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Blind Syrian Refugee Writer Seeks To Make New Home In Sweden


Thousands of Syrians have reached safe haven in Sweden, among them are people with disabilities. Sweden's generous welfare system and accommodations and protections for people with disabilities extends even to refugees. As Joanna Kakissis reports, that could change if a rising anti-immigrant party has its way. She brings us the story of a young blind woman and aspiring fiction writer from Damascus who is now settled in this shifting Sweden.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: I first met Lelylan al-Aydi in February in the lobby of a budget hotel in Athens. She's 25, an aspiring writer and a scholar of Arabic literature. Her friends and family call her Lulu.

LULU AL-AYDI: (Arabic spoken).

KAKISSIS: Al-Aydi had fled Syria with her father, Saif. They described how they had dodged snipers in their southern Damascus neighborhood. Al-Aydi, whose eyes can only make out vague shapes and light, felt the explosion shake her inside. She already had a new home in mind - a place where the state subsidizes and supports the blind.

L. AL-AYDI: I want to go Stockholm.


L. AL-AYDI: Because the blind - the blind take - all are free.

KAKISSIS: The next day a smuggler arranged for her to fly to Stockholm posing as the daughter of a Greek couple.

L. AL-AYDI: In Syria there is no chance for us. The people think about the blind only maybe teacher in the school of blind or in the house - only.

KAKISSIS: But in Sweden...

L. AL-AYDI: Here our situation is not sick, but normal. We can do anything here.

KAKISSIS: She now lives in Fagersta, a town of about 13,000 people in central Sweden. She's still adjusting to the cold and to how quiet the Swedes are.

L. AL-AYDI: I don't hear anything because they are very, very quiet - only birds.

KAKISSIS: She longs for the sounds of Damascus. Even if they're sounds of danger, she says that the familiarity gives her a sense of safety.

L. AL-AYDI: Anything in Damascus make me safety. The bomb in Damascus now make me safety because I miss Damascus.

KAKISSIS: But Fagersta is giving her what she needs. The Swedish government pays for the cozy apartment she shares with her father. It pays for language courses, even yoga and swimming classes. It pays for the taxis to those classes too.


L. AL-AYDI: My name is Lelylan.

KAKISSIS: And it pays for the Braille typewriter where Lulu hopes to compose poems, stories and screenplays. Her father says in exile she could be like Taha Hussein, a famous blind Egyptian writer.

SAIF AL-AYDI: (Arabic spoken).

KAKISSIS: She has strength and talent, Saif al-Aydi says. I wish she had grown up in Europe. The family is originally Palestinian and faced barriers in Syria they won't face in Sweden. For more than sixty years, we have not been citizens of Syria, he says. But here, we don't have to be stateless. We can be citizens of Sweden.

Sweden takes in more refugees relative to its population than any other country in Europe. But a nationalist party in parliament, the Sweden Democrats, says refugees cost too much. The party wants to cut immigration by 90 percent. Victoria Turunen represents the Sweden Democrats on the Fagersta local council.

VICTORIA TURUNEN: It's always easier to talk about one individual. If you had said we have a hundred thousand Lulus who want to come here, then we have to look at it in a different way.

KAKISSIS: But Lulu al-Aydi is still dreaming big. She's writing an autobiographical screenplay about a blind girl who flourishes in Europe. And she hopes to bring from Syria her husband and her sister, who are also blind.

For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis.

SIEGEL: That story was reported with help from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.