Khalil was only seventeen when he decided to take up arms. After attending anti-government demonstrations in his home city of Latakia, he fled to the nearby Turkmen Mountains, where he joined a rebel outfit called the Emigration to God Battalion. Slightly built with thick, shoulder-length hair and an attractive, slightly effeminate face, he wouldn’t strike you as a typical rebel fighter. For an entire year, he put up with poor rations, low ammunition, sleeping rough, being sniped at, and worst of all: shortages of cigarettes.
All this was a price he was willing to pay until the day he was instructed by his commander to occupy the Christian village of Burj Al-Kasab. The residents, who were mostly elderly and unarmed, were given safe passage to Latakia, after which their homes were thoroughly looted—everything was taken, from foodstuffs to doors and window frames. Khalil decided this was not what he had signed up for and fled once again, this time to Antakya, just across the border in Turkey, where he shacked up with friends in a damp basement flat.
Three years ago Khalil dreamed of freedom; now he dreams of Sweden. Escaping the Syrian conflict and all its miseries to the imagined Nirvana that is the streets of Stockholm has become something of an obsession for the teenager. He says he wants to get a proper education and a decent job, and ultimately, to achieve what he and millions like him demonstrated for: dignity. Even if he was to end up working in McDonald’s, it would still be preferable to remaining in Turkey, jobless and without prospects. “At least after a few years in Sweden you’ll get a passport,” he says.
A similar tale is told by Hamdan, a thirty-three-year-old ex-sergeant in the Syrian army turned taxi driver in Antakya. Outraged at the abuses he witnessed in the coastal village of Al-Bayda, he deserted and ended up in a camp designated for army defectors in southern Turkey. Now, you’re more likely to see him behind the wheel of a Kia Rio ferrying passengers to and from Hatay Airport. His aim: to save up enough money to buy passage to Sweden through a network of professional smugglers who will supply him with counterfeit documents allowing him to enter the EU. It will cost him around 8,000 US dollars, a price worth paying, it seems, for the chance to start afresh. “Even if I don’t benefit,” he says, “my children will.”
For Syria’s displaced, the Scandinavian nation has become a depository for their hopes and ambitions, the route of least resistance in their journey to a better existence. It is not difficult to see why. In September 2013, the Swedish immigration agency ruled that all Syrian asylum seekers will be granted indefinite residency because it judged the poor security situation in Syria to be permanent. The asylum seekers will also have the right to bring their families to Sweden, and the right to apply for social housing and access the country’s generous welfare system. Since that decision was taken, the roughly 8,000 Syrians already living in Sweden have had their temporary residence made permanent while many thousands more have made their way there. With dedicated Facebook pages instructing refugees on how best to get to Sweden, the numbers are only likely to rise.
But it is not just the near destitute who are making the trek north. Take Khalid Kamal, a brave young cleric who led demonstrations in the Sheikh Daher district of Latakia, screaming, “We Want Freedom!” Khalid later went to join the Syrian National Council and even became a rebel leader at one point, using his family’s wealth to fund an armed brigade. But even he has ended up in Sweden. Like Khalil, he has grown disillusioned with the way the revolution has panned out and fears that he may miss this once in a lifetime opportunity to create a new life in Europe. Take also Maj. Gen. Mustafa Al-Sheikh, at one point Hamdan’s commanding officer in the defectors’ camp and a senior Free Syrian Army figure in his own right. He and his family were granted asylum in Sweden late last year after falling foul of the increasingly dominant Islamist factions. There are thousands of such cases: urbane, middle-class, well-educated Syrians finding no place in an environment where wits and moral scruples can be tested to breaking point.
But escape is not without its costs. In October last year, the Sicilian town of San Leone held a ceremony to honor hundreds of refugees who died in two shipwrecks near their coast earlier that month. Many of the dead were Syrians. Of the bodies that were washed up on shore, only five were recognized. The rest were buried by the Italian authorities in anonymous graves. Had they survived the crossing, they would have had to endure many more weeks of hardship, sleeping in woods and traveling at night, begging along the way while avoiding local police. The frozen forests of Bulgaria have already claimed a few.
Louay, though, is lucky. He managed to get resettled in Sweden after convincing embassy staff in Ankara that he was worthy of a place in their society. He is a defected Syrian Air Force pilot who hails from a mixed Ismaili–Christian family, both distinct advantages in the asylum game. He now whiles away the time in the cafés and bars of Antakya as he waits for his papers to arrive before he can board a flight to Stockholm for a new life—one he hopes will afford him the opportunity to continue doing what he enjoys most: flying planes. For the vast majority of Syrians, however, their Swedish dream is likely to remain just that.