When the beggars came to Säffle


SÄFFLE

At a sturdy pine coffee table surrounded by some mismatched kitchen chairs, Max, Sonia, Madalina and Viorica are eating a late dinner of polenta, potatoes, feta and fried chicken.

Thanks to the churches and the municipality of Säffle, they don’t need to squeeze into a car or a public toilet for the night to take a break from what they do all day – beg for money to support their families.

Joakim Götborg, Parish Priest with the Centrumkyrkan church, says:

“What were we to do? Not take responsibility? That’s not the way we do things in Säffle.”

It’s Wednesday night in the town of Säffle in Värmland and the autumn night is slowly drawing in. Pensioner Kjell Rosell is cycling towards a group of 1960s tower blocks that have seen better days. Outside in the dusk some women are standing holding bags, waiting for him to arrive. They are waiting for him to unlock the building so that they can make dinner, wash and sleep for a few hours on a mattress or a camp bed before sitting down to beg for another ten hours the next day.

The flats are Spartan, furnished with second-hand furniture donated by local residents. The curtainless windows gaze out into the nighttime darkness; there are no rugs on the worn lino floor and no pictures on the walls. But the camp beds and mattresses on the floor mean a lot to the people who would otherwise be sleeping outside or on the floor of a public toilet.

Manix Magearu, known as Max, is 42 and spends each day sitting outside the Pekås discount supermarket in at the main square in Säffle town centre. He’s walked a few kilometres to his shelter for the night and is trying to understand the practical questions that Kjell Rosell is asking him. Using an app on his phone, Kjell Rosell is able to piece together a conversation. It usually works fine, but sometimes the results are so silly that everyone bursts out laughing.

There are currently 12 European immigrants in Säffle, strategically placed at the entrances to the state-owned alcohol monopoly, Systembolaget, and the major supermarkets. They belong to two families, related by marriage, and all come from a Roma district on the outskirts of Buzau, a town 100 km north of Bucharest, Romania. Photo: Alex Ljungdahl

When asked why he came to Sweden to beg on the streets, Max says:

“I worked on building sites for ten years. I erected plasterboard and did basic construction work in Romania and in Italy. There aren’t any jobs any more. I came to Sweden because my son is ill and I need money to look after him. We had to get money somehow.”

“I have two children, my son Ciprian and my daughter Graciela. Our son is 22 and is very sick,” says Max, pointing towards his stomach.

His wife Sonia, 45, who usually sits outside the Coop supermarket in Säffle, says:

“I came here because our son needs money for medication and treatment. I have parents who are old and infirm too. We live in a Roma area but we are part of both worlds, Romanian and Roma.”

They belong to two families, related by marriage, and all come from a Roma district on the outskirts of of Buzau, a town 100 km north of Bucharest, Romania.

While the whole of Sweden is scrabbling together millions of kronor and working to take in more refugees, mainly from Syria, many of them unaccompanied children, the situation of EU immigrants begging on the streets has not gone away. One social problem doesn’t eliminate another; one emergency doesn’t cancel another out.

There are currently 12 European immigrants in Säffle, strategically placed at the entrances to the state-run alcohol monopoly, Systembolaget, and the major supermarkets. They belong to two families, related by marriage, and all come from a Roma district on the outskirts of of Buzau, a town 100 km north of Bucharest, Romania. They don’t live in the worst slums of Buzau but there are major social problems, including poverty and unemployment.

Five of them sleep in this flat during their time in Värmland and there are two other flats in the same building, which serve as a shelter for these European migrants.

Max and Sonia will be staying in Sweden until December. Then they hope, with the help of the generous people of Säffle, to have scraped together enough money to get through the rest of the winter at home in Buzau. Of course, in Sweden, they have no right to the Swedish welfare system, such as income support or similar, but they can get emergency medical help if necessary. One of them had a tooth extracted in Säffle, which cost 50 kronor. But according to the government’s national homelessness coordinator, Michael Anefur, there is no such thing as social tourism.

Sonia is frying potatoes and boiling polenta in a saucepan. Max opens the window to air out the smells of frying while Viorica, 51, and Madalina, 31, help set the table for the basic meal. They usually only eat once a day, in the evening. A younger female relative called Corina doesn’t want to be in the photo and goes to bed in another room.

