable situation. He’s escaped from the hell of Syria and Egypt. Unfortunately, Sweden so far offers him only purgatory – and it’s only on the fourth week that he is able to explain his predicament properly.

Back in Egypt, his wife and their sons Osama, Mohamed and Milad are also in limbo. First off, they have now lost their primary sources of income. Hashem can no longer put money on the table. There’s no work in Skinnskatteberg, and besides, he can’t yet speak Swedish. The UN refugee agency has cut its funding too. His wife finds work as an Arabic teacher at a school for Syrian children, but the meagre wages don’t cover the family’s living expenses.

The hardest part, though, isn’t the poverty, but the sense of social exclusion. As Syrians, life is tough in Egypt. The xenophobia has dropped since its peak in 2013, but they still feel like social outcasts. And without Hashem they are wary of leaving the house for too long.

Hashem’s own misery somewhat lifts once the Migrationsverket staff grasp the nature of his condition and move him to a private room. Now his main problems are the boredom and the loneliness. His asylum interview will be in late August, and until then he is counting down the days. There’s a rock by the lake that he walks to every day, and where he establishes a new daily ritual. He sits on it for several minutes and gazes out across the water, contemplating life.

Times goes so slowly – until one day some of the villagers begin Swedish classes in the church hall. It isn’t a government project – it’s just something that half a dozen pensioners have decided to do by themselves. Hashem’s teachers, Kerstin and Eva, have never taught English before so the classes have a rambling quality. But they’re about so much more than just the language. “It’s about the connection!” says Hashem after one class ends. He gets to make friends with real Swedes, and those Swedes, some of whom are a bit lonely themselves, get something out of it too.

In particular, Hashem warms to Kerstin, a frail widow who lives alone in a wooden cottage out in the woods. She gets him to fix her computer and a bond is formed, leading to him regularly stopping by for tea after class. Her house is unlike any he’s previously been to. In one room, she has a giant weaver’s loom. In another there’s a table built from parts first carved in 1623, a lampshade made from the wheel of a cart, and green wallpaper full of clover leaves. It’s an unusual home – but one of the first in Sweden in which Hashem has felt properly welcomed.

Hashem pictured with Kerstin.
Hashem al-Souki with Kerstin, a volunteer who teaches Swedish to Syrian asylum seekers. Photograph: Patrick Kingsley/The Guardian

The eve of his interview finally arrives. Hashem’s not nervous – he’s excited. “It’s my day of destiny,” he says to himself. He showers and shaves. He sets his alarm for 6am and asks Ehsan and Hayam to call him to make sure he’s up in time. There’s no need, in the end. He’s up, alert, and early for the 6.45am bus ride to Västerås, the nearest big town. When the bus moves off, he uses the journey to arrange his thoughts, anxious to give the best possible account of himself in the interview. He goes over in his head what happened when he left Syria, and why – and wonders what kinds of questions he will be asked.

Souki finds out soon enough. Getting out at Västerås, he meets his caseworker at the migration agency offices. Through an interpreter, she asks him a series of methodical questions over the course of two hours. Where is he from in Syria? What kind of an area is it? What is the situation there? How did the war affect him? Why was he put in prison? Had he ever expressed a political affiliation? Why did he leave? The questions are firm but respectful, and to Hashem the process seems fair. His interrogator has a gentle manner, and Hashem feels relieved.

Hashem at Kerstin’s house
Hashem al-Souki at Kerstin’s house, the first place where he feels properly welcomed. Photograph: Patrick Kingsley/The Guardian

The next day, back in Skinnskatteberg, Hashem starts a new routine. He begins to log on to the Migrationsverket website every morning to see if there has been a decision in his case. He knows it will take a few weeks or so, but he figures it can’t hurt to check. After a month or so, though, it does start to hurt. Each time he logs on, the website shows no change in his status. He checks and checks and checks. Still nothing. And as September turns into October, he starts to worry. Is there something wrong? Did his interviewer not believe him?

The general political climate doesn’t help. As autumn wears on, more refugees than ever are arriving in Europe – and thanks to its progressive policies, Sweden continues to bear a disproportionate burden of the crisis. The number of rooms for asylum-seekers is dwindling fast.

Opposition politicians call for an end to the open-door policies. Soon the government loses its nerve, promising to stop giving out permanent residencies in 2016 and restrict access to family reunion. It’s this decision that sends Hashem’s head spinning in the library. Will his case be settled in time?

Hashem having coffee after a Swedish class.
Hashem al-Souki haves coffee after a Swedish class. Photograph: Patrick Kingsley/The Guardian

Fearing the worst, he falls into despair. His PTSD symptoms return. He starts to check the Migrationsverket website almost as a reflex. Every day becomes every hour – and every hour brings a new disappointment. He checks the site before breakfast, and there’s nothing. He checks it after breakfast, and there’s still nothing. Before lunch: nothing. After lunch: nothing.

One day in October, Hashem heads to the church hall for his Swedish lesson. Before the lesson, again, there’s nothing. During the coffee break, he retrieves his phone from his pocket, types in his code, and again scans his page to find that there’s ... he blinks. He scans the page again. There’s … something.

“Application status,” it reads in Arabic. “Your request for residency, permission to work, permission to study, citizenship or asylum has been received.”

He scrolls down to the next paragraph.

“The Swedish Board of Immigration has taken a decision concerning the granting or refusal of your request.”

And then, again, there’s nothing. Nothing that explains whether the decision is positive or negative. Nothing to clarify whether his case is one of the first to be considered under the government’s new restrictive measures – or one of the last under the old order. It just says there’s been a decision. Hashem has to report once more to the Migrationsverket in Västerås to find out whether he has cause for celebration or despair.

So two weeks later he finds himself waiting yet again in the darkness at the bus stop at Skinnskatteberg. He sits silently for the duration of the journey, hoping, praying that there will be no more surprises. He has an hour to spare by the time he gets to Västerås, but he still hurries to the Migrationsverket building.

He wants to be the first in the queue. He gets his wish – there’s no one else here. He paces around, sits on the chair, stands up again, and goes for a smoke. He returns, and it’s still only 8:30am. His anxiety rises. Why have they taken so long over his application? Has he been rejected? Or are there simply administrative delays? And if the latter, what kind of residency will he get? Permanent? Temporary? If it’s just temporary, he might not be able to apply for family reunion. And that would defeat the whole point. His journey from Egypt, across the Mediterranean and then through Europe, would all have been a waste.

Nine o’clock passes – opening time – but still the doors are still shut. A crowd builds behind him. Hashem frowns, his heart beating fast. In a few minutes he should know whether he has a life ahead of him in Sweden.

Hashem waiting to find out the status of his asylum application.
Hashem waiting to find out the status of his asylum application. Photograph: Patrick Kingsley/The Guardian

Finally, the door opens. The crowd surges through. Hashem takes a ticket from the machine – number 806 – and he’s one of the first to be called into a cubicle. Inside, behind a counter, a sombre woman greets him. She pushes an envelope towards him across the counter. He tears it open and finds a card inside.

He looks down at it. It’s Wednesday 10 November 2015. Three years after he left Assad’s jails, two years after he escaped Syria, and seven months after he survived the sea, Hashem finally sees the words he has been waiting for.

“Permanent uppehällstillständ,” the card says. “Permanent residency.”

Hashem after finding out the status of his asylum application.
Hashem al-Souki after finding out the status of his asylum application. Photograph: Patrick Kingsley/The Guardian


Patrick Kingsley Migration correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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