Sweden's Tolerance Is Tested By Tide Of Syrian Immigrants : Parallels One-third of the residents in the city of Sodertalje are from the Middle East, many of them recent arrivals from Syria. The influx is testing Sweden's liberal immigration policies.

Sweden's Tolerance Is Tested By Tide Of Syrian Immigrants

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Now let's remember the country that says, give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. It isn't the U.S., not when it comes to refugees from Syria. Of 2 million Syrians forced out of their country, few have made it to the U.S., or other Western nations, with one exception - Sweden. Joanna Kakissis traveled there.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Every afternoon, Father Ayoub Stefan leads prayers at Saint Gabriel's Syrian Orthodox Church in Sodertalje, a hilly, wooded city of factories and apartment blocks about 19 miles southwest of Stockholm. The priest moved here six years ago from Qamishli, a city in northeastern Syria. But in the last three years, as civil war tears apart his country, it seems like everyone in Qamishli wants to come to this Sodertalje.

FATHER AYOUB STEFAN: Now the Christians migrate from Syria. So many call to me on the telephone or by Facebook - help us to come to Sweden.

KAKISSIS: Another Syrian, Afram Yacoub, came to Sodertalje from Qamishli when Sweden began taking in waves of refugees in the 1970s.

AFRAM YACOUB: In the U.S., you always say that it's the land of dreams, yeah. I say it's actually Sweden. Here you can get an education from kindergarten up to university without paying one cent. Social welfare system is good. Generally, it's an open society with good values.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in foreign language).

KAKISSIS: Sodertalje has five Syrian Orthodox churches, two pro soccer teams and a TV channel. One-third of the city's population now hails from all around the Middle East, says city manager Martin Andreae.

MARTIN ANDREAE: Thirty-thousand out of 90,000. It's such a big group with the same background. And they come to one specific place. It makes a lot of effort to organize integration in a good way.

KAKISSIS: Integration begins with housing. And there's a huge shortage in Sweden. Refugees in Sodertalje crowd into small apartments with relatives and friends, says Mayor Boel Godner.

MAYOR BOEL GODNER: You will be staying with three or four other families. You will be living in basements or attics or in churches or anywhere.

KAKISSIS: Maria Sileu grew up in Sodertalje and likes how it's become a diverse city. She teaches Swedish to refugees. Her newest students are from Syria.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking Swedish).

MARIA SILEU: (Speaking Swedish).

KAKISSIS: She listens as one speaks in halting Swedish about the smugglers who brought him to Europe.

SILEU: Most difficulties for them to find places where they can use their Swedish. It's very difficult here because wherever they go, everybody here speaks Arabic. So even if the newcomer - they try to speak Swedish, they will meet people who speak Arabic.

KAKISSIS: Sweden's public employment service has only 26 percent of refugees find work after two years of language and job training. The rest survive on welfare, says Godner, Sodertalje's mayor.

SILEU: The question that has come up lately is, can the welfare system bear us all? What's going to happen to everyone who comes here? No one has given the answer to that yet.

KAKISSIS: In a speech this summer, former Prime Minister Frederik Reinfeldt asked Swedes to show tolerance to refugees, something that has defined this country for so many years. But he was voted out of office in September. An anti-immigrant party, the Sweden Democrats, won seats in parliament and helped bring down the government of the center-left prime minister this week. Still, Sodertalje takes pride in claiming that it welcomed more Iraqi refugees after the 2003 invasion than all of North America. Andreae, the city manager, chose to work here because he wants it to reflect Sweden's openness to the rest of the world.

ANDREAE: Because I like to think that the Swedes still are a very tolerant people, and I think we are. But of course, when you are challenged, when things are happening, that situation can move and it can move quite rapidly.

KAKISSIS: Sodertalje expects 2,000 more refugees by year's end. And next year, Sweden expects another 95,000 - a record. For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis.

INSKEEP: That story was reported with help from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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