Rise of asylum seekers
The rise of asylum seekers began in the 1980s when Sweden saw some of its highest immigration from countries like Iran and Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Eritrea and Somalia, as well as South American countries with repressive regimes.
Today, some 45,000 people with Chilean background reside in Sweden, following the refugee waves caused by Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship of Chile during 1973–1990. Relatively few returned to Chile after Pinochet was ousted from power in 1990, and today Sweden is home to the third largest Chilean community outside of Chile, after Argentina and the US.
In September 1980, Iraq launched an attack on Iran that marked the start of a bloody eight-year war between the two countries. The war ended up costing hundreds of thousands of lives on both sides.
From 1980 through 1989, nearly 7,000 people from Iraq and 27,000 from Iran received residence permits in Sweden as refugees according to the Geneva Convention. The US-led invasion of Iraq, which started in 2003, led to yet another wave of Iraqis migrating to Sweden.
Wars in former Yugoslavia
The 1990s brought massive immigration from former Yugoslavia during the ethnic cleansing wars with over 100,000 Bosnians being granted asylum in Sweden alongside 3,600 Kosovo Albanians.
Between 1991 and 1999, a series of military conflicts occurred on the Balkans, causing massive bloodshed and severe economic damage in most of the former Yugoslav republics. The wars mostly resulted in peace accords, and several new states were formed.
Vildana Aganović, war refugee
Meet Vildana Aganović. She is an established freelance journalist living in Borås, a city in the south-west of Sweden that she now calls home. A lot has happened since she first arrived in Sweden with her family in 1992, as a teenage refugee from the Bosnian War.
‘The plan was to go back to Bosnia as soon as we could,’ Vildana says. ‘We never believed that the war would last for such a long time. And now, more than twenty years later, I am still here.’
She was born in 1978 in the city of Goražde, now part of Bosnia and Herzegovina. During the Bosnian War in the wake of the breakup of Yugoslavia, Goražde was one of six enclaves surrounded and besieged by the Bosnian Serb Army, with routine attacks on the civilian population. Vildana left in April 1992 under great duress, but in time before the bombing of the city.
‘We left before I had to see exploding grenades and bombings that came later. For me it was more psychological, imagining all the horrible things you as a child associate with the word war.’
Fled to Montenegro
She remembers her exit from Goražde as swift and unexpected. ‘My older sister, younger brother and I got a call from our father who said that we only had ten minutes to meet some guys, get into their car and leave,’ Vildana says.
Terrified, she had no idea who the men were or where they were taking her. She understood later on that it had been her parents’ only choice to get her and her siblings out of the city in time. The men took them to Montenegro – still a part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia at the time – where her parents joined them a few days later.
‘In Montenegro, the police were known to arrest Muslims and bring them to the Bosnian Serb Army, so we were still not safe and continued to flee into Macedonia.’
Macedonia, having seceded from Yugoslavia in 1991, was safer, but her family wanted to flee the region altogether and continued all the way to Turkey. By June that same year, relatives already in Sweden were able to send them plane tickets from Turkey to Stockholm.
Learnt Swedish quickly
In Sweden, they lived in different refugee camps and had short stints in the small northern towns of Gällö and Ånge before May 1993, when they moved to Borås where Vildana’s uncle and his family already lived.
Integration came easier to Vildana compared with many other refugees, not least because she was relatively young and picked up the language quickly. ‘It took me just a few months to learn Swedish and then I took it from there,’ she says.
After completing Swedish high school, she studied journalism at a local Folkhögskola, a form of adult education institution common in Sweden. She got her journalism degree in 2001, after which she spent a year in Bosnia to reconnect with her roots.
Fights for equality
Today, she works as a full-time freelance journalist covering complex topics that are close to her heart, like tolerance and equality.
‘I try to give my point of view and what to do about racism, the importance of acknowledging that it exists today in order to be able to do something about it,’ Vildana says. ‘I feel it is my responsibility to write about it. The moment we stop talking about things that are tearing our society apart, that is the moment when bad things will win.’
‘I am proud to be part of a country that gives shelter to those in need.’
She has considered Sweden her home for a long time and feels that it’s important to show what Sweden has always been about – freedom and democracy for all. ‘The beauty of it is that I feel I have the freedom and power to fight for equality for all the people living here,’ Vildana says. ‘But most of all, I am proud to be part of a country that gives shelter to those in need.’
Still, the heavy sadness Vildana feels about leaving her home has never left her and she thinks about it often.
