Two major new Jewish projects – at opposite ends of Europe – were announced last month.

The community of Montenegro made known its plans to build the first synagogue in the country in 500 years.
The shul complex, to be built in Podgorica, the country’s capital, will include a meeting centre for the 400-strong community, and be equipped to host Jewish visitors.

In a statement, the community said it wanted to use the centre to facilitate “understanding and cultural exchange with other religions and with Montenegrin society at large”.

Meanwhile, Sweden’s Jewish Museum Foundation has said it was being given £130,000 to set up a new museum in Stockholm’s Old Town. The grant is part of the government’s spring budget.

The new Jewish museum will be set up in premises that used to house Sweden’s very first synagogue – established in the 18th century but long since out of use – as the foundation plans to use the money to fund its move to the Old Town.

The new centre will focus on Swedish-Jewish history and integration.

Sweden’s minister for culture and democracy, Alice Bah Kuhnke of the Green Party, told newspaper Dagens Nyheter: “The Jewish history and future are an obvious part of Sweden’s heritage. With a new museum, more people will get the chance to discover that.”

The news comes almost exactly a year after the appointment of a new Jewish museum chief, Christina Gamstorp. She said the new premises had strong symbolic value. “An authentic location like this is almost like an artefact. The walls tell the story of what it used to look like,” she said. The new museum is set to open in 2018, though guided tours may be available next year.

With Alvar Aalto in mind, a renowned Swedish architect crafts a serene home on a long-held family plot.

A suburb 15 minutes from central Gothenburg, Sweden’s second largest city, seems an unlikely place to find a house designed by one of Scandinavia’s most celebrated architecture firms. Still, here, Wingårdhs—run by principal Gert Wingårdh—has created a home for a young couple that offers near complete privacy, even though the closest neighbor is just yards away.

Villa Kristina rests atop the kind of rocky ground that characterizes much of Sweden’s rugged west coast. Passersby have little inkling of what hides behind the structure; just one narrow window faces the street. Wingårdh cites Alvar Aalto’s summer house on the island of Muuratsalo in Finland as an inspiration for the house’s form. “It is very closed on the outside and it directs the views to where nature is at its best,” he says.

Sitting at a 23-foot-long table that was custom-built for the oblong and spacious kitchen, Anders Bergström, a car designer for Geely, says, “This is our own little world.” His wife, Kristina Lagercrantz, nods in agreement. She is a judge who is just finishing maternity leave; the couple’s one-year-old daughter, Ingrid, was born shortly after the house was built.

“The villa sits on a piece of land that has been in my family for four generations,” says Kristina. “Or, well, it’s five generations now that Ingrid is here!” Her family purchased a summer house on the property at a time when the surrounding area was mostly farmland. It turned into a residential area in the 1970s, and now it’s a densely populated suburb. The house where Kristina’s grandmother, now in her nineties, still lives was built in 1981, but it only takes up a portion of the site. The couple called on Wingårdh to devise a structure for the remainder of the plot that could serve as their home.

Wingårdh is behind projects such as the Swedish embassies in Berlin and Washington D.C. and the air traffic control tower at Stockholm’s Arlanda airport. He is known for designing buildings that are in tune with nature, and Villa Kristina is no exception. “We preserved the site by building on the rocks, not blasting them away,” Wingårdh says. The material program also supports the house’s connection to the outdoors. The silvery spruce facade will age and transform over time. “It’s constantly shifting,” Anders says. “Living in a house made out of natural materials, you can really feel it move and breathe.” While Wingårdh initially envisioned using whitened plywood throughout the interior, gypsum board proved a more cost-effective choice.

Anders and Kristina have long admired Wingårdh’s work, particularly his villas, and when they told an acquaintance who works at the architect’s firm about their ideas, he said it sounded like a project Wingårdh may want to take up.

“I think he liked the thought of building a normal-sized villa [the house is approximately 1,722 square feet] for a young couple on a piece of land that has a very personal history,” says Anders. Wingårdh adds that his office typically has a handful of residences
in the works at any given time. “I personally enjoy designing private houses, so we keep a small group dedicated to the purpose,” he says.

“We wanted something of our own, something different and unique,

and we wanted to seclude ourselves,” says Kristina. The house is also designed to be a work-in-progress, adaptable to suit the young family’s future needs. There are early drawings for extensions: The storage area on the terrace can be converted into two bedrooms, and there is enough space on the plot of land behind and in front of the house to build a small guesthouse.

Says Anders: “The idea is that the house should be always changing.”

Meet Zelga Gabriel. At 18, she was an interior design student at Aleppo University’s Faculty of Fine Arts. Then, the Syrian Civil War broke out. Zelga was eventually forced to terminate her studies and return to her hometown, Hassakeh.

Zelga is Assyrian, the Christian minority indigenous to the Middle East that has suffered attacks from ISIS recently. Eventually, Zelga’s family decided she would be safer in Sweden, where she arrived in August 2015.

Now 22, Zelga lives in a suburb just outside Södertälje, an industrial town south-west of Stockholm where around 37 per cent of residents are foreign-born and where a majority of the roughly 100,000 Assyrians who have emigrated to Sweden since the late 1960s live.

Zelga’s mother, brother and several members of her extended family are also here in Sweden, as is her best friend from back home. But her father and sister are still in Hassakeh. And her heart remains there, Zelga says.

‘If it was just up to me, I would never have left. Syria is my country; my roots are there.

‘Some people say we weren’t forced to flee Syria; that it was our choice to leave. But when you know that you might die at any time, then that is like you’re being forced.’

From Syria to Sweden

Zelga was fortunate to have a relatively easy journey to Sweden: by bus and taxi to Lebanon, and then by plane to Stockholm. It took around a week altogether.

She had applied for a job in Sweden working with unaccompanied migrant children, but when she arrived in Sweden, she decided not to take up the job because it didn’t meet her expectations. She ended up applying for asylum, and got her residence permit after six months.

While Zelga’s relatives had told her a lot about life in Sweden, coming here was still a shock.

‘When I first arrived and saw all the greenery, I was in tears. I felt like this place doesn’t represent me and who I am, even if it’s very beautiful.’

Adapting to life in Sweden

Zelga chose to settle in Södertälje because she had family there and there is a large Assyrian community in the town.

‘We try to stick together,’ she says.

She spends most of her time with relatives and friends with the same background as her – Assyrians from Syria. Zelga hopes to also make friends with Swedes once she starts studying or working.

‘Some of my cousins were born in Sweden. I knew before coming here that it was a good country, that there is more freedom here than in Syria. I also knew about the cold weather, of course.

‘Now I know Sweden is very different from Syria. There isn’t as much connection between families. You don’t meet your cousins that often, and you don’t have time for yourself. You just work.’

Aiming for university

Zelga has begun to learn the language – taking ‘Swedish for Immigrants’ classes – but is still finding it difficult to settle in

‘In the beginning, everything is new and even though your heart is not in it, you have to try to adapt. I try to see my life here as a new chance,’ she says.

She wants to become part of Swedish society and start university as soon as possible. Zelga is considering both psychology and social work, something that she can use to help other Assyrians, either here in Sweden or back home in Syria.

Interior design has lost its appeal as a profession. Zelga says: ‘When there’s peace, you think about things like beauty and design. War changes that.’