He climbed the snow-capped mountains between and Iran, reluctantly boarded one of the fallible boats from Turkey to Greece, made his way across mainland Europe to Sweden, and he did the whole thing on his own at the age of 15. But the most significant journey Habibullah takes is the one that starts at 7am every morning. This is when he leaves his refugee camp in Linkoping, Sweden, and makes his way to school.
Leaving Afghanistan and all its violence means that he’s safe from harm, but his body and mind has started attacking him
Every day he takes four buses – two there and two back – but it’s his chance to make a success of leaving his home in Afghanistan. He hopes it will make that traumatic trip across the world worthwhile. “I go to show my talent and I want to improve. I’m not good at maths or chemistry but I’m interested in English and Swedish.”
Habibullah will soon turn 17, which means he’s a little older than his 15- to 16-year-old classmates in the ninth grade, but he’s very proud of the fact that he can keep pace with them in many subjects, particularly in English.
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However, it’s been making friends with the local children at school that’s proved a major challenge. “The Swedish children are friendly but unfortunately they don’t speak a lot [to me],” he says.
“But they are very kind …” he adds quickly, keen to clarify he’s not complaining. Finishing any story about how difficult he finds something on a positive note is a conversational tic of Habibullah’s.
“I was in such a bad situation over the last year but now I’m fine. I just need my brain to accept all of the things that happened to me,” he says. “I feel 100-years-old instead of 16. Everyone has the same question: ‘Can I help?’ But no-one can help me be happy.”
Habibullah is Hazara, a Shia minority persecuted in Afghanistan, and his grandfather was a community leader kidnapped, tortured and shot to death by the Taliban in a massacre in May 2000. He has six brothers and one sister, and his eldest brother now lives in Canada. The daily threat of violence was too much to stand, and Habibullah left his home in the Baghlan province in October 2015. On the way he was discovered by police in Iran and brought back to Afghanistan, but made it across to Turkey on his second attempt. He arrived in in December 2015 and has had his first interview to determine whether he will get refugee status.
This is happening because everything has changed for you – food, weather, location, and you’re under a lot of stress
You need at least two interviews, so Habibullah has no idea whether he’s going to be able to stay, and if making friends and learning Swedish will have been a waste of time. And then there’s the fact that if he gets refugee status he will not be able to return to Afghanistan, and he misses his parents badly. On his wrist he wears a friendship bracelet in red, green and black, the colours of the flag of Afghanistan. “Yes, the people are kind but it’s not the feel – it doesn’t have the feel of my parents. Every person’s country is like their mother. Today I’m alone. It’s good. I must accept,” he says. His eyes shine with tears.
Sweden’s asylum policy is different to that of many other countries, and he is not only able to go to school but he has also been assigned a godmother, who is teaching Habibullah the Swedish way of doing things. The thing he’s most perplexed by is the Swedish habit of always being absolutely punctual. “If you are even one minute late, people are so cross,” he sighs.
But the country’s refugee policy has also been under renewed media scrutiny in the last week, after that the country’s open-door policy was leading to there.
Sweden’s refugee policy has become unsustainable
Sweden is not new to championing refugee rights. Its famously hospitable policy, ensuring asylum seekers are given access to the same services as Swedes, along with special benefits and work experience schemes, dates back to the second world war when Sweden took in Jews from neighbouring Denmark. At regular intervals since, it has offered sanctuary to.
In the last year though Sweden, like Germany, has ended up taking a disproportionate amount of refugees compared with the rest of Europe and it is struggling to cope with the numbers. It had pledged to take 190,000 people, 2% of its 9.5 million population, but there are already doubts about how long the generous package for refugees can continue considering the number of people arriving doubled from 80,000 to 160,000 last year. In fact, cracks started to show as far back as 2015 when the Swedish prime minister Stefan Löfven announced that the generous care packages would be replaced by the “EU minimum”. Then in November last year, it was announced permanent asylum offers would be replaced with temporary . A month later the authorities sharply curtailed the flow of refugees into the country by only allowing those in who have proper identity documents.
Meanwhile, there has been a shift in the public’s attitude towards refugees and in politics which mirrors that across Europe. A 2016 poll found that for their main worry was immigration. Since the refugee crisis, the far-right Sweden Democrats party has also .
Nevertheless, Sweden took in 35,000 unaccompanied children in 2015, a huge rise on previous years. Without their primary support network, they have to adjust to an alien culture at a young age and it is a challenge that is difficult to imagine. Habibullah, for example, now knows that homesickness can manifest itself as physical sickness. Leaving Afghanistan and all its violence means that he’s safe from harm, but his body and mind has started attacking him. Constant headaches, grey patches of skin slowly spreading across his abdomen, liver problems, a delicate stomach and knee pains needed medical attention – all as a result of his new location and situation.
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“I’ve been to psychologists and doctors a lot. After I had been in Sweden for three or four months I had headaches and pain in my knee and I lost a lot of my hearing and I spoke to a doctor who said: ‘This is happening because everything has changed for you – food, weather, location, and you’re under a lot of stress’.” He had to take six tablets with breakfast, lunch and dinner and has lost a lot of weight because he’s largely lost his appetite.
Habibullah also started pulling his hair out at night when he couldn’t sleep, which meant he had to shave it off to give his follicles a chance to recover. He now covers his head with a hat at all times.
Even one year on, assimilating and adjusting to the Swedish culture has been difficult. He does not want anybody to pay for him, for example, in accordance with Afghan rules of hospitality and masculine responsibility. He likes paying for other people and expects to do so despite the fact he’s given an allowance of 24 SEK per day (£2.20) for things other than food and transport. I remark on the fact that he’s not wearing gloves (it’s minus 10 degrees) and he says: “Men must be strong”.
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By the standards of other teenagers, he is incredibly strong. He cooks for himself, survives admirably without his parents, and entertains the other boys in the camp by singing and playing an Afghan two-stringed guitar called the dambarra, which his Swedish godmother bought for him. He’s even built a small fanbase playing it, and is recognised by other Afghans in Linkoping and across Sweden. Friends constantly pester him to play it, and sometimes he plays so hard his wrist hurts, but this doesn’t put him off.
“If I can bring happiness to others, I’m so happy,” he says. “I have been trusted with carrying our culture. We make ourselves happy so we don’t think about all the bad things.”