Deportation and the refugees who ‘fall away from the world’

Rachel Aviv reports: Georgi, a Russian refugee who came to Sweden with his family when he was five years old, could talk at length about the virtues of the Volvo. His doctor described him as “the most ‘Swedeified’ in his family.” He was also one of the most popular boys in his class. For his thirteenth birthday, two friends listed some of the qualities that he evoked: energetic, fun, happy all the time, good human being, amazingly kind, awesome at soccer, sly.

Georgi’s father, Soslan, had helped found a pacifist religious sect in North Ossetia, a Russian province that borders Georgia. Soslan said that in 2007 security forces demanded that he disband the sect, which rejected the entanglement of the Russian Orthodox Church with the state, and threatened to kill him if he refused. He fled to Sweden with his wife, Regina, and their two children, and applied for asylum, but his claim was denied, because the Swedish Migration Board said that he hadn’t proved that he would be persecuted if he returned to Russia.

Sweden permits refugees to reapply for asylum, and in 2014, having lived in hiding in central Sweden for six years, the family tried again. They argued that there were now “particularly distressing circumstances,” a provision that allowed the board to consider how deportation will affect a child’s psychological health. “It would be devastating if Georgi were forced to leave his community, his friends, his school, and his life,” the headmaster of Georgi’s school, Rikard Floridan, wrote in a letter to the board. He described Georgi as “an example to all classmates,” a student who spoke in “mature and nuanced language” and showed a “deep gratitude for the school.”

In the summer of 2015, shortly before he entered seventh grade, Georgi learned that the Migration Board had rejected his family’s application again. The news came in a letter, which he translated for his parents, who couldn’t read Swedish.

They appealed the board’s decision, and Georgi tried to focus on school as he waited for more news. Not long afterward, a friend on his floor-hockey team stopped coming to practice. Georgi was distraught when he learned that the teammate, a refugee from Afghanistan, had been deported with his family, “as if they were criminals,” he said. Georgi became sullen and aloof, and he stopped speaking Russian. He said that the words were just sounds, whose meaning he could no longer decipher. He withdrew from his parents, whom he accused of having failed to assimilate. His nine-year-old brother, Savl, acted as the family’s interpreter. “Why haven’t you been learning Swedish?” Georgi said in Swedish to his brother, who translated the words into Russian for their parents.

In December, 2015, the Migration Board rejected their final appeal, and, in a letter, told the family, “You must leave Sweden.” Their deportation to Russia was scheduled for April. Soslan said that to his children Russia “might as well be the moon.” Georgi read the letter silently, dropped it on the floor, went upstairs to his room, and lay down on the bed. He said that his body began to feel as if it were entirely liquid. His limbs felt soft and porous. All he wanted to do was close his eyes. Even swallowing required an effort that he didn’t feel he could muster. He felt a deep pressure in his brain and in his ears. He turned toward the wall and pounded his fist against it. In the morning, he refused to get out of bed or to eat. Savl poured Coca-Cola into a teaspoon and fed Georgi small sips. The soda dribbled down his chin.

At the recommendation of neighbors, Georgi’s parents called Elisabeth Hultcrantz, an ear-nose-and-throat doctor who volunteers for the charity Doctors of the World. Three days after Georgi took to his bed, Hultcrantz drove to his home, a red wooden cottage with white trim in the farmlands of Garpenberg, a hundred and twenty miles northwest of Stockholm. Georgi was wearing boxers and short athletic socks. He appeared to be asleep. A tulip-patterned blanket had been pulled up to his chin. When Hultcrantz touched him, his eyelids trembled, but he didn’t move. Using a pillow, she propped up his head, but it flopped to the side. “He provides no contact whatsoever,” she wrote.

After a week, Georgi had lost thirteen pounds. Hultcrantz, a professor emeritus at Linköping University, urged the family to take him to the emergency room in Falun, a city forty miles away. He hadn’t eaten for four days and had not spoken a full sentence in a week.

A doctor at the hospital wrote that Georgi “lies completely still on the examination table.” His reflexes were intact and his pulse and blood pressure were normal. The doctor lifted Georgi’s wrists a few inches above his forehead and then dropped them. “They fall down on his face,” she wrote. A nurse noted that he showed “no reaction to caregiving.”

The next day, a doctor inserted a feeding tube through Georgi’s nostril. “He showed no resistance,” Soslan said. “Nothing.” Georgi was given a diagnosis of uppgivenhetssyndrom, or resignation syndrome, an illness that is said to exist only in Sweden, and only among refugees. The patients have no underlying physical or neurological disease, but they seem to have lost the will to live. The Swedish refer to them as de apatiska, the apathetic. “I think it is a form of protection, this coma they are in,” Hultcrantz said. “They are like Snow White. They just fall away from the world.” [Continue reading…]

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