See What Life Is Like for Refugees Above the Arctic Circle

Refugees from the Middle East and Africa are seeing their first-ever snow and figuring out how to pray when the sun never rises.

By Meghan Collins Sullivan
photographs by Axel Öberg
Published 31 Oct 2017, 16:10 GMT
For most of the immigrants this is the first time they have experienced snow. The Hotel invested in over 100 toboggans.
Photograph by Axel Öberg, National Geographic

The ski season begins in mid-February in Swedish Lapland, at the northern tip of the country. But there’s a resort called Riksgränsen not far from the border with Norway that's open now, and it's crowded.

Its guests, though, are not skiers enjoying the slopes—they’re refugees fleeing conflict.

To be precise, they’re 600 refugees from countries including Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. One hundred of them are children. And they’re now adjusting to life above the Arctic Circle.

“The hotel was dark and closed, but more or less clean,” says Sven Kuldkepp, CEO of Riksgränsen. “We had two days to prepare. It went perfectly, but it was hectic.”

Riksgränsen is a small Swedish resort town 200 km (about 125 miles) north of the Arctic Circle near the border with Norway. It opens in mid-February to skiers, when there is more daylight to ski by.

In October, when there were 10,000 refugees entering Sweden each week, government officials called Kuldkepp to ask if he would be interested in opening the resort for asylum seekers. Once the government made a decision, things moved quickly. Kuldkepp signed a contract in the afternoon one day, and by noon the next he had nearly 600 guests.

The government gives the resort 350 Swedish Krona (less than £31.50) per person per day—much less than a ski guest would pay. “We basically did it to do something good,” Kuldkepp says.

The Swedish government received nearly 163,000 applications for asylum in 2015, with more than 75,000 coming in October and November alone. In an effort to curb the flow of refugees, Sweden began to impose border controls on travelers.

All of the refugees at Riksgränsen chose to seek asylum in Sweden. But many never expected to be living a 16-hour drive north of Stockholm, even temporarily. Currently, the temperature at the resort is -10°F (-23° C), and there’s snow on the ground.

The Riksgränsen area is so far north that, for the most part, it‘s in total darkness. During the month of January, the sun does not rise above the horizon. It looks like dawn for a couple hours a day, and the rest of the day is dark. That’s made it difficult for the muslim refugees to figure out the proper times for their daily prayers, which are typically based on the sun’s position in the sky.

“It’s like Hotel California without sun,” says Marwan Arkawi, 22, who arrived at Riksgransen in October with the first group. “I chose to go to Sweden but I didn’t choose to go here. I was transferred to the most northern place in the world.”

A typical day in Riksgränsen for Arkawi and the other refugees, he says, includes eating the meals provided by the resort, reading, listening to music, playing instruments or cards, and spending a lot of time on social media connecting with friends and family. There are also some organised activities: ski lessons, Swedish and English language courses, billiards, boxing training.

But despite the distractions, the cold weather, dark days, and cultural differences between asylum-seekers can be trying.

“You can feel the tension among the people. They are just depressed,” Arkawi says. “Everyone is depressed, including me. We are completely secluded.”

Arkawi says he hopes to bring his younger brother and sister, and his parents, to Stockholm from his hometown of Banyias, Syria.

“My town was annihilated. It’s minority Sunni, the Sunnis were slaughtered,” he says. “I don’t want to go to mandatory military service to kill my people. I want a better future.”

Qasim Ali Radi, 47, also came to Sweden seeking a better future. He left his wife and four of his children in Iraq and spent two weeks on the road and sea with his 19-year-old son before arriving at Riksgränsen. Radi worked as an accountant and was caught up in an aspect of the sectarian conflict that put his life in danger.

“I am happy because I am safe here,” he says. “Yes, it is dark. But I feel good every time I learn English and Swedish.”

Radi, like many recent refugees, had a harrowing experience after paying £2,250 for two spots on a 20-foot rubber boat carrying 50 people from Turkey to Greece.

“The sea became crazy, the waves became very strong, and we had panic hit us until we lost hope of the arrival of the boat to safety. Women were screaming and children crying,” he says. “After five hours it ended, miraculously, OK.”

Radi hopes to bring the rest of his family to Sweden.

“When we crossed the sea, I felt great happiness but I cried at the same time because I felt like I lost a part of me, being away from my family that I wish to live my whole life with. Now, my tears are overflowing,” he says.

The refugees don’t know where they’ll end up, but they do know their time at Riksgränsen is limited. The resort signed a four-month contract to temporarily house the refugees. Vacationers will be back at Riksgränsen.

“We don’t know where they will go,” says Kuldkepp. “But they have solved the problem before and they will do it again.”

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