Started from Mesopotamia now we’re here: the Assyrian community who found a new home in Sweden
‘Now we’re entering Hollywood,’ says Afram Yakoub, the chairman of the Assyrian Federation of Sweden, as he drives into a small enclave of villas. Signposted as ‘Jenny Lidmans Stig’, the community is decorated with fountains and balconies that seem more befitting of the Mediterranean than an industrial city in Sweden.
The houses here were built by the Assyrians who’ve made it. That’s why we call it Hollywood,’ Yakoub explains. By contrast, a U-turn and five-minute drive will take you past a neat and colourful set of tower blocks, known as ‘the ghetto’ thanks to its large immigrant population. Although in reality, Yakoub says, ‘if you compare it to other ghettos in Europe, they would laugh and say this doesn’t look like a ghetto at all.’
This is Södertälje. A once distant spa town on the outskirts of Stockholm, Södertälje is now home to Scania AB (‘the world’s leading manufacturers of trucks and buses’) and the densest population of Assyrians per capita outside of the Middle East.
The Assyrians have been dealt a cruel hand by history over the last 100 years: an ancient Mesopotamian culture that traces its roots back to the 25th century BC, a kingdom that once ruled from Persia to Libya, and now found in Iraq, Syria, Turkey and an ever-growing diaspora.
In the early 1970s, Scania recruited Assyrians from Turkey to work as industrial workers and the initial wave of immigration has been followed by Armenian Christians, Modeans and Egyptian Copts over the decades, growing the city’s population to 30,000, an estimated figure that makes up 25 percent of Södertälje’s population.
‘It’s become a mini Jerusalem,’ says Yakoub.
It’s hard to find any physical similarities to Jerusalem during the 50-minute train ride to Södertälje from Stockholm Central Station – a commute that takes you past silvery lakes and slender white birch trees, a crystalline hoarfrost covering the car parks and rugged factories.
A brief walk around the city reveals it as typically Swedish, too: only the occasional ‘Habibi Café’ or exchange of Syriac greetings in the line at H&M indicate the shifting demographics among the cobbled streets and mobile libraries of its city centre.
Integration, assimilation and identity crisis are popular terms here, as is the word ‘reserved’, used by Assyrians to describe the welcoming yet contrasting way of life of their Swedish neighbours. Keen to give back to the local community and grasping the freedom they have found in Sweden with both hands, the Assyrians have left their mark on city society: Scania is now the sponsor of Assyriska FF, one of Södertälje’s two Assyrian-led football teams, a signifier of a community that has grown over the decades to include Assyrian churches, multiple television stations and the only Assyrian language school in Europe.
10:00am – Assyrian Federation of Sweden
‘It’s a very special job. You have to be a psychologist. You have to be good at negotiating, at marketing and journalism,’ says Afram Yakoub during a tour of the Assyrian Federation of Sweden’s extensive headquarters in Södertälje. ‘This is one of our rooms. We also use it for weddings,’ he says, opening the door to a plush banquet hall.
Like many of the residents of Södertälje, Yakoub was born in Al-Qamishli, a once predominantly Assyrian community on the Syrian border of Turkey. After relocating to Sweden as a young boy with his mother and father, he used to visit the federation ‘for a little bit of table tennis’ and, after stints as a journalist, is now the heartfelt leader of his community, a role that varies from developing employment programmes with the Stockholm municipality to publishing Assyrian history books to giving tours to visiting journalists.
‘We have a great archive as well,’ the chairman says, placing a large photo album next to a bowl of småkakor on the coffee table in the federation office. ‘This is from the summer camps of the 1980s,’ he says, flicking through. The office is full of Assyrian minutiae: a coffee cup with the Assyrian flag, a framed photograph of the local football team, and binders full of Hujådå – the federation’s own magazine.
‘Hujådå means union, or unity. It was printed in Swedish, Assyrian, Arabic and Turkish and distributed in the Middle East. Although it used to be seen as a separatist magazine in Iraq and Syria, we’d find a way to smuggle it in,’ Yakoub smiles. ‘Now we just print it in Swedish – there’s a couple of pages in Assyrian, though, as a symbol.’
The federation’s publishing wing, Tigris Press, is one of its most impressive endeavours.
Dr Svante Lundgren, a Finnish academic and theologian who joined the federation’s team earlier this year, oversees Tigris’ latest books: a debut novel by a young Assyrian writer, children’s books and his own history book, ‘The Time of the Sword’.
‘The Assyrians in Swedn are some of the most patriotic people you can find, they love Sweden much more than Swedes do,’ Lundgren says, commenting on the work of the federation, as well as the mix of Assyrian and Swedish in Södertälje. ‘The community really appreciates the freedom they’ve found here.’
12:30pm – Elafskolan
Villa Bellevue is a traditional Swedish summer-house: neatly painted wooden slats, arched window frames, a small white stoop decorated with latticework.
Built in 1873, its elegant rooms are now home to the only Assyrian school in Europe. Elafskolan opened three years ago with a bilingual programme of Assyrian and Swedish – a curriculum that, as headmaster Shabo Rhawi explains, is built to encourage integration, not segregation.
‘These children are growing up in two cultures. There’s an identity crisis going on – are they Assyrian or are they Swedish? Here, our aim is to teach them that they’re both,’ says Rhawi, who also teaches math and is clearly popular among the school’s 101 pupils, who call him ‘Shabo, Shabo’ as he walks through the school corridors. ‘Math is my favourite lesson,’ says Sima Iskander, aged 13. ‘This school is much better than my last one.’
Rhawi speaks passionately of the Assyrian contribution to Swedish society, which is most evident in Södertälje. ‘The immigrants in the 1970s came here as working people, so they always had a sense that being here meant working,’ he says. ‘The community has no intention of becoming autonomous – we want to be a part of Swedish society, so we can all work together.’
