In Sweden, Syrian mother clings to shreds of hope for family stuck in Turkey



Sawsan Ghazal, 46, center, from Aleppo, Syria, visits with her best Swedish friend, Gunhild Carlbom, 78, who gave her a bike when she first settled in the country. At right is Carlbom's grandson Simon, 10, and Carlbom's son's girlfriend Terese Olivelof. (Rick Loomis/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

By Masaki Sugimoto

She woke before dawn in the cramped apartment in Istanbul. She kissed her three children as they slept, and decided not to wake them. She might lose her courage if she did. She said goodbye to her husband and stepped into the chill of the dark street, under the towering minaret of the mosque next door. It was drizzling.

At 44, Sawsan Ghazal could not recall a day she had been apart from her children. A small woman with a dulcet voice, she had always been resourceful, always found a way to protect them, whether from bombs or the mayhem in their genes.

As a girl, she had seen little of her own parents. They had divorced when she was young. When she grew up and built a family, she promised herself, she would never abandon them to that kind of loneliness.

Get The Daily Illini in your inbox!

  • Catch the latest on University of Illinois news, sports, and more. Delivered every weekday.
  • Stay up to date on all things Illini sports. Delivered every Monday.
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.
Thank you for subscribing!

Now, in February 2014, she was convinced that the only way to save her children was to leave them, crossing the continent with a man whose real name she didn’t know. She had an assumed identity and a fake passport.

She had memorized her role. She would be an English-speaking Turkish nurse on vacation, not just another Arab Muslim fleeing Syria’s interminable civil war. The smuggler was waiting.


They had been dressmakers in Aleppo, Syria’s bustling commercial hub. She had never lived anywhere else, and took an outsized pride in her city’s history. It had endured millennia of strife and shifting rule – the Romans and Byzantines, the Mongols and Ottomans, plague and war.

Aleppo had, to her, an eternal quality. Her earliest memories were of her grandmother, who mostly raised her, taking her by the hand through the Old City. They explored the noisy labyrinth of the great bazaar, the tables teeming with dates and spices and gold.

As an adult, she came to search out fabrics for the small garment factory she ran with her husband, Ourwa Alaraj. She would lead her own children – her son Abdulsalam, and daughters Joud and Cidra – through the clamor of the ancient maze.

They vacationed on the Mediterranean shore at Latakia. When she returned from a trip, the city’s smell – a compound of the earth, the trees and the flowers – greeted her like an embrace.

Syria was a police state. But it was possible for a non-political family like theirs, part of the Sunni Muslim majority, to live comfortably. Street crime was rare and harshly punished; she had always felt safe.

More important, there was health care for her two oldest children, Abdulsalam and Joud, who had slight, brittle bodies as a result of thalassemia, a genetic blood disorder. Because their bodies didn’t make hemoglobin normally, they needed regular transfusions to live.

Every two weeks, all through their childhood, she had packed them into the family Volkswagen for a four-hour ritual at the hospital. The siblings lay side by side, often asleep, as blood dripped through a tube into their bone-thin arms.

She told them the disease did not need to define them. Their bodies might be weak, but their minds were strong and capable. She had always tried to shield them, to explain hard realities in a way that left room for hope, but there was little she could do when doctors ran tests and learned they had contracted hepatitis C from bad blood.

By then they were old enough to understand that hepatitis could eventually kill them, and that it probably made their one hope of a thalassemia cure – a bone-marrow transplant – too dangerous to try.


They did not want to leave Syria. They clung to it as long as possible, even as it crumbled around them. She and her husband were sure the anti-government protests that erupted in early 2011 would be short-lived.

They believed it possible to wait out the chaos, even as the street-by-street fighting reached Aleppo and rebels carved out large chunks of the city and her children learned to dive to the floor of the car if she turned down the wrong street.

They believed it even as they became accustomed to warplanes overhead, and as Cidra called weeping from school to say militants had scrawled threats on the walls: If you send your kids to school, we will kill them and send back only their bags.

They believed it even as they learned to leave the windows slightly ajar so they wouldn’t shatter, on nights when they could feel explosions trembling through the carpet of their ground-floor apartment.

Somehow, the children were able to sleep through the encroaching war. She and Ourwa would carry them into the central hallway, farthest from the windows, and tell themselves: If death comes, at least we will be together.

In early 2012, they closed the dress factory. Supplies of cotton and linen and chiffon had been cut off. They rented a shop and sold shoes.

Blood became harder to get. Soldiers needed it. She pleaded with friends and neighbors to donate, so her children could get blood in return.

That winter the hospital lost power, and finally she was bringing the blood bags home for Abdulsalam and Joud and swabbing their arms to insert the intravenous lines herself. She had seen it done hundreds of times. She kept them warm with blankets and told stories of the Old City.

It would be a 1,300-mile journey with the smuggler.The family managed to borrow $10,000, the fare for just one of them.

“Even I can’t understand what’s happening,” she said.

