“I was bleeding so much, I thought I was dead,” 33-year-old Hadi Abdullah told Fusion.
Four months ago, Abdullah—a Syrian refugee living in Sweden—faced off with three armed attackers in his apartment. The attackers charged in through a window carrying sticks and a large sword, beat him up, and stabbed him in the head, causing a 10-centimeter-deep wound.
All because Abdullah had tried to bring a little of his Syrian culture with him to Sweden.
Abdullah’s story is one of the most disturbing recent examples of persistent racism toward Muslim Syrian refugees in Europe since the Paris terrorist attacks. Fusion talked with several young refugees to hear their stories. The incidents they described range from dirty looks on the street to physically violent attacks. But for those who experienced them, they were all motivated by the same prejudice.
“My mother still gets nightmares and isn’t able to sleep at night after the incident,” Abdullah told Fusion about his attack. His mother was not the only one to see Abdullah bleed nearly to death: his nieces and nephew (ages 5, 6, and 8) walked in minutes after the attackers fled the scene. “The kids are afraid and traumatized from seeing their uncle covered in blood and pleading for help. They still can’t sleep at night,” said Abdullah.
It all started when Abdullah decided to become an active member of his new society, holding gatherings for locals in Brösarp, a village on the southwestern tip of Sweden. At the local post office, he posted a public invitation to a Syrian dinner at his home. Abdullah also reached out to the mayor of the village to invite everyone to the Syrian dinner. He and his family prepared the famous Syrian shawarma and hummus for their guests. “Out of 500 residents in the village, 100 people showed up to the first gathering at my home,” said Abdullah, in Arabic, to Fusion. Swedish natives got to eat Syrian food and hear Abdullah explain to them his Syrian culture and faith. “Many people appreciated the gathering, the Syrian food, and simple talk about my culture and Islam,” he said.
Over time, Abdullah held several other gatherings at his apartment, and his goal of being accepted in Brösarp seemed to have been achieved. “People gradually accepted my existence among them and carried out conversations with me,” he recalled.
But that was not entirely the case. Along with positive reactions came very hateful responses and reactions from racists in the village. “Because my family and I proved to the racists that we are normal beings trying to live in harmony with everyone in the village, their hate increased toward us,” said Abdullah, who speaks seven languages. “We are educated people. We did not come to beg for money, we are here to work and accomplish ourselves in Europe,” he added.
After the attack took place, people in the village organized a candle vigil for Abdullah. They stood side by side to support and protect him. “People on the streets came to hug and kiss me to show support and acceptance,” said Abdullah.
But a week after that public show of solidarity, the Paris attacks happened. “And these same people that were hugging and kissing me completely changed,” said Abdullah. People on the streets ignored his greetings and stopped talking to him. “They gave me dirty looks and made me feel as if I was behind the Paris bombings. I felt as if I was going crazy. I still can’t understand how that happened,” he said.
“They all know that I am a victim and still managed to stereotype me after the Paris attacks because I have a beard and I am a Muslim,” he added. People advised Abdullah to shave his beard to try to conform to European looks. But he refused. “My beard is a symbol of solidarity with the victims that the Assad regime targeted and killed. whether Christians or Muslims,” said Abdullah.
Abdullah reported the attack to local police. According to a police report reviewed by Fusion, the police concluded that there is not enough information to continue the investigation, and therefore they have no suspects for the crime.
Abdullah will continue to hold gatherings at his home, he told Fusion. “After all, all I ask for is acceptance of Syrian refugees in western societies,” he concluded.
19 year-old Rama Al-mett, a Syrian refugee who relocated to the Swedish city of Gothenburg nine months ago, described subtle but pervasive discrimination. She said that men with Muslim names, like Muhammad or Ahmad, have had a hard time finding jobs and opportunities. "Many guys got rejected from a job at local stores simply because of their names,” said Al-mett. Store owners fear that customers would not buy from that store because of the worker's name, she said.
“Some people think that we came from a different world,” she said. Swedish people ask her strange questions.“They ask me do you know what is a phone? Of course I do!” she exclaimed. “Indeed, there are some people that look at Syrian refugees as if we are thugs who are in Sweden to impose Sharia law."
Mohammed Sahhary, also 19, has been living in Gothenburg, Sweden for a year now. “We have to thank God that they welcomed us into their country,” said Sahhary to Fusion. Living in Sweden, Sahhary is able to attend school without worrying about Assad’s planes dropping TNT barrel bombs, nor does he have to worry about ISIS targeting him for advocating for a free and democratic Syria via social media. Sahhary is currently learning Swedish in order to complete his high school diploma and start college.
Sahhary recalled standing in a line at the local gym with a friend speaking Arabic. Little did he think of it as threatening to others, but a women standing in line looked at Sahhary and yelled, "'Get away from here! Don't stand next to me!'…We were not talking to her. I still don't know why she did that,” said Sahhary.
In Sahhary's view, Middle Eastern politics can carry over to refugee populations, playing a big role in the racism faced by Syrians living in Europe. “The majority of racists in Sweden are Swedish citizens who came from another countries,” said Sahhary. Swedish citizens of Iranian descent who side with the Assad regime are particularly hostile, said Sahhary. “When an Iranian person knows you are Syrian, he instantly treats you differently,” he said.
Rama Raouf, 22, found a new home away from the war six months ago in Eggesin, Germany. She wears the hijab and refuses to take it off despite the dirty looks and comments she said she gets on the street. Raouf said the majority of the people in Eggesin, a small town a couple hours northwest of Berlin, are not accepting of the hijab. "A lot of people told me since I am now in Germany, I should be free from the oppression,” Raouf said. Some residents are neo-Nazis, she believes “We are facing harassment on the streets," she told Fusion in Arabic, referring to herself and fellow refugees.
Raouf said her hijab is neither a symbol of oppression or imposed on her by anyone. “I am not wearing the hijab out of fear of my family or my society. I wear it because I look up to the Virgin Mary as a symbol of modesty,” she said, adding that people are often shocked when they hear Raouf’s reasoning.
“Syrians are not for the refugee benefits and freebies,” said Raouf. “God willing, once the Syrians have the education and opportunities, they will go back to Syria to rebuild the country.”
Alaa Basatneh is a human-rights activist and a writer at Fusion focusing on the Arab world. She is the protagonist of the 2013 documentary "#ChicagoGirl."