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Far above Sweden's Arctic Circle, a ski resort hosts refugees

RIKSGRANSEN, Sweden (Reuters) - Far above Sweden’s Arctic Circle, two dozen refugees stepped off a night train onto a desolate, snow-covered platform, their Middle Eastern odyssey abruptly ending at a hotel touted as the world’s most northerly ski resort.

A refugee girl looks outside of her camp at a hotel touted as the world's most northerly ski resort in Riksgransen, Sweden, December 15, 2015. REUTERS/Ints Kalnins

It was Sweden’s latest attempt to house a record influx of asylum seekers.

No one was here to greet them. Only a few, swaying lights flickered on the otherwise empty platform as women fruitlessly wrapped hijabs around their faces to protect themselves from the mountain blizzard.

“Where are we? Is this the final destination?” said Alakozai Naimatullah, an Afghan who worked as a U.S. military translator. He wore tennis shoes, buried in the snow.

His words went unanswered in the disorder of arrival. Their bare hands frozen, husbands, wives and children bent over to drag plastic bags filled with worldly possessions over a steep, snowy path to hotel lights a hundred meters below.

They joined around 600 refugees, mainly from Syria and Afghanistan, holed up for two months in Riksgransen. It is some 124 miles (200 km) north of the Arctic Circle and a two-hour bus ride to the nearest town - if the road is not closed by snow.

It is an example of the extremes Sweden is going to in order to house some 160,000 refugees this year in a country of 10 million people. Shelters range from heated tents to adventure theme parks, straining resources.

The sun never rises in Riksgransen at this time of year and temperatures can plummet to minus 30 degrees Celsius. But the hotel offers food, shelter and security after a dangerous month-long trip from the Middle East by boat, train and bus.

The jovial hotel manager Sven Kuldkepp has helped arrange temporary classes and free sledges for children. There is a gym and boxing classes for adults. A room once used for meditation has been turned into a mosque. Yoga mats now face Mecca.

But the hotel mostly has the feel of an airport lounge with a delayed flight - with a two-month wait. Riksgransen will be home until the ski season starts in February, but many face more than a year’s wait until they get news of asylum requests.

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Some refugees, only a hundred meters from ski slopes, still dream of Syrian beaches.

Wael al-Shater was a chef at a 60-table restaurant called Sky View in Homs, specializing in chicken. He had aspirations and applied to study as a chef in Cyprus, but never got a visa. He had friends in Dubai but didn’t want to live outside Syria.

“Life was so easy. I made $1,200 a month,” al-Shater said. “It was so safe that my friends and I used to drive 60 kilometers to the beach just to have a coffee late at night at two in the morning and return home.”

But war came. His work day was cut in half as fighting erupted in the streets, and his father died of a suspected heart attack during fighting in Homs.

“I could not take him to hospital. He died on the street,” Al-Shater said. He paid $1,200 to be smuggled by boat to Greece some 25 days ago and ended up in Riksgransen with his wife, an English teacher.

“In the end I had no option but to leave or join the killing. Or become a protester and get killed. I had to leave.”

Sitting along dark corridors, refugees’ faces are illuminated by flickering smartphone screens. Some play video games, others Skype friends. Most, like al-Shater, are eager to share memories, using their phones to swipe through photos.

One elderly man showed pictures of his wife and daughter at the beach in the Syrian town of Latakia, a seaside resort and near a Russian military airbase.

Smoking outside in the freezing dark, he raised his face to the sky, as if bathing in Latakia’s imaginary sun.

“Please turn on the sun again,” he laughed.

Another pale, old man had charmed hotel staff with tales of his perfume shop in Syria before he was moved to a Swedish hospital due to a heart ailment.


Trauma and illness abound. Flu and chicken pox already spread through the hotel. But the most common ailment is insomnia, a sure sign, say nurses, of war trauma.

To make matters worse, few refugees venture outside, spending days in rooms. Many fear taking children out in such freezing temperatures, despite tourists spending thousands of dollars to visit a place famed for views of the northern lights.

“This place is like a desert island,” said nurse Asa Henriksson in a makeshift clinic by the spa’s swimming pool. “It is surrounded by a wall of mountains.”

“When the aurora comes, we tell people to go outside, lay down in the snow, and look up,” she added. “The refugees don’t. Many people here think their children could die in this cold.”

There have been cases of bus loads of refugees arriving in the north overnight, having a glance at the surroundings and refusing to get off, insisting on returning to warmer regions.

Some return to southern Sweden while others, like most in Riksgransen, accept their lot. In Riksgransen, many still want to visit the nearest town of Kiruna. They receive around 2 euros a day, some saving for days to buy small toys for children.

Al-Shater still yearns for his homeland.

“There is no human being who does not dream about returning to his country,” he said. “But when it comes to Syria, this is simply impossible. We are planning our future in Sweden.”

Additional reporting by Michael Georgy in Cairo; Editing by Janet McBride