Quiet librarian and outspoken Syrian artist form unlikely bond
MALMÖ, Sweden – Alqumit Alhamad is Syrian, Muslim and gay. He arrived in Sweden on a snowy day last February with a small backpack containing a change of clothes, some art supplies and CDs of Lady Gaga, Björk and Barbra Streisand.
"Guards across Europe always looked at me weird when they searched my bag," he said. "But I don't care. I can't live without my music."
The 24-year-old artist fled Raqqa, in northern Syria, in 2012 when extremists made the city their headquarters. Alqumit and his family went first to the port of Latakia, and he commuted to Aleppo to finish university. After missiles landed on campus he fled to Turkey, then to Europe via Greece in November 2015.
When he arrived in Sweden, he stayed at an LGBT certified camp in Västerås. Three months later, he met Linnea Tell through a friend and an organization called Refugees Welcome, which helps connect refugees with local hosts. The two hit it off, and Linnea invited him to stay with her and her nine-year-old son, Vidar, in Skurup, 38 kilometres from Malmö.
Alqumit moved in with her in May this year.
"I can't tell you how much my life changed and how free I feel," he said. "Every day I wake up and say ‘Oh my God, I am in Sweden’. It's magical. I can say what I like, do what I like. The people here, the support, the culture, the safety – it's a whole other world, especially for a gay person from the Arab world."
"I can't tell you how much my life changed and how free I feel."
Alqumit and Linnea have formed an unlikely friendship. He is flamboyant and she is quiet. Linnea is studying for a master's degree in library and information science at Lund University and working part-time as a librarian.
The two spend most evenings together after Linnea finishes work, studying and putting her son to bed.
"She has her green tea and I make my dark Arabic tea and we talk. We talk about everything – our ex-boyfriends, our families, our work," Alqumit said. "She is like an older sister. When I go on dates, she takes down the guy's name and number just in case."
Linnea, 29, said she always wanted to help with the refugee crisis but did not have time to volunteer. Offering her extra bedroom seemed like a simpler alternative.
"A friend told me she had someone perfect for me,” she said. “We Skyped and I instantly knew this would work because it was so easy to talk to him."
Alqumit uses art as a coping mechanism. He began sketching when the war started, and always includes butterflies. "For me, butterflies represent immortality and rebirth.”
Alqumit now speaks openly about the trauma he endured in Syria. He talks about how he was abused as a child, how a bomb killed his neighbour and he saw a dead body for the first time, how some of his friends were tortured by militants. Many homosexuals were thrown off buildings in his hometown, he said.
Now he is preparing for his next art exhibition, which will take place in Nyköping in May 2017.
This story is part of a series entitled No Stranger Place, which was developed and photographed by Aubrey Wade in partnership with UNHCR, profiling refugees and their hosts across Europe. One year on from the drowning of three-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi, thousands of people have come together to bridge cultural divides and language barriers, embracing compassion, hope and humanity – even as some European governments continue to build obstacles. Their generosity is an example to the world.