The Kurdish freedom fighter who believes in writing your own story without losing yourself on the way
(This particular interview is translated from Swedish)
Welcome! Could you start right away by telling us how you decided to come to Sweden?
That is a good question. I really did not know that much about Sweden. It was just any country to me. Maybe I knew a little because of Olof Palme. I come from the Kurdish resistance and have been politically active in the fight for independence. And we got to learn about how he supported our cause. So, I knew about Sweden through Olof Palme. When I had to leave Kurdistan, I did not have Sweden in mind, but my father, who had fled from Turkey, was living in Sweden. We had not been in contact for a long while, but I found out he was here and he wanted me to come because otherwise I would have ended up in prison.
How old were you then?
I was 38 or 39 when I came to Sweden. At first, I came to Stockholm. I had not seen my father in 13 or 14 years. So, we did not really know each other. I came from being a guerrilla soldier and was very shaped by that. Disciplined and a little square. It was hard for him and his family to understand me.
You were different from each other?
Yes. After seeing my father, I contacted the Swedish Migration Agency and they helped me move to Boden in the north of Sweden. I was there for five or six years.
By the end of 2004, I came to Sweden. I rested for two months, since I was not feeling well at all. I had a lot of bad luck. I had this conflict with my father. He was a lost person in Swedish society. He could not help me or guide me or tell me which possibilities and options I had in Sweden. The first day when I came home to him, he told me: “There are only two jobs for you. You can clean or wash dishes, my daughter. Prepare yourself for this”.
It is not just about getting a job. Just having one option is not my thing. I have to feel like I have the freedom to choose. So I got really angry, because I am a woman and a Kurd, and an Alevi, coming from a society where I was for oppressed for being these three things. At the same time, I am a socialist and a feminist. This has made me fight against limitations my whole life, and for the right and freedom to choose. And then I come here to Sweden, and it is the same thing again. So you are an immigrant, you do not have any options.
You got another thing that held you back, limiting your options, being an immigrant?
Yes. And I got very angry and it frustrated me a lot. But, it went on. My dad was lost in this society, but in Boden, when I got my permanent residency, I started studying SFI, Swedish for immigrants. Within six months I was able to speak Swedish pretty well.
Yes, it was fast. Because I had to wait for two years before I could start studying. During those two years, I did internships at different places like kindergartens, libraries and a café. People were really nice and talked to me. I told them I did not want to get paid, I wanted them to take time and speak Swedish to me instead, so I could learn. And they did. So, I finished my SFI studies in a short time.
At the same time, I had a contact person at the Swedish Public Employment Service. I also received financial support from them. When I continued my studies after SFI, my contact person told me “You know what? You don’t need to study”. She told me I was an old woman, even though I had just turned 40, so she would try to find a job for me instead of me studying. She told me about how a lot of young Swedes had studied but were still unemployed. She told me it would just be more trouble for me if I continued my studies. I chose to trust here, since this was her society and she was very kind to me. You are all very kind in Sweden, and that fools us a little! (laughing). So, I quit my classes and she found me a job at a factory for prepacked meals that was just starting up in Boden. We were mostly immigrants who worked there, and we worked more or less for free because, what they told us, the factory was new and they could not pay us. We got some financial support for this from the Employment Service, about 3500 kronor a month. My rent alone was 4500. I worked eight hours a day and only had one day off per week. They promised us that we would get a proper contract and be employed by them after one month. But we never did, and I got angry. I quit after a month and I contacted some journalists and told them what was going on and that they had to do something about this. But they never did.
So, I had quit my studies, I could not find a job, I tried starting my own company but that didn’t work either. I never received the right support or the right information. Information is so important when you are in a new society. Without the right information, you are lost. And I lost almost five or six years.
I did some work here and there, I was politically active, I was in the board of trustees for a women’s shelter and support centre…I was socially active. But at one point, I was unemployed, and I could not find a job for a couple of years. Then, my contact person at the Employment Service told me that it is really difficult finding work in Boden. Most employers, and they talked about this openly, would hire Swedish unemployed people first. This way of thinking is very nationalistic. Even ultra-nationalistic. I told them “I am a part of Swedish society now. Regardless of how Swedish I look. If I do not work, I will only be a burden for this society. This is not what I want. I want to work and be a part of society and contribute”. In the end, it did not work out and my contact person told me that I might find a better surrounding in Stockholm, Gothenburg or somewhere else outside of Boden. She told me to pick a city and they would help with some financial support to get me started.
I moved to Stockholm and tried to start over. It was quite hard, I did not have a lot of contacts here, just my father and he is even worse than me (laughing). However, once here, I was told about different options that I had, for studying for instance. I started off studying at the folkhögskola, to receive my high school diploma and be eligible for higher studies. After that I applied to the yrkeshögskola. If I had received the right information, I would have gone to university, but I had no idea I could do this. It seemed unthinkable. I just had this idea that it was difficult and impossible for me. Unfortunately. I started working as a substitute teacher, and started thinking about becoming a teacher. So that was when I applied for the yrkeshögskola to become a Socialpedagog*. The program was two and half years long on distance and I got a job even before I had my degree. And I still have that same job, working with people in need of social support. Sometimes I meet people who just fled or came to Sweden and who also were told negative things about what their options are here from different people. I always tell them to write their own stories. Don’t listen to them, there are always options and opportunities, if you want to. Make up your mind about what you want to do, study or work, and you will find the different possibilities that are out there.
When you look back at the time before coming here, did you think that anything would be different from what it actually turned out to be?
I fled from the war. If I would not have left that country, I would be in prison. Or murdered. I needed security, first and foremost. Secondly, I wanted to make a life for myself. Before moving here, the only thing on my mind was escaping. I had no idea what I wanted.
