Sweden has taken in more asylum seekers per capita than any other European country — 160,000 last year alone. Refugees are now part of the landscape, even in small towns. And nearly everybody, not just those working with aid groups, is encountering the newcomers.
In the southern town of Ronneby, Dagmar Nordberg is giving Waliullah Hafiz, who goes by Wali, Swedish lessons at her kitchen table. The 60-year-old Swedish museum director met this 23-year-old migrant from Kabul on a train platform in a nearby village on a freezing cold day last November.
“He was standing there in a T-shirt, with his jeans and his cotton shoes,” Nordberg recalls. “And I thought he was just one of these boys playing computer games all day long. And I’ve come to that age where I can say things, so I just passed him by and I said, ‘It’s winter!’ “
Hafiz says he had so many problems he couldn’t think about the weather. And besides, he didn’t own a jacket. Nordberg remembers he was so stressed that he was sweating, but he replied politely.
“He said, ‘I know, ma’am,'” she says. “That was the first time I heard Wali’s voice.”
Nordberg says she understood then that he was a lost refugee. And she could either go on with her life or help him. “I just knew I had this choice here and now, and whatever I do will have consequences,” she says.
Four months later, the two are having lunch in Nordberg’s cozy cabin in a southern Swedish forest next to the Baltic Sea. There is a whole fresh salmon and thick brown bread.
Hafiz holds a university degree in electrical engineering. Back in Kabul, he had a successful business with a contract to supply the Afghan army with propane gas canisters.
One day, the Taliban came and promised him a bigger house and a fancy car if he’d let them fill the army’s empty gas bottles. Hafiz says they wanted to turn those bottles into bombs and expected him to smuggle them back onto the base through the numerous checkpoints, using his security pass.
Hafiz refused. He breaks down as he tells the story of men coming to his house afterward and seeing his wife and newborn son and attacking him. He shows me a three-inch pink scar down the back of his head. He says one of the Taliban hit him with the butt of his Kalashnikov rifle and left him for dead.
When he awoke from a coma 13 days later, his mother told him he had to get out of Afghanistan.
“So there you have a young man, an educated electrician,” says Nordberg, “doing a good living, having a nice little family. And then, all of a sudden, his existence is blown to pieces.”
Hafiz, now living with other refugees in a town near Ronneby, wants to bring his wife and child to Sweden as soon as he can. Nordberg is helping him with his asylum application, but the process is slow because there are tens of thousands of applicants.
For now, Hafiz helps Nordberg with jobs around her property. He jokes that she is the only one who understands his English. But there’s another guest at lunch on this day — Jörgen Andersson, a forester. He clears trees in the surrounding forest using a horse, not a tractor, to pull the logs out one by one.
Hafiz has applied to be Andersson’s apprentice. If his application is accepted, the Swedish government will pay him to learn forestry.
Andersson says he never thought of taking an Afghan refugee as an apprentice — especially one who’d never been in a forest before — but he’s glad he can help. “I’m happy to do that,” he says. “If he feels better, I feel better.”
Hafiz says in Sweden, he finally feels like a human being again. Two weeks later, I learn that the Swedish government has approved his apprenticeship.