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It’s not easy being Swede

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Renita Jablonski: Tens of thousands of Iraqis have fled the country since the U.S.-led invasion. One of the more popular destinations has been Sweden. The Swedish government offers refugees a program to help them integrate into Swedish life, along with health benefits and a stipend. The program is starting to squeeze some local budgets. One town outside Stockholm is experimenting on ways to trim costs. Alisa Roth has more.

Alisa Roth: About 1,300 Iraqis have come to the city of Sodertalje since the war started in 2003. It doesn’t sound like that many people, but they basically increased Sodertalje’s population by 1 percent last year.

Anders Lago: When it comes a lot of people in a short time, it’s problem in kindergarten, in the schools, and it’s a problem in the job opportunities.

Anders Lago is the mayor of Sodertalje. He says the huge numbers also made it hard to get people through the integration program, which was supposed to teach them about all things Swedish, including the language.

So about a year ago, Sodertalje came up with a completely new way to deal with asylum-seekers. It started by cutting the integration program in half, from three years to 18 months.

Erika Berndt runs the program in Sodertalje. She explains that the city really changed its whole philosophy.

Erika Berndt: This is the main goal to get people out and work as soon as possible.

The refugees take classes and do internships, and the new system is designed to make that year and a half feel as much like work as possible. They even get paid to participate.

Berndt: It’s full-time and if you’re ill, you have to go the doctors, and you have your vacation, and this is how it works. If you don’t come here, you won’t get any money.

The idea is that the refugees will be much more prepared for real life when the time comes, and hopefully succeed in the job market sooner.

Which is of course good for the refugees. But it’s also good for the city. The Swedish government subsidizes the refugees while they’re in the integration program. But if they graduate and end up on unemployment, the city has to pay for it.

In Sodertalje Sweden, I’m Alisa Roth for Marketplace.

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