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Iraqis find haven and hardship in Sweden

Times Staff Writer

The words are strange here, the air is cold, and the girls give their hearts so easily away. The fruit is less sweet too, the winter ice thick, and the thrum of bicycles makes an odd music across the cobblestones.

Mariam Lutfi attends to these unaccustomed rhythms. There are many like her. They’re easily spotted around town, nodding to one another, stopping to talk in their native tongue while carrying notebooks scribbled with a foreign alphabet that has too many sounds for the letter G. The call to prayer doesn’t warble across the chimneys, the meat isn’t slaughtered according to Islamic tradition, and finding a glass of strong tea is difficult amid the clatter of lattes and espressos.

“Life is so upside down. I am at zero,” said Lutfi, one of hundreds of Iraqi refugees attempting to build a new life in Uppsala. “I am learning the ABCs of a new language. I can’t show anything to anybody here. I keep it inside. And when I go for a walk and there’s no one around, I cry and show my nervousness and regret only to myself.”

Leaving families and unrelenting sectarian violence behind, they are photographed and fingerprinted, their lives slipped into folders too slim to hold all that’s been endured. They wonder about reinvention. They wrestle with the mundane and the epic, sharing tips on where to get a cheap dress and how to find the Turkish vendor at the edge of town whose vegetables are nearly fresh and not too expensive.

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“We have safety and freedom here, but our tradition differs so much from the Swedes’,” said Amer Mazin, a Palestinian born in Baghdad, who paid a smuggler $13,500 and arrived here in December. “From my balcony, I can see into other balconies. I see a man in an apartment living by himself, and on the balcony next to his a woman is living by herself. They don’t believe in marriage like we do, they don’t believe in family. My language teacher tells me he has a dog and doesn’t need a child. It seems strange.”

This is life adrift. More than 2 million Iraqis have fled their homeland since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Most are living in Syria, Jordan and other Middle Eastern nations. Now, a growing number are heading toward Europe, especially Sweden, which for decades has offered refugees and asylum seekers government aid and generous family reunification plans. Nearly 9,000 Iraqis, more than half of all those who arrived in Europe from the war-torn country in 2006, made their way to Sweden. European officials estimate that as many as 40,000 more Iraqis may reach the continent this year.

Since the overthrow of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, the United States has taken in 466 Iraqi refugees. Washington has been reluctant to accept them for fear that doing so would run counter to U.S. policy to one day return them to a secure Iraq. There also have been concerns about mistakenly granting asylum to militants.

Increased violence in Iraq and criticism by human rights groups, however, appeared to have prompted the White House to announce in February that the United States would accept as many as 7,000 Iraqi refugees by the end of this year.

The Bush administration has pledged $18 million -- a sum the U.S. military spends in Iraq in less than two hours -- to United Nations relief efforts for Iraqi refugees this year.

In comments on the crisis, Bill Frelick, refugee policy director at New York-based Human Rights Watch, said, “Washington is spending about $2 billion per week on the war in Iraq, but has barely begun to address the human fallout from the war.”

Paying smugglers as much as $15,000 per person, Iraqi refugees bound for Europe travel with doctored papers and forged passports from different countries. They spend weeks or months waiting in Jordan or Turkey before being hidden in cars and trucks and driven by circuitous routes across the continent. The lucky among them board planes in Amman, the Jordanian capital, or Istanbul, Turkey’s main city, and land in Stockholm, where they turn themselves in to immigration officials and apply for asylum.

They have escaped war’s devastation, and now must navigate the confusing idiosyncrasies of new countries. In Uppsala, a university city threaded by a river, Iraqis attend language classes below a downtown church steeple and then ride buses to neighborhoods such as Gottsunda, where they wear secondhand clothes and live in boxy brick apartment buildings like the refugees who arrived after the 1991 Persian Gulf War and conflicts in Africa and the Balkans.

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A family’s diaspora

Mazin feels like just another name on a list. His wife and four children remain behind in a Syrian refugee camp. War has killed or scattered everyone close to him: His mother and a sister are in Baghdad, a brother is in a holding center on the Iraq-Syria border, two sisters are stuck in Syria, another brother and a sister are in Jordan, and one sister made it to Canada.

All this happened after June 20, 2005, when a third brother was shot and killed in the family’s electrical contracting shop in Baghdad.

Wearing an ironed shirt and a beige jacket, Mazin totes a nylon bag full of papers. He seems like a man going to work, but there is no work for him, not until he learns Swedish. He is awaiting his residency permit and permission to bring his family to Uppsala, which has a population of 180,000 and is about 45 miles northwest of Stockholm. Like other refugees from Iraq, Mazin, who lives with a group of men who have fled Iraq since 2003, receives a monthly bus pass and just under $10 a day from the Swedish government.

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“I’d like to start a heating and cooling business,” said Mazin, who prays in his bedroom because there is no mosque in his neighborhood. “But mainly I just want to get my family and live in peace. It’s hard to concentrate on learning a new language when I worry about them. I know Iraq is going from bad to worse. It will split along sectarian lines. There’s no solution. But my passion and my heart are there.”

