After fleeing conflict and struggling to get by in Lebanon, move to Sweden offers family of five the chance to resume their careers and education.
Hanan and Ali look through a family photo album together with their children Sara, Amina and Youmna. © Max-Michel Kolijn
Hanan and Ali arrived in Stockholm, Sweden, together with their three daughters on 4 May 2017. Two days later, it snowed.
Hanan, 34, and Ali, 40, laugh at the memory. “We have snow in Syria, but we never thought we would see snow in May! That was a shock.”
The family, originally from outside Damascus in Syria, was resettled to Sweden from Lebanon almost exactly four years ago through UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.
“We didn’t know that we were going to Sweden until 15 days before departure,” Ali explained. “We had an interview at the Swedish Embassy and they showed us a video about the country – on different types of accommodation, the school system, freedom, how state agencies function, and so on. It sounded good, but what we found when we came here was even better.”
The children – twins Sara and Amina, 9, and their younger sister Youmna, 7 – have led the way to becoming part of Swedish society. The family have met many of their new friends through the children’s classmates.
Sara and Amina, speaking in a Stockholm accent, explain that they are in class 2a at the local primary school, and that Youmna goes to a nearby preschool.
The family hopes to become Swedish citizens next year. Ali regularly trains with a weightlifting association and says he has a specific objective.
“As a Swedish citizen I’ll be able to compete in the Swedish Championships in weightlifting.” For now, he has his eyes set on the Paralympics.
Ali lost a leg in Syria when a bomb hit the school where he was working as an Arabic teacher.
The family fled to Lebanon, but access to healthcare was a challenge. “Life in Lebanon was very difficult. We worried a lot about the future,” Ali explained. In addition to not being able to access the medical treatment he required, the family could also not afford to send their daughters to school.
They considered making the dangerous journey through Turkey and across the sea to get to Europe, but it was impossible. Resettlement provided a lifeline.
Hanan, a trained biomedical scientist in Syria, is now working as an assistant nurse whilst continuing her studies. She plans to convert her Syrian qualification to be able to practice biomedicine in her new home. “It is a challenge! For my degree to be recognized, I need to study one additional year, reach a certain level of Swedish, and learn English. I think I will need to master Swedish before I move on to English.”
Her husband found a job at a local cooperative gym two years after their arrival, and now works there part-time alongside his main job as an assistant teacher. Through contacts at the primary school where he teaches, he has also started working as a translator of children’s books. “I love languages, and my dream is to become a translator,” Ali said.
Although the family is established in Stockholm, they are worried about what will happen when their lease ends next year. Due to the complex and competitive housing situation in Stockholm, the family has been advised to look for housing outside the capital. They hope that they will not need to relocate elsewhere in the country and start over again.
Hanan and her family are among the 333,600 individuals to have been resettled by UNHCR in the past five years.
UNHCR refers individuals and families for resettlement to third countries in cases where it is not possible to stay in the host country or to return home. Despite over 1.4 million people being in urgent need of resettlement, the number of refugees resettled in 2020 was the lowest in almost two decades at 22,700.
Sweden has been part of the resettlement programme since 1950 and welcomes around 5,000 resettled refugees per year.