"The police said there was nothing for us to do."

Along the Turkish-Syrian border in Hatay Province
Credit: © Moises Saman / Magnum Photos

We met him one night outside a pizzeria in Stockholm. It was obvious from his complexion that he wasn’t a local: a young man, maybe 24, wearing clothes that were probably fashionable in some foreign land but badly in need of laundering. He asked us for directions to the Polishuset.

The police headquarters is where immigrants go to announce their arrival in Sweden. As we escorted him there we communicated as best we could. He spoke only basic English. He said he’d come from Afghanistan, passing through Germany (“the police there, not nice”) and Denmark before crossing into Sweden.

We waited with him at the station until an officer called him to the window and asked where he came from, if he had a passport (he didn’t), and how old he was. “Sixteen,” he said. I looked at him in surprise. “They all say they’re 16,” said the policeman. “It’s easier for them if they’re listed as children.”

I’d long considered Sweden’s approach to immigration—admitting hundreds of thousands of people to a country with a population of only 9.5 million—a bit reckless. And as an immigrant myself— albeit a white one—I know how hard it is to fit in here. Swedes love the idea of welcoming immigrants; they’re less adept at helping them integrate. But this young man had come so far and seemed so utterly decent that I wished I could help him.

The police said he’d be taken to a holding center. My partner and I wanted to tell him to wait a day, to come to our apartment for a meal. We worried he’d question our motives. While we were there another immigrant arrived (“It’s like this all day, every day,” the policeman said). This one said he was from Syria, then Libya, then back to Syria. He was 16, of course. Whereas “our” immigrant seemed decent, this one radiated suspiciousness. My instincts told me one was good and one was bad, but how could I really know?

The police said there was nothing for us to do and suggested we go home. I scribbled my number down and gave it to the Afghan. “If you get to stay, call me,” I said. He smiled. We never heard from him.