The New York Times
BACKHAMMAR, Sweden — Along with more than a dozen members of her extended family, Widad Majid spent last summer sleeping in sweltering refugee camps, open fields, train stations and a jail cell as she traversed Europe en route from Syria to Sweden, one small girl amid a remarkable human migration toward the hope of a better life.
Now Widad, 10, and the family live on the second floor of a big red farmhouse in Backhammar, a small community three hours west of Stockholm. They can see deer from the kitchen window, and they walk in the woods at sunset.
Her 4-year-old cousin, Zain, was slashed on his shin last summer as he was being passed over the razor wire at the Hungarian border in the dead of night. He still has two gouge marks on his leg, but the memories, if not the scars, are fading as he rides his bike to preschool, a chocolate bar from his mother strapped to the fender.
Her uncles, Farid and Ahmad Majid, entrepreneurial brothers who guided the family from their home in Syria through Europe with hundreds of thousands of other refugees last summer, are making plans to open a grocery store once they complete the long process of winning asylum and residency in Sweden.
Yet even as they do their best to assimilate and appreciate the new life they have won, they continue to feel the tugs of what they left behind — no one more so than Widad.
Her parents and two brothers did not make the journey to Europe because one of the brothers, Nabih, 9, has leukemia and was too sick for the grueling journey.
Nabih is in Turkey, being treated, but he needs a bone-marrow transplant, and the only remaining member of his family who might be a compatible donor is Widad. Yet as winter turned to spring in Sweden, she had not yet received asylum, and to leave to help her brother in Turkey before getting legal residency would mean she could not come back. So the family, whose journey through Europe last summer was documented by The New York Times, faced yet another set of challenges and wrenching decisions.
“It is a matter of life and death,” said one of Widad’s aunts, Amina Nouri, who is helping care for Nabih in Turkey.
Which is why Widad was walking nervously one mid-April morning into an expedited asylum hearing, accompanied by a Swedish legal guardian and the anxious best wishes of her relatives.
“Talk,” her uncle Farid urged her on the day they drove to the immigration office in Goteborg for the hearing. “Tell what you remember. You can’t not remember.”
For the past five weeks, Nabih has been secluded in a spartan but comfortable room, with a view of the Mediterranean, in Medical Park Hospital in Antalya, in southern Turkey, a private facility that specializes in bone-marrow transplants.
The other day, he knelt on the bed, exhausted from chemotherapy and a lack of appetite, a peach fuzz of hair on top of his head, playing a game on a laptop. He wears a paper mask over his face, because the chemotherapy has destroyed his immune system. His family and visitors also wear masks.
He is waiting for a bone-marrow donor, and at the moment, Widad appears to be his best hope.
His cancer recurred in February, about nine months after his treatment began. A relapse within a year suggests that the cancer is highly resistant to drugs. His family says his treatment was sometimes interrupted because of a shortage of beds at the first hospital, in Gaziantep, Turkey, near the Syrian border.
Without chemotherapy and a transplant, the boy could die within a month, one of his doctors, Vedat Uygun, said. With a transplant, he has a 15 percent to 20 percent chance of survival. The hospital has searched international donor banks, and has not found a ready match. Siblings have a one-in-four chance of matching, or a one-in-three chance in places like the Majids’ village in Syria, where there is a high degree of kinship. Nabih’s younger brother was not a full match.
If Widad is not a match, the doctors will use a partially matched donor, probably his mother or his aunt. But the risks of a half-matched transplant may be greater, and the survival rate lower.
Once, Nabih had a dream that Widad was returning to Turkey. The family now thinks this was prophetic. He sometimes wonders, his aunt Amina said, why of all the children, he was the only one who got sick. It was God’s will, they tell him.
Nabih’s condition aside, the members of the Majid clan who made it to Sweden in mid-September still have their soul-searching moments, wondering if they made a mistake in striking out from their homeland. “Your father’s new wife is never your mother,” Farid Majid said. “Syria is always our mother country.”