Once the food is ready, the family invite us to share it with them, refusing to accept our “no, thank you”, and we eat together in silence, with nods and thumbs up from time to time. After the meal it’s time to get ready for bed.

Every day, 45-year-old Sonia sits on a bench outside the side entrance to the Coop supermarket in Säffle to raise money for her family. Back home in Romania, her son needs money for medication and treatment for his illness. Her parents are old and infirm. Photo: Alex Ljungdahl

Today is an ordinary Tuesday, it’s 10 am and the churches in Säffle are holding an ecumenical meeting. The Church of Sweden’s conference room, in a low, red brick building on Billerudsgatan, is filled with representatives from the Uniting Church’s Centrumkyrkan, the Church of Sweden, the Swedish Evangelical Mission, the Pentecostal Church and ecumenical charity, Hela människan. The hardwood floor is made of oak and there are red, white and grey checked curtains. Their aims are high, as is the ceiling. Coffee is served with apple cake and whipped cream.

When it got cold last winter, nine European immigrants from Romania squeezed into a car to sleep the night, and some of them slept in a public toilet. That was when Centrumkyrkan church got involved. Before the ecumenical meeting begins, Joakim Götborg provides a brief summary of what has happened:

“It was quite unreasonable. No one should have to live like that. They were filthy and had fairly lousy clothing for the cold. We went to the Ecumenical Council and talked to the other churches. What can you do, what can we do, what can we do together?

“The Church of Sweden provides a Monday lunch, while the Evangelical Mission has a fantastic little café on Friday evenings, which is already helping refugees and asylum seekers. We opened up the cellar to provide breakfast, heating, showers, clothing and a place to contact other people. Then everyone came here. You never know how it’s going to go. But everyone came.”

Because the main issue was finding somewhere to sleep, Centrumkyrkan decided to make an empty caretakers’ flat available to the European immigrants. The rules were clear: they were only allowed to use the flat during the night, not during the day.

But a dozen people in one flat is quite a lot, although Joakim Götborg says that the families got through the winter splendidly: There wasn’t a single complaint, no damage, no noise, no arguments, no alcohol. Kjell Rosell, who is a pensioner on the board of Centrumkyrkan says:

“They helped to clean the stairwell and cleared snow outside.”

Max Magearu, 42, from Romania is pleasantly surprised by a plate of food, prepared and served by Jehan Hamam, 39, from Grums, and Åse-Marie Kristiansen, 35, from Åmål, who are studying at the culinary school in the same building as Pekås on the main square in Säffle. Photo: Alex Ljungdahl

Since mid-March, all the Roma have been living in three flats that the municipal housing company has allowed them to use. The Säffle Method means that the municipality pays the rent, via an extra grant of SEK 120,000 to Centrumkyrkan, who then passes the money on to municipal housing company Säfflebostäder. The circle is complete, the shelter is paid for. Joakim Götborg says:

“Initially money was allocated from social services but our friends here are not covered by Swedish social security legislation. So what do we do? Not take any responsibility? That’s not the way we do things in Säffle.”

"If they are going to live in Säffle, they have to beg in Säffle or in Åmål."

Lena Skoting is a Parish Priest in Säffle and, after coffee, she opens the ecumenical meeting with the issue of European immigrant beggars. The twelve of them are either begging in Säffle or in Åmål, 20 km away. Lena Skoting says that they have made things clear to the Roma in Säffle.

“If they are going to live in Säffle, they have to beg in Säffle or in Åmål. We had someone who wanted to stay here and then take the bus to Karlstad to beg there. But we’ve made it clear that this isn’t permissible. They shouldn’t bring their children here either. Then it isn’t a shelter, it’s a different kind of housing.”

Joakim Götborg says that people often ask him if we really are allowed to do this.

“We don’t have to do this, we do it because we want to. We have every right to do what we want.”

“But there are so many aspects to it. What happens if you let them just drift? Where do we think we should put a camp? Where would the public showers be? Where should we put the soup kitchen? No one wants any of that anywhere.”

Lena Skoting says that it’s important that the churches have worked so well with Säffle Municipality from the very beginning.

