Bradenton's Silvia Ulloa to visit Sweden's Iraqi refugees

vmannix@bradenton.comMay 24, 2013 

SARASOTA -- Södertälje, Sweden, is an industrial city of 86,200 people 19 miles south of Stockholm, the nation's capital.

It is the manufacturing base of European trucking giant Scania AB and AstraZeneca, the world's fifth-largest pharmaceutical company, and it is also the hometown of tennis legend Bjorn Borg.

Come August Silvia Ulloa will also call it home, too, but for an entirely different and meaningful reason for the graduating New College senior.

The recipient of a prestigious Fulbright research grant will spend 10 months studying the Iragi refugee community of 6,000 who resettled in Södertälje after the start of the second Iraq war.

Its nickname, "Little Baghdad," resonates with Ulloa.

"There's a stereotype of refugees like they're at a camp and not

very educated," the 2009 Bayshore High School alum said. "But with Iraqis it's different and I'm interested in that."

The daughter of a U.S. Foreign Service officer speaks from experience.

Her family was evacuated twice from Saudi Arabia after the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003. Consequently, she became intrigued by the plight of families forced to flee war.

It was a real-life education for an adolescent girl.

"Silvia went to classes in an embassy school bus that was bulletproof and had someone with an Uzi on board, so she knew what being in danger meant," said her father, Kenneth Sackett.

That didn't stop Ulloa.

Last year she spent six months in Amman, Jordan, working with international agencies that assist Iraqi refugees. More than 29,000 were registered with the U.N. Refugee Agency there in 2012.

The experience left a profound impression.

"A lot of Iraqis were doctors, lawyers and Ph.D.s, but even though they were so displaced as refugees they were urban, spoke excellent English and lived in rented apartments," said the multilingual Ulloa. "They were economically stable when they came to Jordan and able to fund themselves for awhile, but ended up spiraling into poverty. The biggest problem in Jordan was employment and psychologically that takes a toll, especially if you're highly skilled.

"If you end up being a taxi driver it's a job, but is it up to your standards?"

Her passion for the project impressed Jeanne Viviani, the director of research programs and services at New College. She's on the team that assists candidates in the yearlong application process for the Fulbright fellowship, founded by U.S. Senator William Fulbright in 1946.

Ulloa is one of six 2013 recipients at the college, which has earned 75 Fulbright grants since the college's founding in 1960 -- a number that surpasses any other university or college in Florida.

"What Silvia did, going to Jordan on her own, took guts," Viviani said. "A lot of students do things just to get a job, but she's also concerned about the population, figuring out better modes of helping refugees in general, not just Iraqis."

Ulloa will immerse herself in the volatile issue affecting Södertälje and Sweden's liberal asylum program.

The 6,000 Iraqis in the city exceeds the number taken in by the U.S. In addition, refugees from other global conflicts -- i.e., Syria, Afghanistan -- comprise 44 percent of Södertälje's population.

That influx is taxing the social welfare system, housing is overcrowded and crime is up.

The welcome mat has been removed.

"People are saying, 'Stop it! It's too much," former Södertälje mayor Anders Lago told Congress in 2008, according to The Washington Post.

Iraqi refugees are no longer accepted and Ulloa understands the backlash.

"The Swedish ask, 'Why are we taking in so many when the U.K. and U.S. -- the cause of the Iraqi displacement -- aren't taking in their share?'" she said. "I want to look at policy solutions to the situation. One of the biggest things is, who gets the majority of refugees? What's an equal burden for each country? Sweden has taken in so many."

As of 2012, approximately 125,499 people born in Iraq plus 47,913 children born of Iraqi parents live in Sweden, a nation of 9.4 million.

Regardless, Ulloa is determined to explore the refugee dilemma.

"It's important to see them in initial host situations, but also in their adaptation, the coping mechanisms and what effect it has on the host population as well," she said.

Other than dealing with Swedish winters, Sackett knows his daughter will adjust to Södertälje and come up with practical results from her 10 months of research.

Ulloa's ambition is to pursue public policy in graduate school and a career with organizations involved with international migration.

"When Silvia was 6 we moved from Costa Rica to El Salvador and we were worried about her adapting," he said. "So we bought her a word processor and had her write a story about a child going to another country. She wrote it. It was 87 pages long. That girl is smart."

Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 941-745-7055. Twitter: @vinmannix.

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