Seeking refuge in Sweden

July 2, 2014

Stockholm, Sweden

By Cathal McNaughton

Gaining the trust of asylum seekers I met in Sweden and taking pictures that would grab the viewer’s attention and convey the tremendous struggles and dangers they had faced was a challenge.

They were scared and suspicious and in most cases had family back in their homeland who were in danger.

As a photojournalist, the last thing I want to do is compromise someone’s life for a photograph, but I also needed to tell these people’s stories.

They wanted me to tell their stories too. Pictures speak a thousand words however, in this case, I needed people to read my subjects’ words.

Here we were at an asylum centre in the tranquil surroundings of a stately home deep in the Swedish countryside, yet these people had endured perilous journeys and paid smugglers thousands of euros to get here.

To protect their identities and to make the viewer engage I asked each individual to cover their face.

Taken against a backdrop of beautiful flora I think it resulted in a slightly unsettling group of portraits, which hopefully people will both study and read.

Oamayma A, 42, a French language teacher from Syria, covers her face to hide her identity as she poses for a photograph at an asylum camp outside Stockholm June 8, 2014. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

Oamayma A, a 42-year-old French language teacher from Syria, covers her face as she poses for a photograph at an asylum camp outside Stockholm.

It took Oamayma nine months to reach Sweden via Turkey then Greece.

She was cheated of 7,000 euros ($9,563) but eventually obtained a false French passport for 2,000 euros ($2,732), which she used to fly to Sweden.

When asked about her future she said, “There is no safety at home. My main priority is to get my daughter here as I fear she will be raped.”

Monther B, 47, a lawyer from Syria, covers his face to hide his identity as he poses for a photograph at an asylum camp outside Stockholm June 6, 2014. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

Monther B, a 47-year-old lawyer from Syria, paid smugglers 6,452 euros ($8,815) to get him to Sweden via Egypt, Turkey and Greece, before taking a flight with false identity documents.

He left Syria after he witnessed a friend being murdered by opposition forces, leaving his wife and two children behind. 

When asked about his future he said: “There is no future at home. I want to get my family here and secure my children’s education. They are in a very dangerous situation.”

 

Collins, 23, was smuggled out of Nigeria by a local priest after he was tortured by police for being homosexual.

When asked what his hopes for the future were Collins said: “I don’t want to be gay. I am an orphan and have nobody so I need to get a wife and have children so I can have a family.”

Syrian migrant Assaf, 44, who was head of security for a government minister, covers his face to hide his identity as he poses for a photograph at an asylum camp outside Stockholm June 8, 2014. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

Assaf, 44, a Syrian migrant who was head of security for a government minister, paid smugglers 8,000 euros ($10,931) to get to Sweden.

He travelled through the mountains to Turkey and by boat from Turkey to Greece along with dozens of others. He then travelled to Stockholm in a truck.

When asked about his future he said: “What future? I am in a foreign country with my family living in danger thousands of miles away. There is no future until they are here.”

Davlat, 19, from Tajikistan covers his face to hide his identity as he poses for a photograph in a church yard in central Stockholm June 8, 2014. Davlat was smuggled from his home via Russia four years ago where he was put on a boat to Sweden. His family feared he would be taken as a slave by a local money lender who threatened to kidnap him because his parents could not repay a debt. His parents have not been seen since and he fears they have been murdered. He lived in a small refugee camp outside Stockholm and currently works illegally in the hotel and construction industries to make money. When asked if he would like to return home he said " There is nothing left for me there, my family are dead. I haven't got a home anymore." Some 15 percent of Sweden's population is foreign born, the highest level in the Nordic region. Asylum seekers in particular are drawn by Sweden's robust economy and tradition of helping refugees. The country ranks fourth in the number of asylum seekers and second relative to its population out of 44 industrialised nations, according to U.N. figures. Picture taken June 8, 2014. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton (SWEDEN - Tags: SOCIETY IMMIGRATION POLITICS TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)

Davlat, a 19-year-old from Tajikistan, covers his face to hide his identity as he poses for a photograph in central Stockholm.

Davlat was smuggled from his home via Russia four years ago, and was then put on a boat to Sweden.

His family feared he would be taken as a slave by a local moneylender who threatened to kidnap him because his parents could not repay a debt. His parents have not been seen since and he fears they have been murdered.

Davlat lived in a small refugee camp outside Stockholm and currently works illegally in the hotel and construction industries to make money.

When asked if he would like to return home he said: “There is nothing left for me there, my family are dead. I haven’t got a home anymore.”

Ahmed M, 47, an assistant engineer from Syria, covers his face to hide his identity as he poses for a photograph at an asylum camp outside Stockholm June 8, 2014. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

Ahmed M, 47, an assistant engineer from Syria, poses for a photograph at the asylum centre outside Stockholm.

Ahmed paid smugglers 8,500 euros ($11,613) to get him to Sweden via Jordan, Turkey and Greece, from where he flew to Stockholm with false identification documents.

Ahmed fled Syria because he had been arrested three times by military intelligence on suspicion of being a spy. He was tortured and had his feet broken.

 When asked about the future he said: “I have five children at home. They have no future there and without them I have no future here.”

Lutfullah, 27, from Afghanistan, covers his face to hide his identity as he poses for a photograph at an asylum camp outside Stockholm June 10, 2014. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

Lutfullah, who is from Afghanistan, paid smugglers 8,872 euros ($12,121) to get to Sweden, coming via Iran, Turkey, Greece and Italy. He spent six days strapped under a truck on the last leg of the journey.

Lutfullah is a journalist but had to escape Afghanistan after the Taliban came looking for him because they did not like what he wrote. He has now been in Sweden for three months.

The 27-year-old is suffering from depression and rarely leaves his accommodation. When asked if he would like to return home he replied: “If I return I will be killed but living here at the minute I just exist.”

Mebrahtu, a 37-year-old soldier from Eritrea, covers his face to hide his identity as he poses for a photograph at an asylum camp outside Stockholm June 8, 2014. Mebrahtu travelled at night through the mountains to get to Ethiopia where he obtained false identity papers and flew to Sweden. He wanted to leave the military but was told he would be killed if he tried. When asked about his future he said, "I would like an education. When the plane landed I cried." Some 15 percent of Sweden's population is foreign born, the highest level in the Nordic region. Asylum seekers in particular are drawn by Sweden's robust economy and tradition of helping refugees. The country ranks fourth in the number of asylum seekers and second relative to its population out of 44 industrialised nations, according to U.N. Figures. Picture taken June 8, 2014. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

Mebrahtu, a 37-year-old soldier from Eritrea, travelled at night through the mountains to get to Ethiopia, where he obtained false identity papers and flew to Sweden.

He wanted to leave the military but was told he would be killed if he tried.

When asked about his future he said: “I would like an education. When the plane landed I cried.”

Ghassan M K, 39, from Damascus, shows his back to hide his identity as he poses for a photograph at an asylum camp outside Stockholm June 8, 2014. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

Ghassan M K, a 39-year-old from Damascus, paid smugglers 7,023 euros ($9,594) to get him to Sweden via Lebanon using false identification documents.

When asked about his future he said: “I’ve seen enough. The enforcement of law is gone in Syria. My main purpose coming here is to get my wife and children here. Even if I was to become prime minister, without my family I am nothing.”

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