“The attitude has been ‘we need to sort this out’. On the other hand, from the Municipality’s perspective, this is – I imagine – a fantastic solution, as we’re doing all of the work…”

Not everyone thinks the Säffle Method is a fantastic solution. Some think it’s scandalous that the Municipality’s money is going to people who aren’t from here. Billy Johansson, a member of the Municipal Council who represents the right-wing populist Sweden Democrats is one of them. He and his party colleagues have reported the Municipality’s decision to the Administrative Court:

“We’ve got problems making the money go round and we have no duty to provide homes for these people. It feels like a front, it feels completely wrong in our world.”

Others think that the alternative – the immigrants building a camp in Säffle or sleeping in public toilets – is much worse. Billy Johansson says:

“I can’t say which would be better. These are people who have a country that they live in – it’s not as if they don’t have a country. They have somewhere to live. And Romania has been given money to integrate Roma, but they’re not using it. How can the Roma be integrated if they’re not even in Romania?”

The centre of Säffle is sliced in two by the River Byälven, which runs into Lake Vänern a few kilometres to the south. This autumn renovation work is being carried out on the Kanalbron bridge that links east with west, which means that vehicle traffic is restricted in one direction. Anyone walking through the town centre can see that several shops have closed down, but the Municipality is investing 12 million in the town centre: rebuilding it and making it more attractive, with more outdoor restaurant space, more room for cyclists, planting more oak trees... Säffle intends to be around for another few hundred years.

Sonia, 45, Buzau, Romania. She is married to Max, who sits outside Pekås. She has chosen a spot outside the side entrance to Coop and has placed a red blanket over herself to keep her legs warm. "I came here because our son needs money for medication and treatment. I have parents who are old and infirm too. We live in a Roma area but we are part of both worlds, Romanian and Roma. I will return to Romania with my husband in December. Work in Romania? No, there's no work in Romania for any of us."
  • Sonia, 45, Buzau, Romania. She is married to Max, who sits outside Pekås. She has chosen a spot outside the side entrance to Coop and has placed a red blanket over herself to keep her legs warm. "I came here because our son needs money for medication and treatment. I have parents who are old and infirm too. We live in a Roma area but we are part of both worlds, Romanian and Roma. I will return to Romania with my husband in December. Work in Romania? No, there's no work in Romania for any of us."
  • Lena Skoting, 56, Parish Priest, Säffle. One of the people who has worked to provide nighttime accommodation for the European citizens who are begging in Säffle. Here she is selling cheese for charity. "I think it's exciting to see what is happening here with the beggars and with people in general. They have been given a greater sense of dignity, better self-confidence, and it's about the way they are treated by us and other people. A roof over their heads and hot and cold water can go a long way. But there's also what's gone on among the people of Säffle, the feeling that they are our beggars. You feel a kind of relationship with them. I think it has an effect when people see that other people are stopping, not passing by. And allowing them to be seen as a person."
  • Madalina Simion, 31, Buzau, Romania. She is outside the main entrance to the Coop supermarket in Säffle, with a purple scarf wrapped around her head. Her husband is in Romania and she has a photo of her seven-year-old son, Mario, in front of her on the pavement. "There's no work for us in Romania, that's why I have to sit here. I need money for my son, money for food, for wood. My son goes to school, he's in the first year. He has to walk quite a long way to school but he goes. I try to earn about 150 kronor a day. I have to. I think the people are kind here."
  • Solveig Voyce, 32, Editor-in-Chief of the Säffle-Tidningen newspaper. Has been actively involved in campaigning against xenophobia and racism. "People thought European immigrants were in the big cities, not here. Then suddenly you go to do your shopping and there's someone sitting outside your supermarket and you're taken aback – you weren't prepared for it to come here. We noticed that it really got people involved, very quickly too. There were other opinions too, people who thought 'Why should they be here? We don't need any beggars in Säffle.' Opinions are sharply divided all the time."
  • Max Magearu, 42, Buzau, Romania. His spot is outside Pekås on the main square in Säffle, where he sits from morning to night. "I worked on building sites for ten years. I erected plasterboard and did basic construction work in Romania and in Italy. There aren't any jobs any more. I came to Sweden because my son is ill and I needed money to look after him. We have to make money somehow. I have two children, my son Ciprian and my daughter Graciela. Our son is 22 and is very sick. How much do I get? Look in the jar. It's mostly the older people who give money."
  • Kjell Rosell, 66, pensioner, Säffle. One of the volunteers who opens and closes the shelter that the churches have organised for the European migrants. "We must give money to the people who are sitting there begging to the extent that we can and are willing to. But you can also give them a little smile and a pat on the shoulder – that means a lot too. But it's also true that we need to give grants to organisations in Romania so that in the longer term they don't need to travel to Sweden or other countries to beg. But that's a project that won't take a year – it will take decades."
  • Säffle Municipality and the church. Dag Rogne, Municipal Councillor (C), and Ingemar Rosén, Town Manager, have been working with Joakim Götborg from the Centrumkyrkan church and Lena Skoting from the Church of Sweden, using the Säffle Method to fund a shelter for the European citizens who used to sleep in cars and in public toilets. The method involves making municipally owned flats available to the churches, who use them as nighttime shelters for the beggars and in return receive an additional grant that covers the rent. The Sweden Democrats on the Municipal Council do not approve of this and have reported the Municipality to the Administrative Court.
  • Corina, Buzau, Romania. She sits outside the state-run alcohol monopoly, Systembolaget, on Sundsgatan in Säffle. She doesn't want to give her surname and she doesn't want to be photographed. She has only come to Säffle to hold a spot for her father Costel, who had to go back to Romania for a medical check-up. He has cancer. She doesn't want to be in a photo because she is afraid that it will wreck her chances of getting a new job. "I've worked as a cleaner in Spain, I've worked in hospitals, I've helped old ladies go to the pharmacy and get their medicine."
  • Viorica, 51, Buzau, Romania. She sits outside the Netto supermarket every day, wearing tracksuit bottoms and a sports jacket that's slightly too big for her. "When I leave our home, my husband Costel stays in Romania. When I return to Buzau, he comes here. It's hard to find a job. My son is 23. His name is Georgian. He has a little baby. I'm a grandmother now. I miss my family a lot."

