High in the Swedish mountains, a hotel had opened its doors to refugees – but now it is time for them to leave.


in the Arctic


Words and photos

Cajsa Wikstrom

Riksgransen, Sweden

As a bus carrying refugees pulled up at this ski resort north of the Arctic Circle, some of those on board refused to get off.

They had been on it for 16 hours, but when they finally reached their destination - in pitch darkness and pouring rain - the overwhelming feeling was one of disappointment.


“I felt that I was in the middle of nowhere,” says 23-year-old Laith Alashqar*, who fled Syria to avoid the compulsory military service he felt meant certain death.

An Arabic-speaking man who was already staying at the hotel-turned-asylum centre spoke to Alashqar and the others, explaining that tourists from around the world pay to come here and promising that it had much more to offer than they imagined.

Eventually, with encouragement from his brother, Alashqar decided to get off, carrying little more than the bed sheets he had been given by the Swedish Migration Agency.


A blessing in the mountains of Sweden

Four months later, the rain that greeted them on that night has turned to metre-deep snow, and Alashqar has come to realise how right the man who persuaded them to disembark was.


"When I saw my room I felt I was blessed. The staff were so nice. The food was amazing. And, most important of all, it was warm inside," he says.

Still, Alashqar was pretty accurate when he described it as being in the middle of nowhere.


As you climb above the Arctic Circle the forests grow sparser, the mountains balder and the towns and villages smaller.


Riksgransen is surrounded by snow-capped peaks and some of Sweden's best ski slopes. But, besides a supermarket and a handful of private holiday cabins, there is little else around. The nearest city, Kiruna, is a two-hour bus ride away.


The plan to send refugees here was formulated as a record number entered Sweden last year. When 140,000 people arrived in just four months, authorities cast the net far and wide to find housing. Nursing homes and shuttered military quarters were turned into asylum centres, and the Migration Agency struck deals with hotels and camp sites.


When the Riksgransen resort, 1,300km north of Stockholm, got a call in October asking if they would be willing to house some of the new arrivals, the management immediately said yes.


Transforming a hotel into an asylum centre

The facility is normally closed during the peak winter period, when temperatures dip below -30 degrees Celsius and the sun refuses to rise for a month of what is known as polar night.


But this season, asylum seekers of more than 20 nationalities have filled the resort’s rooms.


"We thought it was a chance to do something good, to do what we could to help in a desperate situation," says CEO Sven Kuldkepp, himself the son of refugees who came from Estonia by boat during World War II.

The hotel receives $40 per person per night from the Migration Agency to house the refugees, but this is significantly lower than its usual rates.


As about 600 asylum seekers arrived, the staff and their new guests came together to creatively make the best use of the hotel’s facilities.


The lobby became a natural meeting place, with groups of men playing cards and board games while others used the wifi to stay in touch with the loved ones they had left behind. The dance floor of the nightclub was turned into a football pitch for the children, while the grown-ups played pool. The conference facilities became classrooms for Swedish lessons.


Birgitta Forssell, an 81-year-old retired language teacher, contacted the municipality as soon as she heard that there was a need for teachers. She thought her experience of teaching Vietnamese refugee children in Malaysia during the 1980s gave her some useful skills.


Looking back at the past months, she says teaching the young refugees has been challenging but rewarding.

"We thought it was a chance to do something good, to do what we could to help in a desperate situation,"

"It was chaotic at the beginning, with small children not used to sitting still. It was tough, but it got better," Forssell says, adding that she observed a change in the emotional state of her pupils.


In the early days, the subjects of their pictures were dark. One child painted his family home being set on fire, with his mother still inside. But as time progressed, they started to draw mountains and snowmobiles.

There was also plenty of fun to be had outside for the children as they slid down slopes on plastic sledges and tried their hand at skiing.


For those unwilling to brave the cold, a refugee took on the role of instructor in the hotel's small gym. In the table tennis room, a boxer from Afghanistan hung up some punch bags and gave classes, while an Iranian woman who was a taekwondo champion back in her country taught the children some moves.


