Photo Essay: Stranded in Sweden

Stranded in Sweden
Giwara, 28, stands on a hill in Helsingborg overlooking the Øresund Strait. He has been living in Sweden for 14 months. A Kurd from Aleppo, he used to own a dye factory with 90 employees. He was forced to shut it down after the Free Syrian Army entered the city. It took more than a month and about $22,000 to get smuggled from Turkey to Sweden through Greece and Italy. While his family is now scattered throughout Iraq, Kurdistan and Syria, Giwara is struggling to adapt to his new life. “People here are very respectful, but I can see that racist look in their eyes,” he says. “Sweden is a big lie.” Matilde Gattoni

Once they were respected and successful, they had money and power. Now they’re broke, roaming like ghosts in a foreign land.

These are the stories of 12 young Syrian men who used to be rich businessmen, global professionals and members of prominent families. They sacrificed everything to escape war and reach Sweden, the only country granting them permanent residence.

Far from discovering the paradise they dreamed about, some now lead an invisible life in bleak suburbs and remote villages, isolated and unable to find work. Cut off from their loved ones, they are stuck in a limbo between a comfortable life they cannot forget and a tough, new reality. Some of the people asked to keep their faces out of the photos, to protect their families still in Syria.

Stranded in Sweden Abu Moussa, 29, smokes a cigarette in the kitchen of the apartment he shares in Broby with four Syrian friends. Originally an actor from Damascus, Abu Moussa joined the revolution early, as an activist for the media center. He was arrested, imprisoned and tortured by the Syrian government for a month and a half, and then he was forced to join Assad’s army. Abu Moussa managed to escape the army thanks to his acting skills by fooling his superior. One of his brothers was kidnapped and nobody knows what happened to him. He reached Sweden after a perilous trip through Europe in the back of a truck filled with cotton; he could barely breathe. Abu Moussa wishes to put on the play “What Where” by Samuel Beckett in order to tell Swedish people what it means to have been kidnapped and tortured. Matilde Gattoni

Stranded in Sweden Rasheed Noh Abualhijaa, 33, sits in a small cafe in Helsingborg close to where he lives. A Palestinian from Damascus, he used to own two butcheries and two grocery shops. Abualhijaa has been waiting for a decision about his asylum application for more than a year. Unable to work and send money to his 7-year-old daughter, who still lives in Damascus with his mother, Abualhijaa has twice tried to commit suicide. “I asked to be sent back to Syria, but the Swedish authorities told me it’s not possible,” he says. “I am Palestinian and cannot go anywhere.” Matilde Gattoni

Stranded in Sweden Kamal, 44, an architect, sits in his office in Malmo. Originally from Daraa, Kamal is married and has four kids. He arrived in Sweden 10 years ago and was granted political asylum because he was an activist and was wanted by the government. At that time it was much harder to get asylum because Syria’s President Assad was considered a liberal leader. He is still an activist in Sweden and helps newcomers to settle as well as gather money for Syrians who are still back in Syria. He advises newcomers to learn Swedish and help Syrians and their country to get out of the crisis. Matilde Gattoni


Stranded in Sweden In Stockholm, Mohammad Ali, 24, stands by the lake that surrounds the Fittja mosque he just visited in order to look for a job. Ali is a body shop mechanic from the neighborhood of Jobar, near Damascus. He left Syria one year ago, and tried to resettle in Egypt and Libya. After an unsuccessful spell in Tripoli, he made his way to the Italian island of Lampedusa, where he was registered and fingerprinted. Although he is supposed to apply for asylum in Italy according to the Dublin convention, Ali made his way here, where he waits for local authorities to decide on his application. If rejected, he will be deported to Italy. “I don't want to go there,” he complains. “In Italy there is no respect for Syrians and for human rights.” Matilde Gattoni