An almost vintage Volvo chugs past, but then whips around the roundabout outside the town hall and drives back the way it came, along Västra Storgatan, past the Saga cinema and the big sweet shop. Techno-pop blares through the cracks in the metalwork.

A couple of years ago, Volvo Buses relocated all of its manufacturing, from Säffle to Wroclaw in Poland, with the loss of 330 local jobs. It was a major blow for the town, although many of the workers later found jobs in other companies that set up in the same premises. Unemployment in Säffle is roughly double the national rate in Sweden, and the Municipality takes in more refugees than many others. At the end of September, for example, a new asylum centre housing up to 100 refugees opened in an annex to Säffle’s Comfort Hotel.

The Town Hall is a three-storey, yellow brick building, built in 1954 by architect Nils Einar Eriksson, with decorative artistic features that remain to this day. Town Manager Ingemar Rosén and Municipal Commissioner Dag Rogne, who is a member of the Swedish Centre Party, walk up the marble steps, past the wall featuring Rudolf Persson’s “Intarsiaserie” artwork and into Rogne’s office.

The Municipal Commissioner flicks through a pile of papers. New statistics have come in on refugee reception: the school had 286 new pupils last year and 220 adults were attending Swedish for Immigrants (SF) courses. They say that it’s not about allocated numbers any more. The agreements aren’t very important now that the situation has become a refugee emergency. They have to take people in. Dag Rogne:

“People think that we’ve taken our share and now we’re getting even more. But we can’t do anything about that.” The mood in the Municipality seems to be good, with activities in the square for refugees from various different groups.”

So the question is, in this situation, why is it important that the Municipality provides a roof over the heads of people from Romania who have come here to beg?

“It’s partly for the European immigrants themselves. We have to make sure they don’t freeze to death during the winter. And we also think it’s reassuring for those of us who live here – we think this is the right thing to do, making sure they don’t suffer. There’s a reason why they’re here, which perhaps we can’t all fully understand, but still, the Municipality is a pleasant and safe place and things are well organised and secure for them,” says Dag Rogne.

