On the path to happiness

Posted on: September 12, 2016 2:00 pm

Sister Maria Christina Hennig returned to her home country of Sweden in November 2015 for sabbatical and discernment. Her time for reflection quickly turned to a call to act. Today, she ministers to refugees in downtown Stockholm. 

The Beginning 

When I initially asked to go to Sweden for a period of time, the exodus from the Middle East was not as extreme as when I arrived in Europe in November 2015. Just some weeks before I left the United States, hundred of thousands of refugees moved throughout Europe. Early enough I was one of the many thousands moving from one place to another, trying to get a seat on the train. 

After one week in Sweden I was asked to teach Swedish in a refugee camp. The camp was previously a hotel, but single rooms were accommodated with up to five persons. 

With this first experience of a completely new Sweden, I continued my call in the beginning of April at Mötesplats (Meeting Place) Caritas. Located in Stockholm, it is similar to Catholic Charities in the US. 

Mötesplats Caritas is a place for refugees, asylum seekers and undocumented people. It is open three days a week from 10 am to 3 pm. Officially, I was assigned to these 15 hours each week, but it soon turned out to be many more. 

My first task was to keep the place running. When I started, it was without planned and organized activities and without a coordinator for several months. There were very few volunteers and the visitors stayed away. Mötesplats Caritas began to lose profile. 

At the beginning I did grocery shopping, preparing breakfast, babysitting, teaching and counseling. Each week there were more people coming. I was happy to welcome the visitors with coffee and sandwiches. They were very appreciative. The place was personal, nothing like an institution. 


At Mötesplats Caritas I am able to share the love of Jesus as I welcome the strangers and try to meet some of their needs. More than anything else, they need people who can see them not just as refugees, but as people, strong people with a challenging, dangerous trip behind them. 

Without really knowing how, I suddenly carry out the ministry of St. Julie and our congregation. I feel this especially as I work with the mothers, daughters, and sisters because of our history of working with women. Like St. Julie I walk on unfamiliar paths among refugees. I trust that God will provide the support that I need for the different activities. 

There is a lot of education involved, both for the visitors and volunteers. I train the volunteers to be empathetic and inclusive towards the visitors. Our new members of the society need to learn Swedish language, habits, culture and rules. They want to arrive and be a part of this society. Sharing time with the volunteers, being a friend, and meeting people other than “just those in the camp” is very valuable for many of the visitors. 

I visit parishes and other organizations in order to receive support and also to create a network of professionals. In Sweden there is not the same experience with volunteers as in the US. It was quite a challenge, actually, to work with volunteers here at first. Now there is a steady group of people teaching and several women who take care of providing food.

There is still much to overcome. One evening I was teaching Swedish to a group of more than 50 individuals at the refugee housing. The youngest participant was five years old and the oldest was about 75. 

I asked myself, “How does one teach a language to a diverse group like that? Will they learn Swedish?” Maybe some of them will. For some of them it is an expression of hope and doing something meaningful, getting out of the little overcrowded room. Most of them are aware that only through learning the Swedish language will there be a future here for them. However, many of them do not know the Roman alphabet. That makes it very difficult. The higher educated have English as a first foreign language, which is an advantage when they want to be integrated in the society and meet Swedish people. 

The people in my groups ask for attention, appreciation, hope and trust. They live in crowded spaces. The places where I meet with them were once hotels and conference centers far outside the city. The owners offered the migration authorities to use their buildings for refugees. 

Too often there are 4-6 people in one room that once was a single room, sharing a small bathroom. The requirements say there has to be at least 5 square meters per person. However, too many people came within too short a time, so this requirement could not be kept. 

Their contact to Swedish people is limited because there are hardly any possibilities for the refugees to leave the place where they live. In some places they have one bus card for each room. That means they share the card with four or five others. 

A group of women has shown an interest in getting together to make caps, scarves and blankets for the Syrian refugees in Jordan. We will need yarn and needles, or money to buy these items. We are working to get these items and make this happen because it will be an opportunity for women to get together, talk, learn Swedish and do something for the people, perhaps their relatives, still in the Middle East. 

Their Stories

Each visitor has a very tragic story, but they live in the present and by hope. They share their story, though they are very hesitant in doing so. I understand-how could I ever really understand what they go through: cruelty, losses? Some of the women from Eritrea walked through the Sinai desert. Some of them came from Afghanistan, Somalia, and Syria. Their journey was partly by boat, then through Turkey by foot, and by bus to Sweden. These people were among young women who were sold as slaves, others raped, children forced to kill family members in order to train them to become soldiers. When they reached the coast and were put on the small boats, they were not guaranteed to reach safety. Many did not reach the other shore.

No, they don’t want to talk about the past – they want to live for the future.

There was one little boy I worked with. He was impossible to control and very, very violent. His journey from Syria through Turkey was filled with death. His mother died, his baby brother died…and so many more along the road.

One man was happy to be in Sweden, but he cried heavy tears when he talked about his family in Syria. For months he had not heard anything, but eventually he received word they were without water and electricity.

The people I encounter live in the here and now without losing the hope of a blessed future. One of “my students” is a medical doctor. He worked for several years as a doctor in a hospital. His wife is a librarian and they have three children. They are able to live in one room. He hopes to receive an internship so that he can practice again. For him being an MD is a vocation and he suffers from being separated from his profession in a hospital. His eyes are so sad, however, when he talks about his wife his eyes change in a positive way. He is proud of her even though now they are seen as just one of many, not a profession or anything of the kind, “just a refugee.”

In the group is also a proud Palestinian man. He is in his seventies and is here with his wife, son, daughter-in-law and three grandchildren. They have been waiting for news on their status for 17 months, in a room, overcrowded. Many who came after his arrival have received news already and moved on. He is still waiting and does not know why. He is a good help to us, organizing the groups and keeping peace. 

Most of them are religious and actively practice. Among us, there is a mutual respect and appreciation of confessing religious belonging. They tell me when they have their prayer and I tell them when I have mine. We are people of faith.

I feel so blessed to be able to be with these people - they are wonderful and being with them comforts me. I miss my community and my friends, Sisters and parish members. 

The ministry with the refugees is prayer, sharing life, and faith sharing. I am so thankful for this ministry and the people I am with. I love them-they are my prayer, and in my prayer. 

For me to teach Swedish is also a way to show my acknowledgement for the efforts and the strengths of these people who made themselves on the way, leaving all behind. A modern day Christmas story. To be here and to work with the refugees is for me to carry on with the ministry of St. Julie and mission of Jesus. 

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