It will take a generation to repair,” she says. “My life is just a memory. I carry it on my tablet.”

After touching down in Sweden and getting a residency permit, the plan went, one of them would send for the others.

It couldn’t be Cidra, 14, who was so anxious she held her mother as she slept. It couldn’t be Joud, 18, or Abdulsalam, 20 _ their illness made it too risky.

That left her and Ourwa. Usually, the man went. But Ourwa’s back pain might debilitate him, and someone needed to stay behind to protect the children.

Plus, authorities would be looking for Syrian men, which improved her odds of success. And she spoke better English than her husband, so she could fake a non-Syrian identity.

“I have to be a strong woman,” she would say. “I have to be the strong one.”

And so, on the drizzly morning in February 2014 she left Istanbul; she squeezed into the back of the smuggler’s covered truck for a daylong ride to Athens. She counted 13 others in the crush of bodies, mostly Syrian men.

She and the smuggler boarded the plane, careful not to look at each other. They landed in Copenhagen, and he drove her into the southern Swedish city of Malmo and left her.

She would stay with her half brother in Ljusdal, a small country town in central Sweden, a few hours north of Stockholm.

She found much to like about Ljusdal. There were hiking trails through deep woods of spruce and pine. There was a public library with a shelf of Arabic books and a geography room, where she studied Swedish atlases until closing. Socially, she quickly learned, it was nothing like the Middle East with its overcrowded cafes, big extended families, spontaneous meals, fast friendships. Swedes were kind and polite, but reticent and hard to approach. It was difficult to make friends.

Six months, she thought. At most, her family would be joining her within six months.


She was one of 30,583 Syrians to apply for asylum in Sweden in 2014. Despite the deluge, the government was processing some cases relatively fast. By summer she was in her own apartment, with a residency permit, which allowed her to apply for permission to bring her family.

Her husband and youngest child had a strong case, according to Swedish Migration Board policies, but Abdulsalam and Joud were over 18. The board would give permits to adult children only in “special cases,” the website said.

Months passed, and she told herself not to panic.

But how could she not, considering the news her family was giving her _ sometimes reluctantly _ from Istanbul?

One morning, her husband woke to find dirty footprints in the kitchen. Thieves had climbed through the window at night and stolen their mobile phones, and the last of the family’s cash.

There was little police could do, or cared to do. As much as the theft, the official indifference left the family feeling vulnerable. It chilled her to wonder what would have happened if they had awoken to find the thieves. Would they be alive?

Shortly afterward, her family related another frightening incident. Two Syrian men had appeared at the apartment. They spoke in the accents of the Aleppo countryside.

They had orders from their boss to kill Abdulsalam, they said, but would spare him for $10,000.


Again, the Turkish authorities were no help.

Someone must have informed the men that they had been a prosperous family, and still had money. For all they knew, it was someone in the neighborhood they saw every day.



Her face appears on their smartphone in their Turkish living room. Their faces appear on her Samsung tablet in her Swedish kitchen. They spend hours that way, in a melancholy simulacrum of togetherness. Often they don’t talk at all, just watch each other’s routine chores.

She watches Abdulsalam and Joud in their living room sipping cups of water mixed with Exjade, the iron remover they need to survive. She watches Ourwa unroll his prayer rug in the corner and face Mecca.

It is how they celebrated Ourwa’s 50th birthday. It is how she teaches her daughters things they didn’t have time for in Syria, like how to prepare the Middle Eastern dish kousa mahshi, zucchini stuffed with rice and meat.

“I’m trying to make them feel I’m still with them,” she says.

Often, she and her husband talk about what they will do when they are reunited in Sweden. They talk about opening a shop together. Importing clothes from Turkey, and handbags from Italy. She tells him he will have a chance again to be the man he once was.

The government sends her monthly checks of about $1,200, about half of which goes for rent. The rest she sends to her family and uses for bills.


She lives alone in a small third-floor apartment, amid woods. Her window looks out on a well-kept courtyard with a playground and slide. She knows her neighbors only enough to say hello.

Her closest Swedish friend is Gunhild Carlbom, a 78-year-old pensioner, who found her alone at a folk-dancing festival and befriended her. She helped her buy a wooden kitchen table, and gave her a rustic green one-speed bike, still sturdy in its fifth decade.

“She’s a very lovely person and she has had a very hard life,” Carlbom said. “I don’t understand how she can bear it.”

She keeps a Quran on a shelf above photos of her family that are arranged like a shrine. During Ramadan this summer, she found it impossible to keep the fast required of Muslims during daylight hours, because just about all the hours were daylight hours in summertime Scandinavia. When night came, it was like a hand passing quickly over your face.


Like many Syrian refugees in Sweden, she can’t find a paying job. She’s willing to work anywhere – in a restaurant, a hotel, a shop. She has worked her whole adult life, and prolonged periods of enforced idleness are grinding.


As part of the government’s effort to acculturate her, she puts in a few unpaid hours at a perfume shop in the downtown mall. She struggles to understand the labels. She misreads Swedish menus and has to pick ham chunks out of her salad.