Emad Abbass has the busy hands of a man who doesn’t sleep. His wife, 4-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter are still in Baghdad. A chemical engineer, Abbass was at a training seminar in Austria in January when a friend of his was killed by militants. The man was one of two engineers and six electricians slain within two months at the power plant where Abbass worked for the Iraqi Ministry of Electricity.

“My wife and mother insisted that I not come back to Iraq,” said Abbass, a Shiite Muslim. “I think about my friend who died. He had two daughters. What will happen to them now? What would happen if I died? My uncle was also killed by Al Qaeda while working at the Dora power station in Baghdad. I collected his body from the morgue.

“No one should have to see the things in that morgue. Have you been? I saw they made one man like a shish kebab, running a pole through him.”

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Abbass and his wife can’t afford phone calls from Uppsala to Baghdad. They keep in touch through e-mail, but there is so much left unsaid that way, and Abbass doesn’t like what he imagines when he fills in the gaps. He has talked to a psychologist, but he wonders how anyone from a country like this can understand a country like his.

“No country has suffered like Iraq. I lost many relatives in all my country’s wars,” he said.

“It’s really not for us anymore. It’s for our children. I miss the oranges in Iraq. They are always sweet.”

He paused, catching himself, not wanting to appear ungrateful.

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“I’m thankful to the Swedish people,” he said. “They are compassionate. They follow the things Jesus taught. They let a man be human.”

Another kind of loss

Haitham Hiti and his family fled Iraq in December, traveling to Istanbul, where they paid a smuggler $50,000.

“He put us in buses and trucks with no windows and we didn’t know where we were, what countries we were crossing into from day to night,” said Hiti, a mechanical engineer and a Sunni Muslim. “It took 12 days of traveling and hiding, and then a guy told us, ‘Now you’re in Sweden.’ He gave me a telephone and I called my brother who left Iraq eight years ago and works in a lab in Uppsala.”

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Shortly after he and his family arrived here, Hiti’s wife slipped on the ice and suffered a broken leg; a new danger in a new country, but a tolerable one compared with the carjackings, school bombings and extortion and death threats the family encountered in Iraq. Hiti owned a construction company; he and his wife and three children once lived in a house in Baghdad with bodyguards and cooks and other servants.

“Sometimes I say to myself, ‘Why did you leave Iraq?’ ” he said, stroking his mustache and brushing his jacket, the motions of a refined man caught in unexpected circumstances. “I can’t walk in the garden at my house. I can’t see my neighbors. This is now my country. They tell me it takes a year to recover from this loss.”

Mariam Lutfi, a dentist, would like to be in her garden too, smelling the scents that no longer linger in the few clothes she brought from Iraq. Her gold was stolen. Her money is gone. A Christian, she was harassed by Shiite militants for not wearing a head scarf. Other things must now be done. She knows the Uppsala bus schedule, where to get a deal on linens and how, sometimes, “Swedes give us strange faces when they see our dark features.”

But she remembers the viciousness of Iraq and the day she fled: “When the gunmen kill they drop the dead in different Baghdad neighborhoods, so each morning there are so many strange things to see. My bodyguard said he couldn’t protect me anymore. Four men in black came. One of them held a pistol to my head and told me never to come back to my clinic. I left Iraq on Nov. 27.”

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On her journey to Sweden, she traveled in a car with a smuggler she didn’t know. “We went through Italy, France, Germany and Denmark,” she said. “I had no passport. I felt no trust. When we stopped so I could go to the toilet at a rest stop I was scared I would be left behind. I lost my voice out of fear.”

She wants to practice dentistry again, but the Swedish language has sounds she’s struggling to form. That’s when she feels all balled up, but she can’t tell her brother, who escaped Iraq in 1991 and settled here, because he is sharing his house with her and wants her to feel at home.

But home is not this city surrounded by pine trees and forests; it is still behind a courtyard wall on a dangerous street at the edge of the desert.

jeffrey.fleishman@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Julian E. Barnes in Washington contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Nordic haven

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Iraqis in growing numbers are heading to Swedish cities such as Uppsala to seek refuge. The percentage of Iraqi applicants granted refugee status or another form of protection in 2006:

*--* Sweden 91% Ireland 81 Cyprus 80 Austria 74 Norway 56 Romania 47 Netherlands 25 Switzerland 16 Belgium 13 Britain 12 Germany 11

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Mostly Iraqi

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Iraqis were the largest group among those seeking asylum in Sweden in 2006:

*--* Iraqi 8,951 Serbian/Montenegrin 2,000 Somalian 1,066 Stateless 815 Russian 755

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Seeking Sweden

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And among Iraqis searching for asylum, Sweden was by far the most popular European country:

*--* Sweden 8,951 Netherlands 2,766 Germany 2,065 Greece 1,415 Britain 1,305

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Source: Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees

Graphics reporting by Tom Reinken


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