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Sodertalje, Sweden Accepts 5,000 Iraqi Refugees

  • Hon. Alcee L. Hastings

House of Representative

110th Congress, Second Session

Madam Speaker, as Chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Helsinki Commission, I rise today to recognize the generosity of the people of Sodertalje, Sweden, who have opened their doors to more than 5,000 Iraqi refugees. This small city has a population of 83,000 and has accepted more Iraqi refugees than the United States and Canada combined. 

On April 10, the Mayor of Sodertalje. Mr. Anders Lago, testified at a Helsinki Commission hearing entitled, “OSCE Partner States and Neighbors Overwhelmed by Iraqi Refugees: Band-Aid Solutions to Implosion in the Middle East?” In his testimony, Mayor Lago noted, “The millions of refugees in the world must be a concern for us all, not just for those areas bordering on the breeding grounds of war, or for a small number of countries and cities such as Sodertalje.” In addition, he said, “Despite the fact that we need immigrants, Sodertalje has become a town that must now say–STOP, STOP, STOP. Do not misunderstand me. We will always help others when we can. We must act when the lives of our brothers and sisters are in danger. It is imperative that we have a humane refugee policy worldwide. Our common agreement that all people are equal, no matter what color, religion or gender, must become a reality.” 

Madam Speaker, the country of Sweden has accepted more than 30,000 Iraqi refugees since 2003. This is no doubt a commendable act of humanitarian kindness. I offer my heartfelt thanks and deep appreciation to the government of Sweden which is truly committed to assisting Iraqi refugees. 

It must also be noted that, while Mayor Lago has opened the doors of his small city to so many Iraqi refugees, the strains on its infrastructure have been tremendous. Nonetheless, his generosity and that of the people of Sodertalje put the United States to shame. The Mayor has clearly gone above and beyond the call of duty to help refugees from Iraq and he is nothing short of a “humanitarian ambassador.” 

Madam Speaker. I thank Mayor Anders Lago and the people of Sodertalje, Sweden for their kindness and generosity, and I submit the Mayor’s statement for inclusion in the Congressional Record. 

Testimony of Anders Lago–Mayor of Sodertalje Municipality and Chairman of the Executive Committee Before Helsinki Commission, April 10, 2008 

Chairman Hastings, Members of the Congressional Commission, 
Distinguished Speakers and Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen, 

First and foremost I would like to thank the Commission for your invitation. I appreciate the opportunity to speak to you about the difficult situation regarding the people now fleeing from Iraq. 

Allow me to be totally frank. I am not the President, a Cabinet Minister, an Ambassador or even a Member of the Swedish Parliament. I am the Mayor of Sodertalje, a small town with slightly more than eighty thousand inhabitants. I am here today as the representative from a small country on the northern edge of the European Union, but I can say with both pride and disappointment, that when it comes to refugees, I come from a great nation. The United States is the country in the western world that accepts the largest number of refugees. Directly thereafter comes Sweden, and according to census statistics, it is my hometown that receives most refugees in Sweden. 

Many Iraqi refugees have sought shelter in Sodertalje since the start of the war in Iraq. Almost all belong to the Christian minority. Sodertalje accepts approximately five percent of all the Iraqi refugees who come to Europe. To illustrate this even more dramatically, my little town alone, receives more Iraqi refugees than the United States and Canada together. 

We did not start the war in Iraq, however we assume a huge responsibility for those people who are affected. 

Last week I met with seven Iraqi pupils at a local school. Meena, a girl in fifth grade, had a tear in her eye when she said “ It is nice here in Sweden, but I miss my father.” Her father is still in Iraq. Another little girl, Meryem, said with an edge to her voice, “ If the war continues, the doors must be open for the refugees.” All the children I met have relatives left in Iraq. And those children live in homes tormented with fear. 

When I asked these children what they wanted to be when they are older, they brightened up and competed with one another to tell me. Renza wanted to become an artist. Steve wanted to become a policeman. Meena said shyly that she wanted to be a doctor. These children, in spite of all they have been through, have not let circumstances diminish their ability to dream of the future. In Sodertalje we face three problems. Firstly our schools and preschools are full; of the town’s eight thousand pupils, five hundred are enrolled in the special preparation classes we have for newly arrived refugees. We cannot hire teachers or build schools fast enough to give all these, often highly motivated pupils a good start in their new country. 

Secondly there is a lack of living accommodation. A great many of the refugees lodge with relatives or friends. We know of cases of fifteen people sleeping on mattresses in a two room apartment. 

And last but not least we have a shortage of job opportunities. A small town cannot possibly produce jobs for a thousand refugees each year. Here the United States could really help Sodertalje. American companies looking to set up businesses or expand in Europe, are most welcome to visit my home town. We need all the job opportunities we can get. 

I am in awe of the refugees’ ambition and will to make new lives for themselves. Many of those who come to our town are well educated and motivated to start a new life in a new country. We need immigrants if we are to manage the demographic challenges we face, as the number of aging citizens in the western world rises. 

Despite the fact that we need immigrants, Sodertalje has become a town that must now say–STOP, STOP, STOP! Do not misunderstand me. We will always help others when we can. We must act when the lives of our brothers and sisters are in danger. It is imperative that we have a humane refugee policy worldwide. Our common agreement, that all people are equal, no matter what color religion or gender must become a reality. 

The millions of refugees in the world must be a concern for us all, not just for those areas bordering on the breeding grounds of war, or for a small number of countries and cities such as Sodertalje. 

Sodertalje works hard to spread the reception of refugees equally over the whole of Sweden, to all cities and towns. Internationally, we must find a model for an equal and more responsible reception of refugees. We must also have special support for the refugees on site in Iraq, in Jordan and in Syria. Most of all, we must put an end to this and other ongoing wars. 

The children I met last week have cousins and friends who are left behind in Iraq. Those children are trying to lead a normal childhood in a land where uneasiness and fear are always present. 

I am not a President; I am not an Ambassador; but I know that we must create a new future for the children fleeing from war. 

And I know there is no time to lose. Thank you for your attention.

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