Stranded in Sweden At left, Bashar, 34, stands in the main square of Malmo. Bashar is an Alawite mechanical engineer from Lattakia who arrived in Sweden in November 2012, after having worked for seven years in Dubai for a Swiss company. “When I had to apply for asylum I was speechless. I had all my life flashing by in seconds,” he recounts. He now lives here, where he has been marginalized by the rest of the Syrian community for his criticism towards both the regime and the opposition. His refusal to stand with other Alawites prompted his family to reject him. Contrary to many of his compatriots, Bashar is optimistic towards his future in Sweden. “In Dubai, I had a good job but no freedom. In Sweden, I don't have money, but I am free,” he says. At right, Ahmad Azobi, 39, arrived in Sweden seven months ago, after undertaking a perilous trip by boat and truck through Turkey and Greece with his wife and his two children, who are three and six. A successful business before revolution, Azobi was importing tourism buses from Europe and selling them in the Middle East. Today he lives in Malmo, where he shares a house with another family. “My company was worth $1 million,” he says. “I used all my savings to come here, now I am broke and unemployed.” Matilde Gattoni

Stranded in Sweden Baraa, 25, sits in the room he shares with two Syrian friends. Baraa, originally from Damascus, is a former university student and activist in the Syrian Revolution. “When I started seeing guns around, I knew my job in the revolution was finished. There is no voice over the guns,” he says. He plans to settle in Sweden for a few years and earn a master’s degree in human rights. “Sometimes I feel I let my country down because I fled. As if you abandon a person when they need you most, it feels bad,” he says. Matilde Gattoni

Stranded in Sweden Sami, 28, sits in his apartment overlooking the woods. Sami is a Christian from Damascus. Educated as an archaeologist, he used to organize theme parties for families connected to the regime, whose budgets could reach $10,000 per function. After securing a six-month-tourist visa for France in order to flee Syria, Sami reached Sweden 10 months ago. According to European Union visa regulations, he can’t apply for asylum until next year. He rents a small apartment on the outskirts of Stockholm and survives by doing demolition for construction sites. “I thought Sweden was paradise, but life here is really horrible,” he says. “If they will refuse my asylum application, I will kill myself.” Matilde Gattoni

Stranded in Sweden Hussein Ali, 31, sits in the living room of his house in Malmo, in front of the flag of the Syrian Revolution and a prayer mat. Ali is a cardiologist from Aleppo. He was working in the makeshift hospitals until his brother arrived, severely wounded. He tried to take him to Turkey, but he died on the way in Ali’s arms. After that Ali left Syria because he could not conceive living in the country where his brother was murdered. “There is no peace without freedom,” he says. Matilde Gattoni

Stranded in Sweden Abu Mahmoun, 33, stands on the balcony of the apartment in Broby he shares with four Syrian friends. Originally a furniture designer in Kisswa, near Damascus, Mahmoun joined the Free Syrian Army at the beginning of the revolution, first as an activist then as a fighter and a judge. He was shot in the shoulder, and later he quit the FSA when he decided the people had lost the real sense of the revolution. He arrived in Sweden alone in April 2013, leaving his wife and two children in Egypt, after a perilous road trip through Europe. He was granted political asylum in October. Mahmoun says it will be easy to adapt to Sweden since it’s a conservative society. He has already applied for his family to join him. He wants to raise his kids in Sweden, but he’s afraid they might forget their Syrian roots. Matilde Gattoni

Stranded in Sweden Asbed Hohvanessian, 26, stands on the shore of the Øresund Strait, which divides the North Sea from the Baltic Sea. Asbed arrived in Sweden on April 2013, having decided he had no future in Syria. A former Armenian journalist, Hohvanessian is now living in Stockholm, where he shares a house with a Swedish man and a Palestinian family. Although he likes Sweden, he is worried about the recent rising of anti-immigration, right-wing parties in local politics. “Democracy means regulations can change, and my residency might be cancelled by the next government,” he concedes. “That's why I like this city, but I could never love it the way I love Damascus.” Matilde Gattoni