After ten hours on a bench outside Coop, it's a relief to not have to sleep in a car or on the floor in a public toilet. Madalina Simion is one of the Roma who have received an overnight shelter in some of the municipal flats in Säffle. Photo: Alex Ljungdahl
Max, 42, sits outside a shop in Säffle every day with a paper cup. In the evening he wanders back to a flat, where the local churches have opened an overnight shelter with support from the Säffle Municipality. Photo: Alex Ljungdahl

The Municipal Commissioner doesn’t deny that this is a way of avoiding immigrant camps and people living in parks or public toilets.

“Yes, that’s true. That’s really how it is. Last summer we had people camping out beside an industrial area, in old parkland in the forest, but the police shut it down. We asked the police to put an end to it and they did.”

Town Manager Ingemar Rosén explains that no one is defending the situation itself, that there are people who have to beg.

“Everyone wishes it wasn’t necessary. We’re dealing with a situation in the here and now. In Säffle.”

Dag Rogne adds that the Municipality is doing this to support the work of the churches:

“We would never have started a shelter ourselves. Maybe we aren’t even able to.”

A yellow brick building on Hamngatan, close to the River Byälven, but accessed via Kaptensgatan, is the home of the local newspaper Säffle-Tidningen and its Editor-in-Chief, Solveig Voyce. She is known for speaking her mind and speaking out against racism and xenophobia. This has resulted in eggs being thrown, both at the newspaper office and at her home, and after an article said that all children are our children, someone wrote even more revolting things on her garage door.

Solveig Voyce sits on a sofa in the newspaper office and tells us about the strong reactions that were unleashed when the newspaper began writing about the people begging on Säffle’s streets and their situation.

Today's special: chicken. Sonia, 45, has come to Säffle with her husband and some other relatives. Photo: Alex Ljungdahl

“We noticed that it really got people involved, very quickly too. There were other opinions too, people who thought ‘Why should they be here? We don’t need any beggars in Säffle.’”

The newspaper printed reports, and also began collecting clothes for the European immigrants and unaccompanied refugee children, as well as dressing gowns for the women’s shelter.

“There are two very strong opposing viewpoints in the town. There is a loud group of Säffle residents and others who are debating the issue in the social media, who have blown the begging issue up into something huge. We also have a great many people who want to help. And then there’s the grey area in between, who don’t say anything.”

"It's not good the way it is now. Wherever you go, they're sitting there – they're sitting everywhere.

Last spring a group of teenagers hurled abuse at the Roma and finally a girl spat at one of the beggars. A young woman went up to them and said “what the hell are you doing?” but none of the bystanders reacted.

“I wrote about that incident. It caused very strong reactions. On both sides,” says Solveig Voyce.

After a few days during which Säffle’s streets are relatively deserted, the town centre suddenly livens up. The autumn market brings people into the town, wandering around the market stalls selling everything from chocolate marshmallows from Skåne in the far south of Sweden to cloudberry jam from Norrbotten in the far north. Most of the people we talk to think that helping the European immigrants via the Säffle Method is the right and proper thing to do, while others have their doubts.

Kristin Fransson, 22, works with sheltered housing and day centres. She says:

“I think it’s a good thing that the church and the Municipality are making sure the beggars have a roof over their heads. Definitely. It takes a lot of money but everyone is worth the same, so I think it’s the right thing to do. I think we should help. Sometimes I give them money, sometimes I don’t – it depends how I feel at the time. I think it all adds up, in the end, if everyone gives a little.”

Britta Berglund, 49, lives in Värmlandsbro 10 km from Säffle and runs an environmental and construction consultancy. She is more doubtful:

“It’s a very difficult question, because while we want to have open borders, they just come here and get everything handed to them on a plate... If I travel to another country, I’d have to find myself somewhere to live. Then there’s the other thing, if we’re going to help them, perhaps we should help them where they live, in their own country.”

Her husband Jörgen Berglund, 51, a Machine Operator, doesn’t like the situation either:

“It’s not good the way it is now. Wherever you go, they’re sitting there – they’re sitting everywhere. That’s the question; if they had enough money to get themselves here and now they’re getting money, they must be able to get themselves home again, mustn’t they?”

An old man with a Zimmer frame almost crashes into another old man without one at the entrance to Pekås, the discount supermarket on the square. They talk for a moment. The man without the Zimmer frame has bought a beer, a packet of margarine and some snuff, which he is carrying in a thin, transparent plastic bag.

