The Last Resort | The Inspiring Story of a Swedish Ski Town That Opened Its Arms to Refugees
"It Helped Us See Them as Human Beings…"
Words by Sam Haddad | Illustration by Matt Ward | Photos by Peter Ulfves
Imagine being forced to leave your home and seek another life in a different country. Now picture the place you’ve moved from as warm, light and desert-like. But the area you’ve moved to is 20 degrees cooler, with snow and ice on the ground, and days where the darkness never ends.
This is how things are for Hakim Akbary, an Afghan refugee, now living and working in Riksgränsen, the world’s most northerly ski resort. Having been displaced from Kabul he’s now in Swedish Lapland, 200km north of the Arctic Circle, working as a cleaner, though he used to have an office job as a translator. Still right now he couldn’t be happier.
"When the sun is shining it looks wonderful. I feel like it’s not reality, it must be a picture."
He says: “Sometimes I work at breakfast and the windows show the mountains. When the sun is shining it looks wonderful. I feel like it’s not reality, it must be a picture. They look gorgeous; they look excellent. I love it."
In Europe, as the refugee crisis grows deeper and more troubling by the day, Sweden is second only to Hungary in the number of asylum applications it processes per head. According to the the European Commission they have 1,667 asylum applications per 100,000 population, where as the UK has just 60.
Last autumn, the Swedish authorities came up with an unlikely idea to house the growing number of refugees in the country. They called up Sven Kuldkepp, the CEO of Lapland Resorts, which includes Riksgränsen, and asked if the resort could take some refugees in their off-season from mid-October to mid-February.
Kuldkepp says: “They knew we had space and as Riksgränsen is only us, the 20 or so people living here all year round, we said yes. We welcomed 620 refugees."
Hakim Akbary was one of their number. I first spoke to him in early February before the resort had opened to the public. I asked how he’d felt when he arrived there last October.
He said: “Before I came here, I didn’t know exactly where Riksgränsen was. I was in Piteå because the migration office was trying to find some accommodation for us. Then a lady came and told us we were going on a bus and to take as many warm clothes as you can because we were going to move to a very cold area. I asked her to show it to me on the map but I didn’t really know what sort of place it was going to be."
"I asked her to show it to me on the map but I didn’t really know what sort of place it was going to be."
“The bus was around eight hours. We arrived here in the dark but you could feel that there was some snow on the ground; when we were walking you could hear it. The next day I saw the snow. I didn’t expect to see snow in October as we usually see it around December in our country [Afghanistan]. I was not confused but I was surprised. Also in Kabul usually we have snow just on top of the mountain, not all of the mountain."
In Riksgränsen the sun sets at 5pm in mid-October and doesn’t show at all for much of December and January. I ask if he’d expected that? He says: “Perhaps a week after arriving, I was at the supermarket. There was a pair of sunglasses there and I said: ‘Ok let’s buy this for myself,’ but the cashier told me: ‘You’re not going to need it.’ I said: ‘What do you mean?’ and she said: ‘You’re not going to see the sun for a while, perhaps for two or three months, so the sunglasses are going to be useless.’"
"You’re not going to see the sun for a while…"
How did that make him feel? “When I was in my country I’d studied about some places in the world not seeing the sun for a while and I could not believe it was be true! But then I told myself: ‘Ok what use is the sun? I don’t want to see it. If it’s not going to be there I don’t care about it.’"
“But after a while, I was feeling like I missed the sun, I was thinking the sun should come up. I want to see it somewhere."
When we spoke in February he’d just taken a day trip to the nearby town of Kiruna and seen the sun for the first time since November, as it had not yet appeared above the mountains in Riksgränsen.
He says: “I liked Kiruna because we could see the sun. The city and people in the city were nice and everything was clean. But the thing was that in my country if you go out at noon you see a lot of people walking in the street buying things but in Kiruna I rarely saw people walking in the street. I think as it was cold. If you walk for 10 minutes then you see one person walking but in my country you walk for 10 minutes and see at least 500 people."
Given the cold, dark winter, how did he pass the time? “I didn’t really go out in the day, most of the time I was in the lobby area of the hotel or the rooms of my friends playing chess or we’d play billiards or check Facebook."
Did most of the refugees have smart phones? Hakim said: “Yes, almost everyone." And did social media make people feel less homesick? “Probably though for me I’ve been trying to avoid using my Facebook and those things too much because I have many friends back in my country and they put pictures of my city and when they are together and that makes me feel sad."
"I’ve been trying to avoid using my Facebook… because I have many friends back in my country and they put pictures of my city and when they are together and that makes me feel sad."
Is the food ok? “Different people have different ideas and different tastes. There are 600 people and 600 tastes…The way they cook rice is different from the way we cook rice so the hotel decided to use some of the refugees as assistants in the kitchen to make sure foods are closer to the foods that we taste in our country."
What about the kids, do they go out and play? He says: “Most of the Afghan children usually go out and play. [The resort] have been giving them some sort of plastic sleds to play on. Then two or three times a week they have more specialised equipment for skiing, and boards. The kids like it a lot. They sometimes fall and we laugh and they laugh but they are learning."
Back in February he told me he was hoping to stay and work in Riksgränsen as he’d heard the process for getting asylum was long and “I cannot waste time staying in migration accommodation." He’d been trying to learn Swedish on Facebook and from the hotel staff.
