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Syrian refugees open for business in Sweden

Damascus neighbors braved the dangerous journey from Syria, Swedish bureaucracy and local tensions to start a new business. Now they need their reboot of the family craft to thrive, reports Richard Orange from Malmö.

Mohannad Sabbagh deftly whips a copper scoop into the rotating cauldron in front of him, pulling it out loaded with hot salt. "My body is a thermometer!" he grins as he dabs his palm lightly on the surface. "My hand is what measures the temperature."

Sabbagh, 20, has been roasting cashews, pistachios, chick peas, and melon seeds in exactly this way ever since his father sent him out aged 12 to work at the family roastery near Bab Touma gate in Damascus's old city. 

The cauldron, heated by a dull diesel flame, is not so different from the one his great-grandfather used back in 1913 when he launched his roastery, a Damascus institution that is still going strong today.

But we are not in Syria. We are in a drab industrial estate on a cold, wet January morning in Malmö, the city in Sweden to which Sabbagh and his brother Moumen fled in December and October 2015 respectively, during the last wave of Europe's refugee crisis.

Together with their old Damascus neighbors Jehad and Mamoun Abo Rokba, the brothers hope to bring a taste of home to the 112,000 Syrians who have fled to Sweden since civil war began five years ago. 

"The Syrians love it! It's like their dream shop has opened," Sabbagh says of Delicious Rosteri, which opened three weeks ago in Möllevaangen Square, the center of the city's immigrant population, with a dabka folk dance featuring bagpipes and tambourines. 

Lavishly decorated with gold cladding, the shop sells more than 90 varieties of nuts from its wooden drawers. 

"Whoever knows it from Damascus, they will come on the basis of the name. The flavor is known, it's like a franchise, like IKEA," Sabbagh jokes.  

The brothers also hope to serve the rest of the city's Arab population, and even lure in the occasional Swede.

Spurred on by suffering

Back at the factory, Sabbagh pokes his nose over the cauldron and smells the now half-roasted chickpeas, an expression of exaggerated delight spreading over his face. 

"It's not the flame that roasts the nuts, it's the hot salt," he explains enthusiastically, "because the seeds will burn if exposed to raw flame or hot metal." 

The roasting machine, the four spinning barrels used to flavor the nuts, the copper scoop, even the rubber baskets made from old car tires, everything has been shipped from Syria by his father. 

Watch video 04:52

Yesterday a refugee, today an entrepreneur

"All of the ways of making this roastery are 'old-school,' because we want the old taste to stay," he says. "We did consider new roasting techniques, but it lacks the flavor. We want it to taste the way it tasted 50 years ago." 

Once roasted, the nuts must be sold quickly to retain their flavor and nutritional value. Nuts which have sat in storage for months after being imported from Iraq or Egypt quickly absorb moisture and grow a patina of mould. 

It hasn't been easy. Sabbagh whistles and looks theatrically at the ceiling when asked about his month-long journey from Turkey, which began when the boat he joined to cross over to Greece began to sink into the cold December waters of the Aegean. 

He was rescued, and then arrested, before making the long overland journey to Sweden, all the time fearing that by the time he got here, the rules would have changed to prevent him from being able to stay. 

"But if it wasn't for this suffering we wouldn't have such motivation to start a business like this," he smiles. "It makes us appreciate it more."

The brothers and their partners are in a hurry. They rented premises and imported the machines within months of arriving in the city, only to discover that Sweden's authorities didn't look too kindly on burning diesel with an open flame in an enclosed space. 

Getting a license took a frustrating eight months and required installing an expensive ventilation system. 

When they went to Almi, a Swedish government bank which funds and advises immigrants starting small businesses, they were advised to give up. "They said 'your project isn't going to work,'" shrugs Mamoun Abo Rokba, who worked as a lawyer in Syria before fleeing three years ago, and now handles the business side."So I went straight back to the workshop and started to make it happen."

Local tensions

What Abo Rokba and the al-Sabbagh brothers have going for them is the backing of their prosperous Damascus families: The Sabbagh family owns five roasteries, while Abo Rokba's father runs a company importing medical equipment.

This is not unusual for Syrians in Sweden, who are often richer and better educated than the Iraqis who came in the wake of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  

The family behind the Jasmin al-Sham restaurant which opened in the middle of the city's main pedestrian street last April owned four paper tissue factories in the Syrian city of Homs. They spent hundreds of thousands of euros converting an old branch of Pizza Hut into a replica of a Damascene house.

But the perceived arrogance with which Malmö's newly arrived Syrians splash money around, and the attention-seeking dabka dances they arrange to launch new businesses, generate not a little resentment among established Arabs.  

"There is that sentiment," admits Abo Rokba. "You can feel it. They're not happy with whatever you started. People tend to forget that we didn't come here by choice. We were forced to leave Syria." 

Mohannad Sabbagh stands next to the nut roaster

Mohannad Sabbagh and his brother are carrying on a family tradition with Delicious Rosteri

But Syrians like him aren't willing to spend years living on benefits while they study Svenksa för Invandrare (SFI, Swedish for immigrants), the slow-moving language program which is the official first step to integration in Sweden. 

"Syrians don't like to stay at home and wait for things to happen," he says. "SFI doesn't get you a job. We don't want to be a burden, we want to be an active part of society." 

Abo Rokba has just come back from a business meeting in Austria where he discussed exporting his freshly roasted nuts. He has plans to set up another roastery in Berlin. He is thinking of adding freshly roasted Arabic coffee to the product line.

Back at the factory, Sabbagh inserts a metal bucket into the cauldron and chickpeas and salt begin to cascade down a ramp, the chickpeas into rubber baskets, and the salt falling through holes to floor to be used again. 

He scoops up a handful of the hot nuts and pours them into my hand. 

"You will taste the flavor of Sham now," he exclaims. "A taste of old Syria!"

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