A teen's flight from Iraq

Hesha Nari Saleh endures a harrowing 2,000-mile journey from war-torn Iraq to seek refuge in Sweden – alone.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

In late January, 17-year-old Hesha Nari Saleh left his home in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul and headed on foot for the Turkish border. He carried $4,000 in cash and a few belongings in his backpack.

His widowed mother had paid $15,000 to a smuggler who would guide her oldest son to the border and help him crawl under the barbed-wire fence into Turkey. Later, he hopped a freight truck that took him on a harrowing, three-day journey to Sweden, some 2,000 miles away.

During the trip, the Kurdish teen was locked in a trailer as dark as a coal mine with another Iraqi refugee whom he didn't know. He was given only crackers, water, a blanket, and a thin mattress. As the truck crossed the Mediterranean by boat to Italy and then headed north on land through Europe, Hesha began losing track of time.

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"I was scared, I thought I would die in there," recalls the teenager. "We sat in the dark with boxes and stuff all around us. We didn't know what country we were in or how long we'd been in there. The truck driver would sometimes yell back to us to make sure we were OK, but he didn't stop to let us out until we got to Sweden."

Hesha is one of a growing number of youths who are making the anguishing journey – often alone – from Iraq to Sweden in the hope of starting life over in a new land.

The Scandinavian country has become one of the top sanctuaries in the world for fleeing Iraqis because of its liberal refugee policies. Last year, Sweden received nearly 9,000 Iraqi refugees, three times as many as the year before. That made it the top destination outside the Middle East for those escaping the violence in Iraq.

But the sharp rise in the number of unaccompanied minors is posing a new challenge for this country of 9 million. During the first quarter of this year, 342 children like Hesha sought asylum – half from Iraq. The Swedish government expects as many as 1,500 more this year, most from the war-torn nation.

"We know that there are big networks in place, abroad and here in Sweden, that steer refugees to countries where they're likely to be accepted," says Sophia Öhvall Lindberg, an expert on child refugees at Migrationsverket, the government immigration authority. "Today, the vast majority of children who come here, between 80 and 90 percent, are allowed to stay."

The influx has taken Sweden by surprise, overwhelming social agencies and leaving hundreds of minors languishing in temporary shelters as they await word on whether they can stay. By the end of 2006, it took an average of five months to handle a child's asylum application – up from less than four months the year before, according to Save the Children Sweden.

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In Mosul late last year, many middle-class families were making plans to send their teenage sons abroad. Hesha says that he and his mother reasoned that "any place must be better than Iraq."

The man who organized the trip assured them that Hesha would be well taken care of. In the business of human smuggling, that is, of course, a relative concept. When the Turkish truck that carried the teen finally stopped in the southern Swedish port city of Malmö, the driver demanded more money before letting him out. Hesha paid him an additional 150 euros (about $200).

The trucker then took the teen to the train station, showed him where to buy a ticket for Stockholm – and left. Speaking no Swedish and very little English, Hesha found himself rolling north through the wintry countryside with only a vague idea of what would happen next. "I looked out the train window and thought, this is what Sweden looks like," he recalls. "It's neat and tidy, and there is snow. But most of all I felt relief. I knew I wasn't going to die."

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Sweden takes its job as a refuge seriously. It provides free housing, classes in Swedish, healthcare services, a $400 startup check, and a daily cash stipend of about $10 to those who settle here. The provisions for unaccompanied child refugees are even more extensive. They start with the state providing adult supervision and temporary guardians and, often, help with managing their own money for the first time.

"We also know that even if they're 17 now, our responsibility won't end when they turn 18," says Nils-Erik Färnbrink, refugee coordinator in Danderyd, a county northeast of Stockholm that recently announced it would accept five refugee children. "They must finish high school, they must have housing, and maybe other support."

The government recently raised its reimbursement to counties that take in refugees in the hope of getting the children out of shelters and into foster homes and group homes. But even those communities that have agreed to accept refugee children say it usually takes several months to line up homes and schools.

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At the bustling train station in downtown Stockholm where Hesha showed up Jan. 30, a stranger ignored his request in halting English for directions to the immigration office. Confused, the teen wandered around the cold city for several hours until he overheard a man speaking Kurdish and asked for help.

The man whisked him onto a subway train and took him straight to the immigration center. There, Hesha applied for asylum, becoming one of 59 unaccompanied Iraqi minors to do so that month.

He now lives with about 40 other children from half a dozen countries in a shelter in a rented section of a mental hospital south of Stockholm. The shelter was meant to serve as overnight accommodation for children who just arrived in the country. Instead it has turned into a long-term living arrangement for such teens as Hesha who have nowhere else to go.

On a recent day, a quiet group of Somali girls clad in colorful veils filled the dishwasher after breakfast. One of them reminded a young man from Afghanistan that it was his turn to vacuum the kitchen floor, which he did. "We work hard on gender equality here, even though it's tough sometimes to make these boys understand why we do it," says Tobias Kronqvist, deputy manager at the shelter. "They're in Sweden, now."

In the hallway, a cluster of Iraqi youths listened to music, like typical teenagers. At times, however, the children's frustrations rise to the surface: Staffers occasionally have to break up fights, and child psychologists have been called in to help teens who became depressed.

"There's a lot of pressure on these kids to make it here and to show their families that they pulled it off," Mr. Kronqvist says. "They've gotten away from the war, but they still have problems."

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Nearly four months after his arrival in Sweden, Hesha, too, is struggling to keep his spirits up. He is anxious to get out of the shelter. But he worries he will be placed in a town far from Stockholm's immigrant neighborhoods where he has already befriended some Kurds.

Looking older than his 17 years, Hesha is soft-spoken and polite. But he grows visibly tense when talking about the sacrifice his family made to send him to a safe place and about the uncertainty he faces now. "Not knowing what will happen," he says, "that's what's so difficult."

More than anything, he fears being sent back to Iraq. "There is no future for me there," he says. "All we have is war. Saddam was not good, but at least we could go to work, go to school, live normal lives."

Hesha attends a high school that recently began offering a Swedish language program for child refugees. His dream is to learn Swedish well enough to enroll in regular high school in the fall, and eventually become a doctor. Permanent residency would pave the way for his mother and 12-year-old brother to move here.

"I'm always thinking of my family," the teen says. "I wish I could bring everybody here. Then I wouldn't have to worry that someone will die."

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