Linda Waaksma, 45, small-business owner, Kila. Pictured with her dogs Puk and Kompis. Linda thinks it's a complicated question. "Sometimes there are definitely some that are faking it and others that really need help. It's hard to tell which is which when they're sitting there by the door. I don't give if I don't know who they are or what their background is. If it's part of the church's activities or in some other way, I'm happy to help, but I don't give money when they're sitting there. I don't think people's image of Säffle will change because of the beggars. It depends on you how much you let that sort of thing bother you."
  • Linda Waaksma, 45, small-business owner, Kila. Pictured with her dogs Puk and Kompis. Linda thinks it's a complicated question. "Sometimes there are definitely some that are faking it and others that really need help. It's hard to tell which is which when they're sitting there by the door. I don't give if I don't know who they are or what their background is. If it's part of the church's activities or in some other way, I'm happy to help, but I don't give money when they're sitting there. I don't think people's image of Säffle will change because of the beggars. It depends on you how much you let that sort of thing bother you."
  • Karola Sjökvist, 34, on sickness benefits, Säffle. Thinks it's good that the beggars have a roof over their heads. "If they're here, we need to help them. But the best thing would be to help them in their own countries instead. They can't live on the street. I think there's quite a lot of hate against these people in Säffle. I've seen it and heard it in town, people shouting at them and spitting at them. I'm not in favour of them either, but I know how to behave like a decent human being at least."
  • Kristin Fransson, 22, works in shared housing in Säffle. Thinks it's excellent that the church and the Municipality are making sure the beggars have a roof over their heads. "Definitely. It takes a lot of money but everyone is worth the same, so I think it's the right thing to do. I think we should help. Sometimes I give them money, sometimes I don't – it depends how I feel at the time. I think it all adds up, in the end, if everyone gives a little."
  • Britta Berglund, 49, Consultant, Värmlandsbro, and Jörgen Berglund, 51, Machine Operator, Värmlandsbro. Britta thinks that the matter of European citizens begging is a very tricky issue. "While we want to have open borders, they just come here and get everything handed to them on a plate... If I travel to another country, I'd have to find myself somewhere to live. Then there's the other thing, if we're going to help them, perhaps we should help them where they live, in their own country."

Outside the Coop supermarket is Madalina Simion, sitting on a plastic  crate, with a purple shawl wound round her head. She is 31 and her  seven-year-old son, Mario, is at home in Buzau, Romania with her  husband. She has a photo of Mario in front of her on the pavement. Max  is her uncle.

“There’s no work for us in Romania, that’s why I have to sit here. I  need money for my son, money for food, for wood. I try to earn about 150  kronor a day. I have to.”

Corina is sitting outside the state-run alcohol monopoly,  Systembolaget, on Sundsgatan. She has just come here to help her father,  Costel, keep his spot. He had to go back to Romania for a medical  check-up. He has cancer, Corina explains, pointing to her stomach.  Corina will be going back to Romania next week, she tells us, when her  father returns. She doesn’t want to be in a photo because she is afraid  that it will reduce her chances of getting a new job.

“I’ve worked as a cleaner in Spain, I’ve worked in hospitals, I’ve helped old ladies go to the pharmacy and get their medicine.”

"When I leave our home, my husband Costel stays in Romania. When I travel home to Buzau, he comes here."

 

Corina’s mother Viorica, 51, is sitting on a chair outside the Netto  supermarket. She is wearing tracksuit bottoms and a sports jacket that  is slightly too big for her. She says:

“When I leave our home, my husband Costel stays in Romania. When I  travel home to Buzau, he comes here. It’s hard to find a job. My son is  23. His name is Georgian. He has a little baby. I’m a grandmother now. I  miss my family a lot.”

When we leave Viorica, she quickly dries some tears from her cheek. I  turn around and ask her, using the mobile app, why she is sad. Then she  smiles a happy smile and shakes her head. Maybe it was just the wind  making her eyes water.

When photographer Alex Ljungdahl wants to accompany Max as he walks  home one night, he agrees but wonders why we are so interested in him.  He packs his things into a bag and says:

“I’m no Ronaldo, no Messi, no Ibrahimovic. I’m just Max from Romania.”