Extra hours are given to Swedish lessons on the school’s curriculum, which is taught in tandem with ‘the mother tongue.’ A neo-Aramaic language, the dialect is increasingly threatened as the Assyrian population finds itself assimilating into other cultures. ‘It’s like Swedish – it’s just not useful outside of Sweden,’ Rhawi laughs, explaining the history and difficulties of the language.
‘There’s a difference between how you speak Assyrian and how you read it, so actually it’s two different languages. It’s even difficult for me! I understand the letters but I don’t always know what they mean, and the vocabulary hasn’t been updated.’
Modern technology has made things easier though – students can download an app-version of the ancient Mesopotamian tale ‘The Grandma & The Fox’, or read Pippi Longstocking in Assyrian, published by Tigris Press and the headmaster praises Assyrian for its metaphorical tempo. ‘We used metaphors to help transfer information from one generation to another, it was a way of coding the language.’
2:00pm – St. Jacob of Nsibin Syriac Orthodox Cathedral
Every Sunday, crowds gather in Södertälje’s numerous churches: there’s the St. Jacob of Nsibin Syriac Orthodox Cathedral, the Mar Mina Coptic Orthodox Church, the St. Maria Syriac Orthodox Church and many others.
‘There are quite a lot of churches here, divided into the different segments,’ says Isak Betsimon, a local risk analyst and frequent churchgoer, explaining the denominational differences between the ‘roughly 30’ Assyrian churches in Sweden, around 15 of which belong to the Assyrian Church of the East.
‘The churches have a very significant role in the community, even though secularism has grown,’ he says. ‘It’s a traditional institute – even for the non-religious – and it particularly helps new arrivals by giving them a comfort zone and place to interact with people. They can find assistance for anything they need.’
A ‘Church of the East’, the Assyrian Church dates back to the beginning of the spread of Christianity in the Mesopotamian region and has since split into various archdioceses and dioceses throughout the Middle East, and now the Assyrian diaspora, too. ‘The first church had a significant role in the early days, before the other religions came. At the time it was even bigger than the Catholic Church. But now it’s more connected to the ethnicities,’ says Betsimon.
The Södertälje services still take place in the Assyrian or Syriac language and the St. Jacob of Nsibin Syriac Orthodox Cathedral, across the car park from the Assyrian Federation’s headquarters, is as proud of its Christian roots as the Assyrians’ ancient and pre-Christian heritage: a huge copy of a relief of a hunting scene from 645-635 BC – originally made for the Nineveh palace of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal and now in the British Museum – hangs on the walls of one of its function rooms.
5:00pm – Assyrian TV
‘Everybody’s thinking about what’s happening abroad,’ says Senharib Sado, a member of the Assyria TV team, who moved from Syria to Sweden 35 years ago. Also a local poet, his language is precise as he describes the role that the television station, a one-room studio that broadcasts documentaries, interviews and news via its website, has in representing the concerns of the Assyrian community.
It recently aired a discussion on the proposed plan to build Assyrian schools in four cities in Sweden. ‘But right now, about 50 percent of our programmes are about politics,’ Sado says, with some regret. The station is manned by two full-time members of staff as well as a network of Assyrian volunteers.
‘We get used as a news source for Assyrian issues in the Middle East and Europe – Swedish reporters are always calling us, asking us what’s going on there.’ They also bring Swedish politicians into the studio; previous interviewees have included Prime Minister Stefan Löfvén.
Supported by the Assyrian Federation, this is not the only Assyrian television station in Södertälje. There’s also a Suroyo TV, which carries the slogan ‘The Satellite Dish that Unites Us!’ and broadcasts in Arabic, Turkish, English, but mostly Syriac and Swedish. Suroyo SAT, a Syriac-language channel which celebrated its 10th anniversary this year, broadcasts to 82 countries around the world.
But Sado says the competition is friendly: ‘We all stay in touch with each other – we all have viewers around the world.
7:00pm – Assyriska Fotbollsföreningen
Ninous Toma remembers watching Assyriska FF on television as a teenager: ‘It was around 1991 – a whole documentary about the football team and how Assyriska is a part of Sweden.’ Today, Toma is the president of Assyriska FF’s youth teams, standing for a portrait next to the club’s trophy cabinet.
Founded in 1972, the team is often referred to as ‘the unofficial national team of Assyria’ although it’s a reputation Toma and his colleagues are keen to shake off. ‘We don’t want to be seen as an immigrant club – football is for everyone,’ Toma says. Although, as Dr Svante Lundgren from the Assyrian Federation points out, ‘the Assyrians watch football, the Swedes watch ice hockey.’
One of Assyriska FF’s most famous players is Ghassan Raouf Hamed, who played for Iraq’s national team before defecting to Romania while on tour. A few years later, he was visiting his twin brother in Sweden when Assyriska FF came calling.
‘They invited me to play and after one session they offered me a contract,’ Hamed says, sitting in the Assyriska offices, reminiscing over the club’s glory days in the 1990s, in which he helped push Assyriska from a third division Assyrian-speaking club to a first-division finalist in the Swedish Cup. After a brief stint in Tunisia and a return to Baghdad, Hamed is now a coach at Assyriska. ‘I like the culture of the team,’ he smiles, ‘that’s why I stay here.’
Assyriska FF takes its ‘football is for everyone’ motto seriously. Its unique history attracts fans from as far as Puerto Rico and Japan, and the team gives back to its community with a number of initiatives. ‘We’re the only club that I know, at least in Sweden, that’s engaged in so many projects,’ says Toma, as he runs through a brochure that ranges from summer camps for children of single mothers to a youth team especially for new arrivals from Iraq and Syria. ‘Football helps with some of the difficulties they’re facing,’ he says.