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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 Karin RivesContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / June 4, 2007


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.

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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.

"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.


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."