There was no expectation?
No. My expectations started growing when I was here. People just gave me so much information before, telling me all the negative things and everything I had to prepare myself for. Of course, I was also told that Sweden was a very equal country. When I got here, I saw women at construction sites, working there. I told my father “Women work here?!”, and my father said “Yes, women do everything here, there is gender equality here”. And I told him “But that is not gender equality! We do not have the same physical strength as men, why should we do that type of work? How is that equal? We are as strong and capable as men and should have the same opportunities, but that does not mean we need to do the same exact jobs as them”. My dad said “They are right and you are wrong” and I said “OK, we will see” (laughing).
Like I said before, I had a lot of bad luck. In the beginning I was given guidance from a few different people and…I had this feeling that people wanted me to be grateful all the time. Grateful to be in Sweden and to be welcomed in Sweden. Because of this they wanted me to do exactly what they told me to. And I trusted people. It was their society I was in! They know better than I do, why should I be suspicious? I am less trusting now, and I question everything! I usually say I use a strainer. I receive information, and I filter it with my strainer. Now I have more knowledge, so I know better what to do.
You can guide yourself?
Is there something you wished you would have done or known before coming to Sweden?
Well, obviously there are a lot of positive things here in Sweden for people. If I had known I was moving to Sweden, I would have really liked to be an academic. I would have found out which options and opportunities I had and I would have started immediately.
Studying at university?
Yes. Well, I could not get my high school diploma from Turkey because I needed to pick it up in person. And since I fled from Turkey I could not go back there and get it. But still, I could have started studying here to get a Swedish high school diploma and continued with university studies right after that. I like to read, do research and analyse. But that was not what happened.
There is still time! But you wished you would have known about what you needed to do to apply for university here?
Yes. But at the same time, you want to be a part of society. I am a socialist and a feminist, and I also wish I would have found a way to be a part of the political struggle here as early as possible.
How did you find contexts here where you could get involved politically?
In Boden, I visited different political organisations, the local branches. I went to the left-wing parties and the green party. I also went to the women’s shelter and support centre.
Is that something you can recommend? To visit political organisations if you are new in Sweden?
Yes! It’s a good way to get to know Swedish society. And you can also question them, that’s also good. You don’t have to agree. You can question things and try to be a part of the change.
What is your favorite thing about Sweden?
It was lovely to discover all the different study possibilities. Also, here in Sweden, if you have the energy to fight back a little, you can open a lot of doors. Someone, somewhere, tells you “No, that is not possible”, maybe at the Employment Service for instance. When you get a “no” from a public authority, a person working there, I discovered that if I argue and motivate why I should get a “yes” instead and I explain why, doors can be opened. They tell me that “It’s the law, we cannot do this”. I tell them “I know you can, there is other ways to interpret the law!”. All of a sudden they tell me that they do have the possibility to help me. I like that, that’s really nice!
You bring up something really important. Of course we can interpret the law in different ways depending on the situation. So, of course you should keep arguing your case, and that is completely allowed too! It is not dangerous; it is just frustrating.
Yes, I really like that flexibility. It gets me so angry to know that you want to do something, and you have the ability or skills to do it, but then someone tells you, no you cannot do this, it’s the law. It is so disheartening.
If someone in for example Kurdistan would like to move to Sweden now, what is your one piece of advice?
I would say to learn the language. Also, if you have other interests, like painting, or writing poetry or music, know that you have the possibility to fight for those interests and for fulfilling yourself. Do not forget that. And listen to everyone, but use a “strainer” to filter the information. Ask around, find as much information as you can. Write your own story. Of course, you will experience hardships as well. Talk about that.
But do not lose yourself? Remember to bring yourself here?
Do you know the word “Smultronställe”? A place that you really like but that is not very known and you would prefer keeping to yourself. Even if it usually is a secret, could you please share a place like that in Sweden with us?
I work in Dalarö. It is out in the woods, where a lot of elks and other animals walk around. I love that place.
That’s great, to have your job as a smultronställe!
Sometimes I leave early for work and just walk around in the forest for a while. It is close to the sea too, so sometimes I park my car by the water and spend some time there.
Dalarö is a part of the archipelago and I think it is it quite uncommon that people know that you can drive or catch the bus to the archipelago. Most people probably think you need to take a boat!
Do you have a favorite Swedish word?
I like Kamrat*. People use it in a very everyday manner.
What does it mean to you?
In my country, we use the equivalent word in a deeper way. It is someone who shares your moral values and you do not use it for anyone. But here, it is a very common word to use. Still, even here, I only use it for people who I have a very good relationship with.
Do you like Swedish food?
Not really. I like lax*! You use too much cream in general, I don’t like that. That is why I avoid Swedish food.
Any song that you would like to add to our playlist with Swedish artists? Do we have any Swedish artists with Kurdish heritage for instance?
Dilba! She is actually really good. We also have Darin, but I do not listen to him that much. I listen more to Dilba.
Thank you for telling us your story, you have experienced so much and it was truly interesting to hear about it! Anything you would like to add?
No. Maybe I should continue my studies at university. We will see. Maybe at least a few courses.
Thank you for your time!
If you want to support the Kurdish cause, Helin recommends the organisation Kurdiska Röda Solen
Swish: 123 179 04 76
PG: 22 86 76 -3
*Socialpedagog translates to a person working with children, youths or adults who are going through tough times. It could be working as a counselor or supporting people with addiction, survivors of abuse or refugees for example.
*Kamrat translates to “friend” in Swedish and is used in a lot of very ordinary compound words such as “classmate” and “co-worker”.
*Lax translates to salmon