After Fleeing The Taliban, An Afghan Reinvents Himself In Sweden

Apr 5, 2016
Originally published on April 12, 2016 2:48 pm

Sweden has taken in more asylum seekers per capita than any other European country — 160,000 last year alone. Refugees are now part of the landscape, even in small towns. And nearly everybody, not just those working with aid groups, is encountering the newcomers.

In the southern town of Ronneby, Dagmar Nordberg is giving Swedish lessons to Waliullah Hafiz, who goes by Wali, at her kitchen table. The 60-year-old Swedish museum director met this 23-year-old migrant from Kabul on a train platform in a nearby village on a freezing cold day last November.

"He was standing there in a T-shirt, with his jeans and his cotton shoes," Nordberg recalls. "And I thought he was just one of these boys playing computer games all day long. And I've come to that age where I can say things, so I just passed him by and I said, 'It's winter!' "

Hafiz says he had so many problems he couldn't think about the weather. And besides, he didn't own a jacket. Nordberg remembers he was so stressed that he was sweating, but he replied politely.

"He said, 'I know, ma'am,'" she says. "That was the first time I heard Wali's voice."

Nordberg says she understood then that he was a lost refugee and she could either go on with her life or help him. "I just knew I had this choice here and now, and whatever I do will have consequences," she says.

Four months later, the two are having lunch in Nordberg's cozy cabin in a southern Swedish forest next to the Baltic Sea. There is a whole fresh salmon and thick brown bread.

Hafiz holds a university degree in electrical engineering. Back in Kabul, he had a successful business with a contract to supply the Afghan army with propane gas canisters.

One day, the Taliban came and promised him a bigger house and a fancy car if he'd let them fill the army's empty gas bottles. Hafiz says they wanted to turn those bottles into bombs and expected him to smuggle them back onto the base through the numerous checkpoints, using his security pass.

Hafiz refused. He breaks down as he tells the story of men coming to his house afterward and seeing his wife and newborn son and attacking him. He shows me a 3-inch pink scar down the back of his head. He says one of the Taliban hit him with the butt of his Kalashnikov rifle and left him for dead.

When he awoke from a coma 13 days later, his mother told him he had to get out of Afghanistan.

"So there you have a young man, an educated electrician," says Nordberg, "doing a good living, having a nice little family. And then, all of a sudden, his existence is blown to pieces."

Hafiz, now living with other refugees in a town near Ronneby, wants to bring his wife and child to Sweden as soon as he can. Nordberg is helping him with his asylum application, but the process is slow because there are tens of thousands of applicants.

For now, Hafiz helps Nordberg with jobs around her property. He jokes that she is the only one who understands his English. But there's another guest at lunch on this day — Jörgen Andersson, a forester. He clears trees in the surrounding forest using a horse, not a tractor, to pull the logs out one by one.

Hafiz has applied to be Andersson's apprentice. If his application is accepted, the Swedish government will pay him to learn forestry.

Andersson says he never thought of taking an Afghan refugee as an apprentice — especially one who'd never been in a forest before — but he's glad he can help. "I'm happy to do that," he says. "If he feels better, I feel better."

Hafiz says that in Sweden, he finally feels like a human being again. Two weeks later, I learn that the Swedish government has approved his apprenticeship.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The flood of migrants into Europe means that Europeans have an ever-more-personal connection to trouble elsewhere. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley sends this profile of one asylum seeker and the Swedish woman who took him under her wing.

DAGMAR NORDBERG: (Speaking Swedish).

WALIULLAH HAFIZ: (Speaking Swedish).

NORDBERG: (Speaking Swedish).

HAFIZ: (Speaking Swedish).

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Dagmar Nordberg is giving Waliullah Hafiz, who goes by Wali, Swedish lessons at her kitchen table. The 60-year-old Swedish museum director met the 23-year-old migrant from Kabul on a train platform one freezing cold day last November.

NORDBERG: And he was standing there in a T-shirt with his jeans and his cotton gymnastic shoes. And I thought he was just one of these boys playing computer games all day long. And I've come to that age where I can say things. So I just passed him by and I said, (Speaking in Swedish). It's winter.

HAFIZ: Yeah, it was winter. I have a lot of problems. My heart have a lot of problems.

BEARDSLEY: Wali says he had so many problems, he couldn't think about the weather. And besides, he didn't own a jacket. Dagmar remembers he was so stressed he was sweating, but he replied politely.

NORDBERG: He said, I know ma'am. That was the first time I heard Wali's voice.

BEARDSLEY: Dagmar says she knew then that he was a lost refugee, and she could either go on with her life or help him.

NORDBERG: I just knew I had this choice here and now. And whatever I do it will have consequences.

BEARDSLEY: Four months later, Wali and Dagmar are having lunch in her cozy cabin in a southern Swedish forest next to the Baltic Sea. Wali has a university degree in electrical engineering. And he says back in Kabul he had a successful business with a contract to supply the Afghan army with propane gas canisters.

HAFIZ: All of people knew me. This is Wali. They have with me contract.

BEARDSLEY: One day the Taliban came and promised Wali a bigger house and a fancy car if he'd let them refill the army's empty gas bottles. Wali says they wanted to turn those bottles into bombs and expected him to take them back onto the base through the numerous checkpoints using his pass.

HAFIZ: A good life, and all of them take it, but (crying).

BEARDSLEY: Wali breaks down as he tells his story. He says the Taliban came to his house where he was with his wife and newborn son after he refused. He shows me a pink three-inch scar down the back of his head. He says one of the Taliban and hit him with the butt of his Kalashnikov and left him for dead.

HAFIZ: And this time, my mama told me, you don't do life in here. After this time I should go to the other province.

BEARDSLEY: When he awoke from a coma 13 days later, Wali says his mother told him he had to get out of Afghanistan.

NORDBERG: So there you have a young man having a nice little family, and then all of a sudden his existence is just blown to pieces.

BEARDSLEY: Now Dagmar is helping him with his asylum application. Wali wants to bring his wife and child to Sweden as soon as he can.

NORDBERG: I understand Wali's English.

HAFIZ: Yes. Dagmar know more languages.

BEARDSLEY: Wali helps Dagmar with jobs around her property. And Wali says Dagmar's the only one who understands his English.

HAFIZ: You know my language (laughter).

BEARDSLEY: There's another guest at lunch on this day. Jorgen Anderson is a forester clearing some trees in the surrounding woods, using a horse, not a tractor, to pull the logs out one by one. Wali has applied to be Jorgen's apprentice. And the Swedish government will pay Wali to learn forestry if his application is accepted. Jorgen says he never thought of taking an Afghan refugee as an apprentice, but he's glad he can help.

JORGEN ANDERSON: I'm happy to do that. If he feels better, I feel better.

BEARDSLEY: What will you have to teach him? Where do you start?

ANDERSON: I have to teach him everything because he never been in the forest before.

BEARDSLEY: Wali says in Sweden he finally feels like a human being again. Two weeks later, I learn that the Swedish government has approved Wali's apprenticeship. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Ronneyby, Sweden. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.