Sweden.se: The refugee challenge – meet Zelga Gabriel from Syria

Meet Zelga Gabriel. At 18, she was an interior design student at Aleppo University’s Faculty of Fine Arts. Then, the Syrian Civil War broke out. Zelga was eventually forced to terminate her studies and return to her hometown, Hassakeh.

Zelga is Assyrian, the Christian minority indigenous to the Middle East that has suffered attacks from ISIS recently. Eventually, Zelga’s family decided she would be safer in Sweden, where she arrived in August 2015.

Now 22, Zelga lives in a suburb just outside Södertälje, an industrial town south-west of Stockholm where around 37 per cent of residents are foreign-born and where a majority of the roughly 100,000 Assyrians who have emigrated to Sweden since the late 1960s live.

Zelga’s mother, brother and several members of her extended family are also here in Sweden, as is her best friend from back home. But her father and sister are still in Hassakeh. And her heart remains there, Zelga says.

‘If it was just up to me, I would never have left. Syria is my country; my roots are there.

‘Some people say we weren’t forced to flee Syria; that it was our choice to leave. But when you know that you might die at any time, then that is like you’re being forced.’

From Syria to Sweden

Zelga was fortunate to have a relatively easy journey to Sweden: by bus and taxi to Lebanon, and then by plane to Stockholm. It took around a week altogether.

She had applied for a job in Sweden working with unaccompanied migrant children, but when she arrived in Sweden, she decided not to take up the job because it didn’t meet her expectations. She ended up applying for asylum, and got her residence permit after six months.

While Zelga’s relatives had told her a lot about life in Sweden, coming here was still a shock.

‘When I first arrived and saw all the greenery, I was in tears. I felt like this place doesn’t represent me and who I am, even if it’s very beautiful.’

Adapting to life in Sweden

Zelga chose to settle in Södertälje because she had family there and there is a large Assyrian community in the town.

‘We try to stick together,’ she says.

She spends most of her time with relatives and friends with the same background as her – Assyrians from Syria. Zelga hopes to also make friends with Swedes once she starts studying or working.

‘Some of my cousins were born in Sweden. I knew before coming here that it was a good country, that there is more freedom here than in Syria. I also knew about the cold weather, of course.

‘Now I know Sweden is very different from Syria. There isn’t as much connection between families. You don’t meet your cousins that often, and you don’t have time for yourself. You just work.’

Aiming for university

Zelga has begun to learn the language – taking ‘Swedish for Immigrants’classes – but is still finding it difficult to settle in

‘In the beginning, everything is new and even though your heart is not in it, you have to try to adapt. I try to see my life here as a new chance,’ she says.

She wants to become part of Swedish society and start university as soon as possible. Zelga is considering both psychology and social work, something that she can use to help other Assyrians, either here in Sweden or back home in Syria.

Interior design has lost its appeal as a profession. Zelga says: ‘When there’s peace, you think about things like beauty and design. War changes that.’