For those seeking stillness and religious solace there was the hotel's "quiet room", which was transformed into a mosque, with a Syrian refugee taking on the role of imam. The region’s extraordinary winter darkness forced the refugees to devise their own prayer schedule.


Next door, the spa became a clinic, with nurses doing their best to handle the numerous symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), from difficulty sleeping to nightmares. They also administered vitamin D drops to the children to counter the effects of a lack of sunlight.

Afraid for Sweden’s future

But it is not only the psychological scars of war that the refugees carry with them. They also come with bitter political divisions, echoing those that have torn their countries apart. This sometimes led to problems at Riksgransen, as well as in other asylum centres across Sweden.

When a Christmas party was organised, with the chef preparing traditional festive dishes, the celebrations had to be called off before the gifts could be distributed. A heated argument had broken out between some of the refugees. The police were called, but by the time they arrived, the fight was over.

Despite this, hotel CEO Kuldkepp says the atmosphere has been largely friendly. In fact, he adds, any problems have been minor when compared to those caused by guests who drink too much at the hotel’s after-ski parties. And, he asks, could Swedes of different backgrounds, opinions - or even footballing loyalties - live together under the same roof without the occasional conflict?


Aside from some hateful anonymous emails, Kuldkepp says the decision to take in refugees has been positively received.


When a call for winter clothing was published in the regional newspaper, the hotel was inundated with donations. Some Norwegians even drove across the border to deliver carloads of gear.

But Forssell, the Swedish teacher, sounds a note of caution. While the refugees were welcomed here, she is worried about the atmosphere elsewhere in the country as the far-right Sweden Democrats party makes gains. It garnered 13 percent of the votes in the 2014 election and a January poll suggested it is now Sweden’s second most popular party, at 22 percent.


"I am afraid of the future because of all the votes they are getting,” Forssell says. “I am more afraid of the Swedish people than the refugees.”

A bullet to the face


In the hotel restaurant, where three meals are served daily, Abdul Hakim from Afghanistan is drinking his morning coffee. He says many of the asylum seekers have heard about hardening attitudes towards refugees and are worried.


Hakim is not confident that he will get to stay, and says he fears for his life if he is sent back.


"I was working as a translator with foreign companies and if you do that in Afghanistan, the Taliban thinks you're an infidel, an enemy. And if you're an infidel, they'll kill you," he says.

“I am more afraid of the Swedish people than the refugees.”

Hakim recalls the time Taliban fighters opened fire on him and his brother. He did not get hurt, but his brother was hit in the face.


"It ruined my relationship with my brother. He said 'you're the one who has a job and get money, and I'm the one who took the bullet’.” A single tear rolls down Hakim’s cheek as he remembers it.


He is afraid that the Sweden Democrats will eventually come to power, and set about drastically decreasing immigration.


"I'm worried that our papers will take so long to be processed that when there's finally a decision, the Sweden Democrats will be in charge and kick us out,” he says.


The time it takes to process asylum claims now averages nine months, but the authorities have warned that with the high number of cases pending, the wait could become much longer.


‘Syria in my heart’

For those waiting in Riksgransen, time has come to move on. The skiing season is about to start and the hotel will, once again, begin to accommodate tourists.

So, the refugees are being transferred in busses to towns further south.

Group pictures are taken and tearful farewells exchanged as those who have spent months together prepare to go their separate ways.


But Alashqar is not leaving. He will be working at the resort during the skiing season.


He looks back on his first four months in the Arctic as a time of laughter and friendship - with other refugees and with Swedes.

Still, no matter how much he likes his new life in Sweden, he says that if peace and stability return to Syria, he will be among the first to head back.

“My home is Syria,” he says. “It’s in my heart.”

Refugees in the Arctic

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Words and photos

Cajsa Wikstrom

Video footage

Alina  Gracheva

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