She takes Swedish classes, where they watch American movies and TV shows like “Welcome to Sweden,” a sitcom finding mirth in the cultural idiosyncrasies of Swedes.


How can she focus, when every second thought is about her family?

Nobody will tell her how long it will take to process their case. About 74,000 more refugees, from Syria and elsewhere, are expected to reach Sweden this year.


Her greatest fears are for Abdulsalam and Joud. How long will blood supplies last, now that Turkish soldiers are in harm’s way in the fight against Islamic State?

“Nothing can make me happy here,” she said. It is a feeling of being amputated; half of her is somewhere else.


Every spare moment, she Skypes her family. She teaches them basic Swedish phrases. God morgon. Good morning. Mar du bra? Are you OK? Hej da. Goodbye.

More than once, she has had to remind them to study the language. They will need it when they get here.


There is no chance of going home. On her tablet, she calls up photos of Aleppo _ what it was, what it is.

The great mosque, its minaret smashed.

The great bazaar, burned.

The Old City where she grew up, rubble.

For her daughters, Cidra and Joud, the apartment in Istanbul is a kind of prison. It is plain, the walls bare. There is no air conditioning in the brutally hot summer months.

Their father does not let them out of the house unescorted. They aren’t enrolled in school. They play Candy Crush on the smartphone, and draw elaborate cartoons based on Japanese anime.

Her husband, a proud man, left the core of his identity in Syria. “My husband feels like a destroyed man,” she says. “He used to support the family, and now he can do nothing.”

He likes to say that it is all in God’s hands. “Whatever happens, we believe destiny has been written,” he says.

His temper is quick to flare. He buys cheap bags of hand-rolled cigarettes, 20 for a dollar, which he methodically deposits in an empty pack of Gauloises Blancs, the more expensive brand he smoked back home.

Fate in its mystery has somehow brought him full circle, from a poor man to a comfortable man to a poor man, now without even a country.

He carries a plastic bag full of butts and ashes from the living room to the trash can. This is what he does now, he says ruefully. This is his job.

Then there is Abdulsalam. He sleeps through the day’s heat and stays up late smoking and streaming “Agents of Shield” and other TV shows on his smartphone.

He is determined, somehow, to make it to Sweden. He’ll walk, if he has to. “It may take a lot of time, but I’m going there,” he says.


All day long she checks the migration board’s website for the status of her request to bring her family over. When she wakes up. At lunch. After school. Before bed. It is always the same:

Decision pending. Decision pending.

She emails the United Nations refugee agency, writing “Save my family” in the subject line.

The U.N. refers her to the Red Cross, which refers her back to the Swedish Migration Board, which replies with form letters when she sends pleas to consider her children’s illness and expedite their cases. The letters send her into the woods on her old bike, pedaling furiously to outrace her growing desperation.

Her mind races. The conflict, in its fifth year, goes on and on. The deaths have passed 200,000. The news is full of Syrian refugees decomposing in trucks and vanishing in the Aegean and washing up on beaches.

She thinks of flying to Turkey and bringing her family back herself, by land or sea, whatever the risks. “Maybe if I die, I could find peace,” she says.

Twice, she has been back to visit them, and it is terrible to say goodbye. But Sweden is where she lives now. It is where she is laying the groundwork for a future she is struggling, more and more, to make them believe in. It is where they are going to live together and tease each other about the difficulty of learning a strange, brand-new language. It is where, every Wednesday, she walks to the government building across the street from the downtown mall to see the migration authorities.


She waits amid wall murals celebrating Sweden’s pastoral glories: big farmhouses, picture-book fishing villages.

The young official who greets her today, Zlatko Powicevic, listens politely as she explains that she’s been here more than a year waiting for her family. That she keeps emailing the case officer, but gets no reply.

“What shall I do?”

“You can email her again,” he says, but seems doubtful that would help. Unaccompanied minors seeking asylum have been contributing to the backlog. “There’s a heavy flow of kids now, so they’re prioritizing those cases.”


“I kind of lost hope.”

This is Abdulsalam, his face appearing on her tablet one day this summer.

“After two years now, I don’t feel like I’m going anywhere,” he says. “That’s killing me.”

He speaks with a despair that she knows she cannot afford to surrender to, and so she sits at her kitchen table telling her son what she has told him many times before: “But I will win it. I will do it.”

“You can’t win every fight.”

“You don’t know what the heart of a mother can do.”

He is alive, he says, but not really living, because “only breathing doesn’t count.” He believes that if Sweden were going to approve their case, it would have happened.

“I just think this is going nowhere,” he says.

They talk for a while, and then it is time to sign off.

“Hej da,” she says in Swedish.

“Hej da,” her son replies.

She covers her face. Her eyes are wet. But she has always been resourceful at finding shreds of hope where others couldn’t. Maybe he doesn’t mean it. Maybe what matters is how he said goodbye.