SODERTALJE, Sweden — In this lakeside town, once best known as the home of Swedish tennis hero, Bjorn Borg, neighborhoods nicknamed "Little Baghdad" and "Mesopotalje" now echo with arguments over Assyrian soccer.
Along the city's tree-lined waterfront, young Iraqi families and groups of older men chat in Arabic, enjoying long summer evenings.
"Everyone here is Iraqi," said a grocer at the main supermarket in Ronna, a neighborhood of tenement-style housing blocks, where two to three families often crowd into one-family apartments.
Change has come to Sweden because of the Iraq war, driven by an open-arms refugee policy and word of mouth in Iraq. Most of the 2 million externally displaced Iraqis are living in Syria and Jordan, but Sweden tops the list of Western nations that have offered a haven.
In 2007, Iraqi citizens claimed asylum in 89 countries, with almost half those claims — 18,600 — reported in Sweden, the U.N. refugee agency reported this week. And Sodertalje, a city of 83,000 people, took in more Iraqis than the United States and Canada combined.
The welcome approach to the refugees has been a point of pride to Swedes, who were opposed to the Iraq war. But the unyielding flow is taking its toll and the country is slashing the number of asylum approvals.
“Iraq is the worst refugee disaster in the Middle East since 1948,” Sweden’s Minister for Migration and Asylum Tobias Billstrom told msnbc.com. "We want to do as much as we can but we can't help everybody."
Since the start of the war in March 2003, Iraqi Christians fleeing persecution from Islamic militants have set out with Sodertalje in mind, with around 100 arriving each month, according to officials.
A community of Assyrians (a Christian ethnic group mostly based in Iraq, Syria, Iran, and Turkey) has existed here since the late 1960s, but its numbers increased rapidly as more Iraqis sought protection among friends and relatives.
"Everyone in Iraq knows it's the country of refuge, safety and kindness," said Nagiba Daud, who spoke after prayers at Johannes Chaldean Catholic Church, explaining why she had chosen to escape to Sodertalje with her two children.
The churches are a haven in immigrant neighborhoods that offer a startling contrast to the chaotic streetlife of Baghdad and Mosul, even before the destruction and violence of the war.
In Ronna, nondescript tenement buildings are surrounded by grassland and highways. There are no restaurants, movie theaters, kebab shops, or even fast-food outlets. Apartment blocks and sidewalks are clean and neat, but the only remote signs of life are at the neighborhood’s only supermarket and the church.
The Iraqi congregation of Johannes Church has swollen from around 650 families before the war to around 1000, forcing Sunday worshippers to watch the packed service on television screens set up in the basement. Dozens also come daily to pray, kneeling before a statue of the Virgin Mary, and fingering prayer beads as they recite verses in Aramaic and Arabic.
Many have painful memories of violence and intimidation in Iraq.
"Someone I don't know put a letter under my door, saying we had to leave the house in 24 hours or all the people in the house would be killed," said Daud, a former seamstress, as she described her family’s flight from Baghdad.
She now may be forced to move again. Despite providing photos of her burned down home to Swedish authorities, she and her sons, 9-year-old Saif and 21-year-old Stiven, have recently had their asylum claim rejected.
“It would be better if they killed me and my family now than if they send us back to Iraq," she said of the danger awaiting them if their court appeal fails.
Daud is a victim of the hardening attitudes in Sweden toward the refugees.
After repeated appeals for for other nations — notably the United States and the EU nations — to share the burden, Sweden changed its asylum requirements.
In July 2007, Sweden's Supreme Court decided that armed conflict had ended in Iraq. Since then, asylum has only been granted to those who can prove that they were singled out for persecution, not by the region they hail from or their religion. Since the law changed, "the approval rate has dropped from about 80 percent to 20 percent," said Mikael Ribbenvik, head of Asylum Reception and Detention at the Migration Board, a government agency.
“When we deny people, we have the responsibility to return the people to their country — and we are currently returning people to Iraq,” he said.
Those who accept a “voluntary return” are given a plane ticket and re-establishment funds. Those who do not are forcefully returned by the police.
In 2007, 854 Iraqis were “voluntarily returned” to Iraq, up from 197 the previous year. Figures were not available for involuntary returns.
In a report released this week, Amnesty International said Sweden’s change of heart had resulted in Iraqis being forcibly returned to areas still considered very dangerous. The human rights organization also accused world governments of using terms such as "voluntary returns" for political gain, and said some refugees "are making this decision as they feel they have no other option."
Left in limbo
Thousands who arrived since the law changed have been left in limbo.
"When I came to Sweden, I had a little money to give my family, but now it's all gone," said Dawood Yousif, who was checking on the status of his asylum case at a refugee reception center in Solna, just north of Stockholm.
After paying $50,000 to men holding his brother hostage in Baghdad, and $15,000 for false papers to get to Sweden, "I thought I could get permission to stay here and bring my family over in about three or four months," the 48-year-old former photo librarian said.
"But, it has taken so long I've had to borrow money from relatives to send to my wife and kids in Syria," he said, adding that he has never seen his 7-month-old son who was born in exile.
Single adults here receive a stipend of 71 kroners ($11.75) a day, but in a country where a McDonald’s meal costs roughly $10 and use of a public toilet nearly $1, the allotment isn’t much to live on.
"They are very tough with Iraqi refugees now in Sweden," said the father of three who now lives with an aunt.
If his case is ultimately rejected, Yousif said he would have to return to Syria. Although Syria and Jordan have hundreds of thousands of Iraqis living within their borders, the recent imposition of visa restrictions has made that option more difficult too.
Meantime, Sweden has stepped up its appeals, urging the United States to accept more responsibility for Iraqi refugees; in April, Sodertalje’s mayor, Anders Lago, spoke before the Congressional Helsinki Commission in Washington, and in May, Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt raised the subject with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
"Every country has a humanitarian obligation to respond to the situation apart from the politics, but there's no doubt in my mind that the [Iraq war] coalition partners bear special responsibility in this," said Kathleen Newland, co-founder of the non-partisan Migration Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., adding that more assistance should also be given to the Middle Eastern countries shouldering the heaviest refugee burden.
Under fire for its response to the crisis, the United States took in a record number of Iraqis in May, more than 1,000, according to the Bush administration. But, even if it meets its goal to increase its yearly intake to 12,000, from just 1,608 in 2007, it will have taken in just two-thirds of the number that applied for asylum in Sweden last year.
Praying for peace
The vast majority of Iraqis who have arrived in Sweden since 2003 plan to return home, according to those interviewed and migration authorities, but no-one can say when it will be safe and many remain anxious about the future.
"Iraq is finished," said Yousif, the asylum seeker at the Solna center with a wife and young children in Syria.
A deacon at St. John’s Church, Slewa Kalka, took a more positive view, saying, “it will be a free land, but we don’t know when.”
“It was very beautiful, we had a very good life in Iraq, but wars all the time destroyed it all," his wife Jamila said, as they recounted the deadly conflicts with Iran, Kuwait, and the U.S.-led invasion.
"We pray every day for peace in Iraq," he said.