Do the other refugees want to stay? “Yes! Some people have been driving me crazy to stay. I’m one of the few people who can speak English so people keep coming to my room and asking me to talk to the hotel and convince them. But the hotel cannot just employ over a hundred refugees…"
"People have been driving me crazy to stay… but the hotel cannot just employ over a hundred refugees…"
“They started moving people from here and the first group who were leaving were so excited as they were moving from a mountainous area to a village, but now [when we speak to them] they are saying Riksgränsen is much better."
What has been so great about Riksgränsen?
“The kindness of the people. They are wonderful here, I admire them. They are the best that I have ever met, I cannot believe that they are this kind. Here they never look at us like refugees they always look at us like human beings who have been fleeing the war, not [people who have] migrated here just to be stupid or something."
"Here they never look at us like refugees they always look at us like human beings who have been fleeing the war…"
“Everybody who is leaving… the last thing anyone asks is when you go to reception you have to tell them we will never forget their kindness and support. People here in Riksgränsen are wonderful, I really appreciate them."
Sven Kuldkepp tells me the experience was also really positive for him and the other residents of Riksgränsen.
“It was good and useful for them but the experience has been ever better for us. There have been some problems of course but for the most part it’s left us feeling extraordinarily good. And the problems are much less than the problems of the normal season say with too much drinking. It’s been better than that."
“It’s also helped us see the refugees as normal human beings, to see beyond the tragedy [of their circumstances] now those people stand in front of us. It’s been a fantastic experience."
Now the ski season has started most of the refugees have left the resort. I skyped Hakim again to see how his plans had worked out, had he got a job?
“Yes I’ve got work now here cleaning the rooms. I’m a cleaner."
And how is that going? “Well I like it so far, because I feel like there are a lot of things that I can learn from these guys. I would not want to choose this job for the long term but I still can learn a lot of things."
"I would not want to choose this job for the long term but I still can learn a lot of things."
Like Swedish? “Yes I managed to get a book and I spend two hours a day after work learning the language. When I need help I just go and ask [my colleagues] and most of the time they are happy to help."
What kind of hours does he work? “40 hours a week, eight hours a day and two half days in each week."
Is that hard? “No because when I was in my country I was working for 40 hours a week too though I’m more tired here."
Hakim tells me six of the refugees managed to find jobs and have stayed on. I ask how it was when his other friends left?
“Well before they left I was not so worried, I was thinking ok they are going after their lives, but when they left I kind of felt alone. I’m the only Afghan here, before there were a lot of Afghans, but the Swedish guys are very nice and now I do not feel alone."
And the guests? “I am not really interacting with them as I am just cleaning but when I meet them they are usually smiling and kind, I like them."
And how is Riksgränsen now the sun is shining everyday? “Yes good, the view is much more beautiful now. When it was dark I was not paying attention to those mountains, but now it’s much better, they look gorgeous."
You sound very at home? Would you like to come back next winter. “Yes if I feel like there’s an opportunity I’d love to come back, because it’s a great environment here. But there are no jobs here at the end of the season, they close until next year."
In the UK we often see negative stories about immigration in the news. I wondered if that ever filtered down to Hakim, and if so how it made him feel.
He said: “There was a Facebook page I was following. It was all about migration to Europe but it was giving mostly disappointing news so I stopped following that page because after reading the posts I was feeling sad. But I have heard they’ve closed the border in Macedonia and want to close it to Greece."
Hakim tells me he feels extremely lucky to have been housed in Riksgränsen. He still speaks to his friends who were moved to different places and many aren’t as happy as him. I ask what he’d have done if he’d been moved to a place he didn’t like. He said: “I would probably isolate myself to my own bed something like that. Not leave my room except for eating food. When they make a decision about your case it’s going to be one or two years so to be isolated for that period you’d go crazy."
Is there anything people at home can do? Is it helpful when we send clothes? “Clothes are important but not for the ones who have already made it to a country like Sweden. Right now my major concern is integration into the society then learning the language. I want to integrate and move forward with my life."
And has he been skiing? “Not yet. A lot of people are encouraging me. The hotel manager and some of my friends in reception but no, not yet. I have a plan for next week…"
"Right now my major concern is integration. I want to integrate and move forward with my life."
Is he excited or nervous? He says: “I’m not nervous but I have to be a little bit cautious as I do not want to break any part of my body. I need to be completely healthy to work. I have to be a little cautious and careful to make sure I’m not breaking anything."
Hakim’s last comment hits me like a sucker punch. We see ski resorts as places of play. Beautiful natural spaces where we can ski and snowboard and party later if we feel like it. And even if we did work in one, we wouldn’t worry about hurting ourselves if we went skiing or snowboarding, as we’d most likely have insurance and we could just not do our job for a little while. Nothing monumental would shift in our narrative.
But for Hakim his job is everything, he can’t afford to damage himself and risk derailing his chance of a new life. Until he got work and the security that brought he didn’t even notice how pretty the Arctic landscape was. He was too busy surviving and trying not to miss the place he used to call home. It puts things in perspective and makes me for one realise how crazy lucky I am.
To read the rest of the features from the March Origins Issue head here and to find out more about Riksgränsen head here