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Seeking a home in Scandinavia

Peter Dahl September 13, 2015

As tens of thousands of people seek safety in Europe, the country that used to be the world's happiest has now become a no-go. DW's Peter Dahl followed a group of Syrians on the last leg of their arduous journey.

En route to Syria
Image: Peter Dahl

An air of exhaustion hangs like a heavy cloud over the train to Kiel, a pristine port city on Germany's northern tip. Sprinkles of autumn rain whirl through the passenger car's open window, diluting the smell of cold sweat. After weeks of tireless travels, Syrians are finally approaching their last stop. Behind them, homes left in ruins. On the horizon, a shivering silhouette of hope.

Ali (left in photo) shoots an apologetic smile across the corridor to the lady waiting to use the restroom. "Zada," he calls as he pounds his fist on the door, rushing his 9-year-old daughter, who has been in there for at least five minutes. Since the family boarded the train in Hamburg, the Syrian father of three has been doing his best not to attract attention. But his 5-year-old son is growing restless, and his wife is struggling to calm their crying baby in the compartment next door.

These days, however, it takes more than unruly children to peeve the German passengers on this northbound train. Many seem to have become accustomed to families like Ali's on their daily commute, doing their best to embody that new national virtue that Chancellor Angela Merkel thrust upon them almost overnight: flexibility. In an almost ceremonial gesture, several even give up their seats, usually booked days in advance, to allow the visibly weary the comfort of the cushy chair. To most Germans, this is uncharted territory, an emotional wilderness. But they're braving it with the pride and zeal of Renaissance explorers.

Two options

We arrive in Kiel, which in recent days has become one of the main arteries for refugees hoping to make the crossing to Scandinavia. Two ferries straddle the harbor: one headed for Gothenburg, Sweden, the other for the Norwegian capital, Oslo.

I run into Ali and his family down by the boardwalk. But they're not alone. This time, they're with Imad (center in photo) and Khaled (right), as well as three others who shake my hand politely but won't tell me their names - a ragtag group of young Syrian men who set out on their own over a month ago, but whose destinies have been bound together since the dirt roads of Turkey. Except for Khaled, whose cousin is waiting for him in Sweden, they all want to go to Norway, where most of them have relatives.

Norwegian tourists fresh off the boat look disoriented at the sight of the 10 Syrians climbing the stairs to the terminal. The men barely notice. They can barely contain their excitement at the thought of setting foot on the ferry and watching it set sail for a new beginning.

By now, they are all used to rejection, to being turned away, to not feeling welcome. Several of them tell me they have been spat at, taunted, and robbed. "Greece, no good; Macedonia, no good; Serbia, no good." Worst of all: Hungary, where they say they were threatened and extorted by police. Still, the frustration spilling across Ali's face is almost too much to bear when the woman at the ferry terminal politely refuses to sell them tickets: "Sorry, you do not have a valid visa."

They're left with only two options: staying in Germany or praying that they'll be allowed to board the ferry to Sweden. If the latter works, they'll have a decent shot at making it past the border and into Norway. If it fails, they'll have few choices but to apply for asylum in Germany. This would mean saying goodbye to their dream of reuniting with their families and having a strong network to help get them back on their feet.

'Denmark, no good'

What about going through Denmark? The country has a direct connection to Sweden. "Denmark, no good," they say.

Their reaction hardly comes as a surprise. In recent years, the tiny Scandinavian kingdom - long hailed as the "happiest country on earth" - has attracted attention for its increasing anti-migrant sentiment. When voters went to the polls three months ago, after a campaign that painted immigration as one of the biggest threats to the nation, the right-wing Danish People's Party secured more than a fifth of the seats in parliament, making it the nation's second biggest political force. Though the DPP refused to join a coalition, it is widely seen as wielding existential influence over the minority Liberal Party government. That has allowed the DPP to push for stinging cuts to welfare services for refugees and immigrants, culminating in a series of ads that ran in Lebanese newspapers earlier this week, warning potential immigrants against coming to the country.

Critics, including some of the country's leading entrepreneurs, caution that the government's policies could scare off much-needed talent. But the damage to the country's reputation appears to have been done. Already, many are avoiding the country altogether, following stories that they could be forced to register and fall subject to the country's comparably harsh asylum laws. This comes after several were detained on Wednesday at Padborg Station near the German border. Danish police have since announced that they would no longer stop refugees, but more and more are seeking to circumvent the country altogether.

Derailed before

Imad begins to breathe heavier with each step as we approach the Stena Line ferry to Gothenburg. While the strain of the past weeks runs like canyons through the other mens' faces, Imad's green eyes still gleam, his white smile flashing through his reddish beard. But even he can't mask his fear that this could be the end of the road.

It wouldn't be the first time for the 27-year-old from Damascus. Four years ago, he came close to living his dream, when he landed a good job in Gabon on the west coast of Central Africa. But, when his visa wasn't extended, he had no choice but to return home. By then, Syria was already ravaged by war, leaving no place for a man whose only wish is to find a job, start a family and live in peace. So, he set out on the perilous pursuit that leads through Turkey and across the waves of the Aegean Sea to the craggy coast of Greece. From there, he continued northward - sometimes by train, but mostly on foot - through Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Austria and Germany, hoping to soon become reunited with his sister, who fled to Oslo in 2012.

As we enter the terminal and get in line to buy tickets, he looks at me with a nervous smile, as if to say "At least we tried." I tell him everything's going to be fine, but instantly curse myself for being so nonchalant. What if it's not? Where will they go? What will they tell their families, who have been waiting all these years to finally see them again?

Imad and Ali cautiously approach the lady at the counter. "Six, Sweden," they say. Ali fidgets with his hip pack, which contains the passports. Behind him, his son is trying to scale the escalator. The saleswoman looks up and flashes a warm smile - she's already well-versed in the nation's newfound virtue.

Final crossing

Imad tears up as he reaches for his ticket. "Thank you."

He uses my phone to call his sister's husband, who promises to drive down from Oslo the next day to pick him up. Imad hands me the phone: "He wants to talk to you."

"Can you promise they'll let him cross?" he asks me. "His sister hasn't slept for days, you know," he says. "She's so anxious."

"The lady at the counter said that, as long as he's got his ticket, he'll be fine," I reply, realizing that Imad has spent every waking hour of these past weeks blindly trusting people because he's got no other choice.

That evening, Imad boards the ferry with nearly 200 other refugees. Just hours later, similar numbers. The next morning, his brother-in-law sends me a text with a picture of Imad's white smile flashing through his reddish beard: "On our way to Norway ... The others are fine, too."

Flüchtlinge Syrien Norwegen
Imad and his brother-in-law en route to NorwayImage: Peter Dahl