OSTERSUND, SWEDEN —
Many refugees and other migrants used to love this small city because, as they walked down the streets, people would look them in the eye and smile.
That was before the sexual assaults.
In the past month, 15 women and girls have been sexually assaulted on the streets, including an attempted assault on a 15-year-old Saturday night. Local eyes are more often cast down nowadays, and smiles have faded.
"Recently, we were going to the supermarket," said Marwan, a pizza chef from Syria in a camp in the nearby forest. "A young Swedish girl saw us 100 meters away, and she changed her direction."
Regional Police Chief Stephen Jerand says there is one man in custody and tat least three more identified as responsible for some recent assaults in Ostersund, Sweden, March 21, 2016. (H. Murdock/VOA)
One man is custody in connection with the assaults, and police say at least three other assailants are at large. The man is believed to be an asylum-seeker, and some victims have described the other attackers as having foreign appearances and accents, according to regional police chief Stephen Jerand.
The attacks have ranged from grabbing and threats to attempted rape.
Aggravating the uptick in crime for regional police was a population swell, as refugees poured into Sweden last year. Nationwide, there were about 100,000 newcomers in the last four months of 2015 alone. The police force in this central province, Jämtland, has not grown with the population.
"We have no more resources to solve the problem," Jerand explained. "It has accelerated since last year."
Accusations called illogical
As snow falls heavily on a nearby camp, young men from Syria, Iraq and Iran insist it is not logical for a refugee — a person who risked everything for a new life — to risk it all again to commit crimes in his chosen new country.
"Refugees came here to make a new life," said Mahdi, an economics graduate from Kurdish Iran, "not to fight or to [harass] women."
With less than 50,000 people, locals in the city of Ostersund, Sweden, say that before the attacks, they considered it safe for women and girls to walk outside alone at night, March 20, 2016. (H. Murdock/VOA)
Danger on the streets, adds Ghaith, a Syrian dentist, is why most refugees fled their homes in the first place.
"I'm not a bad guy," he said. "If I was a bad guy, I would stay in Syria and fight."
The other 10 young men in the room nod, saying that in Middle East war zones, joining a militant group is often the only work available. Taha, an Iraqi lawyer who has been waiting for Swedish residency papers for a year-and-a-half, laughs.
"I think," he explained, "if you stay and fight, you might make good money."
Deeper in the forest, in a camp that houses about 400 people, night falls and the snow continues to build in thick piles on the pine trees. After passing out tea and Swedish cakes, refugees and aid workers sit down to talk.
The goal is to discuss ways to stop the relationship between newcomers and the community from crumbling, according to Emma Arnesson, the founder of Hej Främling, an aid organization for refugees that in English means "Hello, Stranger."
Refugees in Sweden are often isolated from large communities physically as they are housed in crowded remote camps like this one, Grytan Camp, Sweden, March 21, 2016. (H. Murdock/VOA)
One of Hej Främling's goals is to connect existing communities with refugees and migrants through cultural and athletic activities, Arnesson says. It is a project more relevant than ever as anti-immigration sentiment grows along with the refugee population.
"We want to bring people out from isolation," she says.
Despite the newfound mistrust in the city, there is no shortage of volunteers or Swedish people who want to join refugees for events like football matches, running groups, skiing or singing, Arnesson explains. Down a small hill, 10 snowmen — the tallest three meters high — stand proud after a snowman-building competition earlier in the day.
In response to the attacks, the organization has joined civilian security patrols at night to help prevent sexual assault. Refugees hope that by helping to protect the community, they will build trust until the assailants are caught, she adds.
"They are frustrated and have a bad feeling," Arnesson said of the refugees trickling into the room before the meeting begins. "They read social media and they see that people are afraid."
Particularly concerning to aid workers and those among the more than 1 million people in Europe who fled wars and poverty in the Middle East and Africa last year is that when any migrant is accused of a crime in Europe, anti-immigration activists hold it up as evidence to support growing xenophobia.
"Not all of your fingers are the same," explained Jamal, a father of two and grocer from Yarmouk, a Palestinian refugee camp in Syria where Islamic State fighters battle other militant groups. "If one is a bad person, it doesn't mean they are all bad."
Hej Främling hosts sports and cultural activities in which both refugees and locals participate, like this snowman-building competition at Grytan Camp, Sweden, March 21, 2016. (H. Murdock/VOA)