Iraqi expats join the Swedish labor pool

Close-up of a flapping Swedish flag

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Kai Ryssdal: When he was in Baghdad yesterday the president promised the troops he met with that he would have them home by the end of 2011. Since the U.S. invasion six years ago, tens of thousands of Iraqis have left the country. A lot of them have stayed in the region. Those who can afford it, though, have gone to Europe, where Sweden has been the number one destination. Until last year when the Swedes started getting tough, a fairly liberal asylum policy meant Iraqis had a good chance of being able to stay and of being able to join the labor pool. Marketplace's Alisa Roth reports.


ALISA ROTH: Until recently, the city of Sodertalje could brag that it had taken in more Iraqi refugees than the entire United States. So many Iraqis have come here lately that it would take years to find jobs for them all.

But where Sodertalje is overwhelmed, other cities in Sweden need workers. About a year ago, some of them started calling to ask if Sodertalje's Iraqis might consider moving.

ABU SALEM: Our priority is to get these people into the job market and to start their own lives, whether it's here or in other cities.

Hovaida Abu Salem started a program called "Roads to Sweden." It helps match Iraqis in Sodertalje with new cities where they might have an easier time finding jobs.

We met at the library in Sodertalje one morning, where a couple of towns had come to make sales pitches to a roomful of Iraqis. It's a funny presentation. A power point infomercial that talks as much about the region's fishing and hiking as it does about job opportunities.

Jonas Wilderstrom is one of the people trying to sell Iraqis on a small town in southern Sweden.

JONAS WILDERSTROM: Of course, will we have some Iraqis moving down to us, we will be very, very grateful.

Because like many towns in Sweden they've been losing people to larger cities for years.

WILDERSTROM: The biggest problem, as you've perhaps heard, we don't really know what they want from us.

He guesses the region will have about 30 job openings to fill in the next year, including spots for six doctors. Now hat's potentially a big deal for these Iraqis because as a group, they're highly educated. And many worry about having to take jobs that are beneath them here. That's not to say they're all white-collar professionals.

Abu Salem, who directs the program, says there are enough cities and jobs to go around.

SALEM: There are cities that might just want doctors and engineers. But at the same time, there are cities that don't need any engineers. They need carpenters, they need ironsmiths.

I was curious to see how realistic her assessment was. So I went to the town of Mora, a smallish city in central Sweden.

Eleven Iraqis have moved here, including Ban Jamil, who's an architect. And her husband, Faez Minas, who's a classical musician.

They moved here a few months ago, after they got tired of waiting to get into programs like language classes in Sodertalje.

BAN JAMIL: When we got permission to stay in Sweden, I think we waited four months until we met with someone who will help us. We didn't do anything. We were just waiting.

They live in a cozy yellow house surrounded by woods that the city found for them. Minas goes to Swedish classes. And he has an internship teaching music. Jamil plans to start taking language classes soon.

Both of them spent most of their lives in Baghdad, and they miss the excitement of a big city. But they feel welcome here: They've joined a church; they've made Swedish friends. Minas plays concerts.

And the town is trying to do its part with counseling and mentoring programs. And by offering subsidies to local companies that hire refugees.

Minas wants to take advantage of it all.

FAEZ MINAS: I just want to learn more because I will depend on myself, to manage myself in Sweden. That I can select my life. I can go to the north, to the south, to anywhere.

But despite his determination and the city's best efforts, that may be hard. The economy is making jobs hard to come by, even for Swedes. And Minas still hasn't managed to find one.

In Mora, Sweden, I'm Alisa Roth for Marketplace.

Ryssdal: Alisa's story was produced for us with support from the International Reporting Project.

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