Syrians in the Öresund

A CMES seminar on Syrians in the Öresund Region

On Friday June 10, the Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES) at Lund University arranged a seminar devoted to exploring refugee experiences among Syrians in the Öresund region. Organizers were CMES researchers Dalia Abdelhady and Joshka Wessels. International researchers in law, religious studies, refugee studies, environmental studies, urban sociology and anthropology participated, as well as representatives from civil society organizations in the region.

Research presentation

The discussions took as point of departure the preliminary findings of Dalia Abdelhady’s and Joshka Wessels’ pilot project, “Syrians in the Öresund,” exploring refugee experiences in the Copenhagen region and South Sweden. The research is based on interviews, documentation and observations among refugees who have been in the region for at least one year. The project explores participants’ narratives of the trauma of fleeing Syria, the arduous journey towards safety and, most notably, the making of a new life in Scandinavia. So far only 16 interviews have been conducted. Thus the data set is narrow and not representative as concerns educational background, age or gender, the researchers underscore. Yet already a number of important findings and follow up questions for further research emerge.

The experiences of interacting with local authorities in Scandinavia have generally been good, albeit sometimes frustrating. The lack of meaningful activity while waiting for residence permit is a recurring experience. However, the participants are also notably resourceful and ambitious. Apart from the language training offered to all refugees, they seek out further opportunities of language training and internships in their specific professional fields.

A recurrent aspect is the longing for a more active community life. Notably, there is not much evidence to suggest that a specific “Syrian” community is emerging so far. Behind this we find old divisions and suspicion, echoing the divisions and conflicts produced by the war they left behind. Most participants still have family in Syria, which is a constant source of concern and anxiety. This also affects the engagement in community life in the new host societies. In their self-reflections on the meaning of “being Syrian,” the participants rather underscore the importance of cultural life. This is connected to a sense of nostalgia for a homeland forever lost. The importance of food, music, dance, social life and hospitability are recurring themes.

Dalia Abdelhady and Joshka Wessels are careful not to draw any overall conclusions about the refugee experience at this early point of research. Yet a number of themes emerge for further exploration. One seems to be a sense of a “survival guilt”: why did I make it and not the others? This in turn translates into a sense of obligation to make a meaningful and valuable life in the new context. There is most notably a refusal to accept the refugee label, a refusal against victimization. One participant formulated it as an unwillingness to accept grants from government authorities, rather than relying on own capabilities: “I don’t want to be paid for being a refugee!” Secondly, there is a recurrent uncertainty towards the future. This not only reflects a lack of a long-term control over one’s destiny, but a foundational difficulty in thinking ahead. And again: the importance of culture in making sense of current existence emerges as a third central theme.


In the roundtable discussions following the presentation, a number of perspectives were highlighted. Experiences of housing, of education and labor and of the role of cultural and artistic expression were some of the major themes in the questions discussed.  Among the questions discussed we found:

·      Among Syrian refugees, what experiences are unique to the Öresund region? How can the current Öresund economic integration vision support integration and emancipation among the participants? And what are the differences in making a life in urban and rural environments? What are the hopes of the participants to pursue professional lives reflecting their educational backgrounds?

·      How does the housing shortage affect the participants? What does it mean for community building efforts to constantly be on the move? How are they affected by black market actors and economic exploitation? How can the dire waiting periods involved in the refugee experience be handled, through improved routines in the authorities and activities from organizations? How do we avoid adding yet a traumatizing experience to refugees by placing them in endless months of inactivity?

·      How can we improve the public understanding of refugees’ experiences of displacement and building new lives? How can we connect findings from research to policy making?

·      How can we assist newly arrived groups in providing support for self-empowerment in public space? How can we provide platforms for community building, agency and self-understanding, creating opportunities but not micromanaging cultural and artistic activities?

·      What is the interaction between the participants, and local authorities and organizations in (re-)constructing “Syrian culture” in the sense of an invented tradition? Who determines the content of culture? And what cultural forms will become more salient in a Scandinavian setting? How can culture contribute to sustainable community constructions – and what problems may be involved?

Looking ahead: a new network established

In sum, the seminar was highly productive in identifying a number of themes for further research as well as applied practices among community organizations. The immediate outcome of the seminar was the creating of a joint network for research and applied community activity, in order to exchange ideas and experiences for practices.  The role of cultural and artistic productions was highlighted as one central theme for such exchange. Another central theme concerns housing. The ambition of the network is to combine research and practice based knowledge in promoting knowledge-based policies and inventive forms for supporting agency and sustainability among the members of the Scandinavian Syrian communities.