As a school counselor in Malmo, Sweden, Pooja Sharafi has heard more than his fair share of suffering.
Roughly one quarter of his kids at Sofielundsskolan are “new arrivals,” meaning they came to Sweden in the past four years. Many of them fled wars in Iraq, Syria, Libya or Afghanistan. Many have gone through hell to get here.
Earlier this month, however, Sharafi heard something he had never encountered from one of his students: a request for the king’s address.
The odd inquiry came from a 12-year-old Syrian immigrant named Ahmed, a charming, quick-witted kid who had arrived in Sweden four months earlier with his parents and little brother. When Sharafi asked Ahmed why he wanted to contact the king, the boy answered simply: “I want to tell him my story.”
And what a story it is.
“I want to meet the Swedish king to tell him about my story. I heard he is a noble king.”
In a letter he showed to Sharafi a few days later, Ahmed laid out his harrowing journey from Aleppo, where his teacher was killed in front of his eyes, across the choppy Mediterranean Sea and through Europe.
“I read his letter to the king and I started to cry,” Sharafi told The Washington Post in a telephone interview.
The school counselor is far from the only one to be moved to tears by Ahmed’s tale of fleeing fire and death in Aleppo. With Sharafi’s help, Ahmed has taken his letter to the Scandinavian airwaves with the hopes of meeting King Carl Gustaf.
But Ahmed’s dream also has its fair share of detractors.
Across Europe, young male asylum seekers just a few years older than Ahmed have become a lightning rod for controversy in recent months. In Germany, they have been blamed for a spate of sexual assaults and thefts on New Year’s Eve. In France, they are viewed with suspicion after several Islamic State militants posed as refugees before launching their deadly attack in Paris. And even in Sweden, the country that has accepted more migrants than anywhere else in the continent, Swedes have started to look askance at asylum seekers after several incidents high-profile incidents.
In August, an Eritrean migrant snapped after his asylum petition was denied. He fatally stabbed a mother and son inside an IKEA.
And just a few weeks ago January, another asylum seeker stabbed to death a social worker who tried to break up a fight at a center for unaccompanied migrants.
Once viewed as a safe haven for migrants streaming into Europe, Sweden has recently taken a U-turn, closing its borders and promising to deport between 60,000 and 80,000 asylum seekers. Support has surged for anti-immigration parties, and a recent poll found that 40 per cent of Swedes think “integration and immigration” is now the biggest issue facing the country, according to the Local.
Ahmed’s letter, however, shows that Sweden should put aside its fears and consider its asylum seekers as an asset, Sharafi said.
“I always went away to cry. I did not want my parents to see me when I did not want to increase their grief.”
“Sweden is getting more intolerant and closing its borders and pointing more fingers, instead of listening and including the people coming here,” he said. “We should see the value, the benefit of having people that can really contribute to the country instead of blaming them.”
Sharafi has some first-hand knowledge of how immigrants are helping Sweden. His parents came to the country from Iran, and his identity as a first-generation Swede helps the 29-year-old counselor talk to recently arrived immigrants.
When Ahmed asked Sharafi to help him send his letter to the king, the counselor agreed. But he also suggested taking Ahmed’s campaign to social media. The two set up a Facebook page called Brev till kungen, or “Letter to the king.”
“My name is Pooja Sharafi and I work as a school counselor at Sofielundsskolan in Malmo,” Sharafi wrote. “One of our students, Ahmed, 12 years old, came to see me two weeks ago and needed to talk about his journey from Syria to Sweden and about the feelings that have arisen during the trip. Ahmed also told about a desire to send a letter to King Carl Gustav and meet His Majesty to tell his story. I asked Ahmed to finish writing the letter in Arabic (his mother tongue). The letter was translated and is now complete. The letter touched me to tears. Help me to share the post so that the letter arrives at his majesty.”
“We arrived in Sweden. We stayed with my aunt in a small room instead of our lovely big house.”
Here is Ahmed’s letter, translated twice-over:
Hey King Gustav!
My name is Ahmed and I am 12 years old. I have a mother, a father and a brother. We have always lived in a beautiful house filled with joy in Aleppo, Syria. My dad had a large factory and shops for children’s clothing. He bought many gifts and toys for us. My parents had cars and we lived happily until the war started with the sound of missiles, shooting and terror. Dad’s factory burned down, nothing is left of it and the joy that we experienced began to cease. I could not go to school anymore because my teacher was killed by a shot right before our eyes. . . . I cannot forget those seconds. They were my worst moments.
“My father went into his room to tell Mum that the factory was burning. My mother went out of the room crying. Then my father decided that we had to travel for our safety. Now began my worst days. Early Saturday morning we went to Turkey. We made it in a scary inflatable boat. The water was all around me and the darkness above my head. I was terrified. People were screaming, children crying, my dad smiled all the time to try to calm me down and my brother, but the situation was more difficult than I thought. I talked to myself and said, what has happened to us? Where is my house? Where is my bed and my toys?
“We arrived to an island. The police took us to a place that is worse than the rubber boat. The crowd was huge. There was a terrible stench. We had to stay with the crowd until the police released us. We were without a home for 15 days. This was the peak of my depression, my grief for mum and dad. They could not do the things they always did for us before.
“I always went away to cry. I did not want my parents to see me when I did not want to increase their grief. My mother was crying just like I did, made sure no one could see her. But I saw her. My heart was crushed.
“We came to Sweden. I want to meet the Swedish king to tell him about my story. I heard he is a noble king. I carried with me a bag of new clothes to have them on me when I meet the king.
“We arrived in Sweden. We stayed with my aunt in a small room instead of our lovely big house. I wake up every morning to see my father in front of the window, sad that he did not have enough money to buy us, the family, what we desire.
“Therefore, I would seek to meet with you, the king!
“I wish to see you when I’m wearing my new clothes, which I have brought all my way to Sweden to meet you.
Ahmed’s family has asked that their surname not be used. His mother declined to be interviewed by The Post, but did confirm that her son’s letter is authentic.
In an interview with The Post, Ahmed said writing the letter was painful, but had brought him great pride.
“It was hard to write it,” he said in clipped but courteous English, his third language. “It was difficult because I wrote about my journey from Syria to Sweden.”
His parents and his counselor could hardly believe that the 12-year-old had written the moving letter on his own, he said.
“My father said, ‘Are you the writer?'” Ahmed said with a chuckle. “Nobody helped me. I wrote it. Only me.”
Ahmed told The Post that he misses Syria and worries about family members still there. But he is fond of his adopted country, too.
“I like it very much,” he said. “The people here in Sweden smile to my face all the time.”
Sharafi says the letter hasn’t yet led to a meeting with the king, but the counselor still holds out hope.
Even if the meeting doesn’t happen, however, he believes Ahmed’s story is opening eyes about asylum seekers.
“He has a gleam in his eye,” Sharafi said of his student. “He’s ambitious, really goal-oriented, really driven in what he wants to do.
“We need to hear these stories,” he said. “And we need to really see these kids for who they are.”