‘It’s a big difference leaving a country by choice. Like many other Bosnian families, we were forced to leave our homes, friends and whole lives,’ Vildana says. ‘When I think about it now, I still cannot believe I lived through such a horrible thing. Before the war, I lived the same way as any Swedish child, with all the same opportunities as children here.’
Vildana Aganović was interviewed by Lola Akinmade Åkerström.
Video: Dima, war refugee
Quick facts about Dima:
- Age: 18 years
- From: Iraq
- Came to Sweden: In 2009, with her family
The film about Dima is a part of the project ‘Homestead – somewhere in Sweden’, by ROT produktion: nagonstansisverige.se.
Kamran Assadzadeh, long-term resident
Meet Kamran Assadzadeh, an intensive care nurse at Karolinska University Hospital in Stockholm. Born in Iran in 1962, Kamran served two years of compulsory military service during the Iran–Iraq war, which granted him legal permission to leave Iran in 1985. Two years later, he came to Sweden.
‘My goal from day one was to get through military service to obtain my passport, to become free, move abroad and study,’ Kamran says.
The eight-year war and the regime of Ayatollah Khomeini were the main reasons Kamran left Iran.
To Sweden via France
During the war Kamran served as an armed guard in Iran’s capital, Tehran, tasked with observing bomber aircraft that left for Iraq. ‘I was lucky enough never to get sent to fight at the border, which was my main worry during the two years,’ he says. ‘If they had sent me to the border, I probably would have fled.’
As soon as he was cleared to leave the country, Kamran went to Toulouse, France, on a tourist visa to live with the sons of an old colleague of his father’s. He began studying literature, but when it was time to renew his visa, the French authorities wanted him to apply for a student visa from the French Embassy in Iran. Since that request was impossible to meet due to the ongoing war, he had to look into other alternatives.
‘I remember seeing all the snow from the aeroplane just before arriving at Arlanda Airport outside of Stockholm. It was in January and full-blown winter.’
‘A neighbour to my family in Tehran had told me about Sweden, that it was easier to integrate into the system to work and study there, but that I would have to learn the Swedish language first.’
In 1987 Kamran moved to Sweden alone as a refugee. ‘I remember seeing all the snow from the aeroplane just before arriving at Arlanda Airport outside of Stockholm. It was in January and full-blown winter,’ he says.
Surprised by egalitarian society
He was pleasantly surprised by the egalitarianism when he first arrived. ‘In Sweden, I couldn’t tell the rich from the workers straight off. The differences were less apparent. Sweden struck me as an idealistic country, with resources there for everyone in society. It wasn’t unthinkable that the king and a shop assistant could be roomed in the same hospital.’
Kamran took the neighbour’s advice to heart and took Swedish courses for immigrants. After four months in Sweden, he was granted permanent residency. ‘I was obviously relieved. It meant I could begin my studies and really plan for the future.’ He also found a job providing assistance and care to elderly at a geriatric clinic.
‘Most of the elderly I worked with couldn’t speak any language besides Swedish, so this forced me to learn Swedish quicker. Through this job I learned so much about the Swedish culture, history, food, and traditions like Midsummer, Christmas and Easter,’ Kamran says.
For roughly two years, he worked with the elderly in the evenings and on weekends while studying Swedish and English during the day.
Eventually, Kamran got comfortable enough with the Swedish language to study at university, and he enrolled at Uppsala University. He studied to become a nurse, an opportunity he says he never could have had if he had remained in Iran. ‘During the war, there were so many restrictions and the universities were closed.’
He spent three years studying general nursing and one additional year specialising in intensive care education in order to work as a specialist. He later went on to receive a master’s degree, and today he divides his time equally between training students and interns, and working in the intensive care unit.
Kamran says that integration into Swedish society came easily because he was proactive, which allowed him to get ahead in certain aspects.
‘I have always had a positive attitude and was able to quickly use my Farsi language skills to be an impromptu interpreter at work for Iranians who were having operations or who needed help translating medical terms.’
‘As I see it, if you yourself have decided to move somewhere, then it’s self-evident to learn the language and culture, to make an effort to fit into society, to contribute, and to want to vote.’
Still, Sweden in many aspects remains intriguing to him. ‘The culture is so different from my own that it is still exciting to learn new things every day,’ he says. ‘After all, I lived in Iran until I was 23, so part of me will always be very Iranian.’
Kamran lives with his partner, but his extended family still lives in Iran.
Kamran Assadzadeh was interviewed by Lola Akinmade Åkerström.