Yet as one cease-fire in Syria after another fails, their young children are becoming more Swedish by the day. Soon they will have forgotten their old lives. “They cannot go back,” Farid said.
They are now an extended family of 14 living together, interdependent. Ahmad and Farid Majid, the two brothers, ran a clothing factory in Aleppo before it was looted during the civil war and they fled to their ancestral village in the Afrin region, near the Turkish border in a Kurdish part of Syria. When they set out for Europe, they brought their wives, their children, three young male relatives and Widad.
Ahmad, 30, over six feet tall, was the leader of the family as they crossed Europe. Easygoing and charming, he attracted other refugees who followed him, mapped the route, negotiated with smugglers and appeased the guards in refugee camps. Farid, 35, shorter and rounder, still seemed to be suffering from the trauma of having been kidnapped for ransom by one of the many militias in Syria. He was silent, brooding, grim.
Now, in a striking role reversal, Farid has taken over the dominant role, while Ahmad seems withdrawn and subdued. Farid flits around, glad-handing other immigrant businessmen who already know the ropes, making plans for the future. Ahmad, it seems, was strong in war, while Farid is strong in peace.
They spent their first few months in Sweden in an overcrowded refugee center in the small town of Kristinehamn.
In November, they were told that they would be moving to the farmhouse in Backhammar, a tiny settlement 20 minutes out of town. Just before the move, Ahmad’s wife, Jamila, who had never complained during the trip through Europe despite her pregnancy, gave birth in a nearby hospital to their third child, a daughter, Farida. Ahmad cut the umbilical cord.
The Majids enjoy their freedom, though they find that many Swedes look away as they walk by, or at best exchange a polite “hej,” hello, or “hej da,” bye. They feel both happy and isolated, sticking for the most part with other members of their family and fellow refugees, and cooking communal feasts of homemade yogurt, grilled meat, hummus, olives, eggplant, peppers, flatbread and tabbouleh.
A creek runs through the area, surrounded by picturesque farms and forests. Horseback riding is popular, and people get around by bike. It is dominated by a Nordic Paper plant, its chimney belching smoke day and night.
There is a small general store, encompassing a grocery, a post office and a pub. But the younger generation has moved out, put off by the sometimes odorous factory and looking for greater opportunity in big cities, said Torbjorn Andersson, a retired factory foreman who moved here in 1972. Refugees have been moved into the vacant houses.
“There are more of them than of us,” Eva Nyvall, the proprietor of the general store, said in what seemed like hyperbole.
The neighborhood has tried to be welcoming. Ms. Nyvall took a group of about 25 refugees out for a hike. Ahmad pulls out a video of refugee children dancing around a Christmas tree at the Folkets Hus, the community center. But everyone agrees that these gestures are not enough to foster a sense of community.
Cars and bicycles — too nice to be owned by refugees — stand outside many of the small, neat, single-story houses. But the inhabitants are mostly invisible. The Majids are used to the pulsing street life of Aleppo, where they had their clothing factory, and the gossipy familiarity of their ancestral village near Afrin, where their father still cultivates the family olive groves. They joke that Backhammar is a zombie village.
But the children appear to be thriving.
At first, Ahmad worried that Zain’s preschool class was spending too much time exploring the forest, and not enough in class. But he has come to appreciate that this is the Swedish philosophy of education.
“You need to learn in the game,” one of his teachers, Sebastian Martensson, said as Zain raced around on a tricycle.
Zain, who speaks Kurdish at home, is learning Swedish in class and Arabic on the playground, and his parents laugh because he does not know the difference.
The three older children take a 20-minute bus ride to their school, Djurgardsskolan, in town, sitting next to Swedish teenagers walled off by their earphones. Kristinehamn schools, which were shrinking, have had to hire more teachers to accommodate the flow of refugees.
Widad, the oldest of the children, can read Swedish phonetically, without necessarily understanding the words. Ahmad’s 6-year-old daughter, also named Widad, is taking dancing lessons. After a period of time in immigrant classes, they will be integrated into regular classes.
