How Swedes Took a Refugee Crisis Into Their Own Hands

Refugees Welcome Stockholm, a refugee assistance group focused on integration, has gone from a grassroots band of Good Samaritans to a 50-strong nonprofit in one short, hectic year.
Volunteers from Clowns Without Borders dance with refugees. (Photo: Matt Alesevich)
Oct 3, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Matt Alesevich is a New York City based travel journalist who covers human interest stories, meditation and marginalized members of society.

STOCKHOLM—Najma Mohamed only went to Stockholm Central Station to drop off socks.

In September 2015, refugees fleeing Middle East unrest were pouring into Sweden's busiest train station daily, and the 26-year-old social worker had responded to a Facebook group’s call for socks for arriving asylum seekers.

Amid the chaos of the station, Mohamed met dozens of Swedes like herself, inspired everyday citizens now face to face with the images that moved them to action. As train after train rumbled in, Mohamed foresaw a need for sustainable, long-lasting support.

“I didn’t expect [to become a leader], but something I know about myself is that I have a need to organize,” Mohamed said. “I got to the point where I felt bad if I was doing anything else besides [volunteering] because of the people I meet here.”

Sweden took in more than 160,000 refugees in the last year, more per capita than any other European country in 2015. Throughout September, the volunteers greeted trainloads of refugees with food, water, clothing, medical care, and signs of support. They offered the use of their cars and homes and rallied others, like a nightclub owner who shut down his business to house refugees, to join the cause.

A refugee shows off her baked goods at RWS Summer Camp.
(Photo: Lukas Sköld)

In a move foreshadowing organized mobility—and one that would go on to define the group—a volunteer went to a nearby store to buy construction vests to help identify volunteers. Pink was the only color available in bulk, and the vibrantly colored vests, symbolizing an offbeat, overlooked surplus, became an icon.

While Refugees Welcome Stockholm volunteers, which now number 50, are still identified by their rosa västarna, the focus has since shifted from emergency relief to organized integration.

“The energy, creativity and work effort people put into this project, and what we managed to achieve, is a piece of Swedish modern history,” Refugees Welcome Stockholm board member Gabriel Mezquida wrote in an email to TakePart.

Since early 2016, the group has been most known for its Rosa Stationen, or Pink Station, a weekly Stockholm meet-up that offers refugees free Swedish courses, legal counseling, and cultural exchanges.

To ensure parents are able to attend sessions, the nonprofit offers children's activities and babysitting.

“I danced with the clown,” says one young Syrian girl, who participated in a Clowns Without Borders performance while her mother attended a Swedish lesson. “It was fun.”

Swedish legal advisers also provide an invaluable service.

“They mostly ask about asylum regulations—the Dublin Regulation—fingerprints,” one volunteer legal adviser said. “They ask if you’re allowed to work, how to change accommodations, what can [they] do not to be sent to [another] country.”

Many refugees in Sweden have family members affected by the EU’s Dublin Regulation, a law stating a refugee is only entitled to asylum rights in the first nation he or she was fingerprinted in.

The law can split up families, and legal counseling helps outline possibilities and set realistic expectations.

“[The lawyer] told me my husband can only come here to visit,” said Hanadi Yousef of Zabadani, Syria, whose husband was fingerprinted in Bulgaria, thus barring him from being granted asylum with his wife and children. “I can only wait.”

Not to be underestimated is the moral support Refugees Welcome Stockholm events provide refugees, who, with little money and an inability to work or study without permits, pass days in boredom.

“I love everyone here,” says Muhammed Hamdan, who lost his legs in a 2004 market bombing in Mosul, Iraq.

Volunteer Sara Öhman echoes this sentiment.

“[The refugees] say [Pink Station is] the best day of the week for them,” she said. “They say, “I feel human when I'm here.' ”

The success of Pink Station has inspired broader initiatives. This June, Refugees Welcome Stockholm began hosting Open Cinema nights, screenings of culturally significant Middle Eastern and Swedish films chosen to engage discussion.

Additionally, in September the group organized a 50-person, weekend-long summer camp where refugees and Swedes could bond in a festive environment.

Given the controversial nature of Europe's refugee crisis, not all Swedes support the nation's historically refugee-friendly agenda.

When the municipality announced plans to buy a home for refugee youths near a community center where Refugees Welcome Stockholm hosts events, neighbors protested. In response, volunteers left invitations to the organization's events in area mailboxes.

“We were expecting a negative response [but] no—[no negative responses] came. We got positive mail,” Mohamed said. “Other neighbors said it’s really good you’ve been doing this.”

The outreach encouraged a handful of residents to attend events, confirming the group’s notion that all it takes is exposure to turn skeptics into supporters.

“I know it’s cliché, but it’s true,” Mohamed said. “Give people a chance. Hear their stories.”