Syrian couple builds community in Sweden through 'the right to host'

In ancient Greece, hospitality (or xenia) was seen as a sacred moral imperative. Today, the word xenia has largely fallen out of use, but its opposite, xenophobia, has been a driving factor in contemporary politics for years. IDEAS explores ancient traditions of hospitality in this second episode of our five-part series, The Idea of Home.

Refugee couple draws on Syrian tradition of welcoming strangers

When they came to Sweden as refugees, Yasmeen Mahmoud and Ibrahim Muhammad Haj Abdullah held on to the tradition of hospitality they grew up with and began hosting guests. (Submitted by Yasmeen Mahmoud )

This is the third episode in a five-part series called The Idea of Home exploring the multiple and contested meanings of home. Scroll to the bottom for other episodes in this series.

*Originally published on June 14, 2022.

When Ibrahim Muhammad Haj Abdullah and Yasmeen Mahmoud fled Syria after the civil war began, they ended up in an unexpected place: Boden, in the far north of Sweden.

"When we first arrived, we noticed it was a military area. There were tanks and planes, and the army was present in the city. We had escaped war, we wanted to be around civilians, to have a freer life," Yasmeen told IDEAS host Nahlah Ayed.

Ibrahim also felt alienated in his new homeland. He felt disconnected and "like a guest all the time."

"If you are not a host, you are a guest," he said.

So the Syrian refugee couple recreated what's known in Arabic as al-madafah: the living room. They now host their Swedish neighbours and fellow refugees in Boden.

"In my childhood, al-madafah was a sacred place in the home. It was prohibited for us to play within it. This was a sacred place in the home that is always ready to welcome guests — expected and unexpected guests," Yasmeen said.

"In it, we used to have political discussions, which are of course prohibited, but this small part of the home was an important place where you could have political and social debates."

By opening up their home to host strangers, Yasmeen Mahmoud and Ibrahim Muhammad Haj Abdullah built a community in northern Sweden. (Submitted by Yasmeen Mahmoud)

Hospitality is a value that the couple both say they grew up with. And once they arrived in Sweden, they were determined to recreate al-madafah. After six years living in Sweden, they still receive guests.

The right to host

When the couple first arrived in Boden, they lived in a building known as the "yellow house," an isolated place out of the city where only refugee families lived.

Ibrahim said the building had a bad reputation in the rest of Boden, but the couple invited people there anyway.

"We welcomed the first person … The first time she saw us or heard our names, she was afraid. You could say there was Islamophobia," Yasmeen explained. But over time, the woman started referring to them as "my Syrian family."

"It wasn't going to be possible for us to change the stereotype about us, or our community without having opened our madafah. So she was the first person. After her, we started to invite the rest."

Ibrahim Muhammad Haj Abdullah and Yasmeen Mahmoud fled Syria after the civil war began in 2011. Ibrahim studied law in Syria and was a political activist critical of the regime. Now he’s a teacher. Yasmeen is an architect. (Submitted by Yasmeen Mahmoud)

One of the people they welcomed was architect Sandi Hilal, a co-founder of the artistic practice, Decolonizing Architecture Art Research — or DAAR. 

"I always felt that hospitality is a way of life for me," Hilal said. She had come to Boden to a public art project on migration, around the same time she was moving to Sweden with her family. 

She was struck by the alienation she witnessed in Boden, and struggled to imagine how Sweden could become her home. Then she met Ibrahim and Yasmeen.

"When I saw Yasmeen and Ibrahim hosting us, I felt power coming back to the room and I thought: what is going on here? What is it that I felt in this room that made me feel that it is completely different than all the rest of the alienation that I felt all around me?"

It was at this moment that she realized what she'd miss in Sweden — to be a host and defy the feeling of being an "eternal guest."

In the community living room, Yasmeen Mahmoud and Ibrahim Muhammad Haj Abdullah helped create, refugees had space to host guests and share their traditional foods and customs. (Submitted by Yasmeen Mahmoud)

With support from Sandi Hilal, Public Art Agency Sweden, Bodenbo, Havremagasinet and the Defense Museum Boden, Ibrahim and Yasmeen created a community living room: a space where other refugees could exercise their right to host. 

"It was very simple. There was a yellow carpet, surrounded by pillows with Arabic writing. These words mean a lot to us as Arabs, [words] like: heritage, return, refuge, emigration. It was fundamental to give a refugee the right to host," said Yasmeen.

"In al-madafah a person could show off their culture. They would make traditional food, perhaps make traditional coffee or tea, and host whoever they wanted."

In the community living room, refugees could also host politicians.

"Here we are switching the direction of power, even if only for a few hours," Yasmeen said.

The community living room in the 'yellow house' featured pillows with words like 'heritage' and 'return' in Arabic. (Submitted by Yasmeen Mahmoud)

Guests in this episode:

Ruth Green is a Haudenosaunee scholar and an Associate Professor in the School of Social Work at York University. She researches guest-host relationships and Indigenous conceptions of hospitality. 

Elena Isayev is an archaeologist and a Professor of Ancient History and Place at the University of Exeter. She researches migration, hospitality and displacement in the ancient and modern worlds. 

Basit Iqbal is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at McMaster University. He researches ethical formations, aesthetic sensibilities, and political theologies of contemporary Islam, with an ethnographic focus on forced migration and hospitality.

David Goldstein is an Associate Professor of English at York University, where he is also the coordinator of the creative writing program. He researches food, hospitality and early modern literature, and is the co-editor of Early Modern Hospitality. 

Fatima Ebrahim teaches English at Southern New Hampshire University and has a PhD from the University of Western Ontario, where her thesis examined interactions between people from England and the Ottoman Empire in the early modern era through the lens of hospitality and food. 

Ibrahim Muhammad Haj Abdullah studied law in Syria, then became a political activist. He now works as a teacher in Boden, Sweden. Alongside Yasmeen Mahmoud and Sandi Hilal, he began a project in Sweden to give refugees the "right to host."

Yasmeen Mahmoud is an architect from Syria who now lives in Boden, Sweden. Alongside Ibrahim Muhammad Haj Abdullah and Sandi Hilal, she began a project in Sweden to give refugees the "right to host."

Sandi Hilal is an architect and researcher. She was the head of the Infrastructure and Camp Improvement Program in the West Bank at UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East) from 2008 to 2014. She is also the co-founder of DARR (Decolonizing Architecture Art Residency).

Petra Molnar is a lawyer and researcher specializing in migration and human rights, based in Toronto, Canada and Athens, Greece. 

*This episode and the Idea of Home Series was produced by Pauline Holdsworth.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now