The school is homey. Children and adults take off their shoes at the door. They eat on china plates with metal silverware, at tables set with unlit votive candles, in the cafeteria. In Syria, they had to bring their own food. They fill out distinctively Scandinavian work sheets, about bears fishing for seal.
“We’re trying to give them some normality,” Widad’s teacher, Maria Hallberg, said. “We don’t ask them what they’ve been through. They need school. They need the routine and lots of hugs.”
“They want to learn,” she said. “They ask for more homework.”
The family receives an allowance of about 1,800 Swedish krona, or $221, per month for each adult, plus a smaller allowance for the children, to pay for food and other necessities until it can get on its feet. Once they receive their residency permits, the members of the family can enter a formal program of Swedish language lessons and work training, or relinquish their benefits and go out on their own.
They live frugally, buying clothes at the secondhand store. They make yogurt, a staple, instead of buying it, to save money. Everyone lost weight during the trip across Europe, when the family was constantly on the move and grabbing what food it could. Now most of the Majids are five or 10 pounds heavier.
This spring, Ahmad and Farid joined other immigrants fishing at night on a river in Saffle, about a 90-minute drive away. Schools of silvery fish the size of large sardines swim in the rapids, and four men with a net and a light can catch 150 kilograms (331 pounds) of fish in one night, and sell them for 25 krona ($3) a kilo, cleaned. Sometimes the local Swedes come by, and the Syrians give them free fish.
A Moral Dilemma
Throughout their trek across Europe, the family was haunted by Nabih’s leukemia and worried that as a refugee he would get inadequate care in Turkey. The concern only intensified as the Majids settled into their new lives, and Widad’s immigration hearing, on April 19, had the whole family on edge.
Because she is in Sweden without her parents, Widad has been assigned a legal guardian, Christer Jansson, an affable salesman for an oil company, to look after her interests. On March 22, he received an email from Nabih’s transplant specialist, Akif Yesilipek, in Antalya, asking for a blood test for Widad.
The request presented a moral dilemma for him. After some research, Mr. Jansson determined that sending marrow by courier could be very difficult, and that if Widad was a match, she might have to go back to Turkey to donate. Without legal residency, she could not return.
His responsibility was to Widad. What if she gave up her safety, her education and the promise of a better future in Sweden, and her brother died anyway?
But the bureaucracy was responsive to Widad’s plight, expediting her asylum hearing. Mr. Jansson drove her to the proceeding in Goteborg, along with her uncle Farid. Mr. Jansson was allowed into the hearing, but Farid was not.
Mr. Jansson later recounted that the investigator had asked why Widad had so many stamps from Turkey in her passport. Widad replied that her brother and mother were in Turkey, and that while still living in Syria she often went to the hospital to visit Nabih. She cried a little, Mr. Jansson said, as she talked about her brother.
The judge asked Widad if she had any religion. She said she was Muslim, but she did not know whether she was Sunni or Shia.
She talked about how there was no electricity in her Syrian village, and how she had to stop going to school because it was too dangerous. She said she spoke to her mother by phone, but not to her father, who was stuck in Syria, because he cried too much. She was asked if her father had been in the military, and she said she did not think so.
At the end, Mr. Jansson said, one of the officials said they understood the need for speed because of her brother’s illness, so they would give her application priority.
“She was very accurate, very smart,” Mr. Jansson told Farid.
The three of them left, jubilant. That night the family celebrated Widad’s success with three store-bought cakes, two vanilla and one chocolate.
On April 28, Widad received word that she had been granted a residency permit, and with it the right to go to Turkey if necessary. Dr. Uygun, Nabih’s doctor, remains hopeful that if Widad is a match she can have her bone marrow extracted in Sweden and sent to Turkey so that she would not have to travel. It is not clear who will pay for the procedure, but Dr. Uygun said the cost would not stop Nabih from getting the treatment he needed.
Nabih’s transplant operation has been scheduled for mid- to late May. Widad should receive the results of her blood test any day.