13:36 . To be honest, until I was twenty years old, I did not even identify as a Swede. I always felt like ‘the other’.
(Blerta works as a policy advisor to a delegation of Swedish members, at the European Parliament in Brussels. I asked her to meet me for lunch at Mer du Nord, ‘because it is typically Scandi!” – I said jokingly and ironically, we ended up talking about her experience as a refugee in Sweden; in what she referred to as a ‘rather homogenous society’. Blerta belongs to the 1990s immigration wave from former Yugoslavia, with about 100 000 Bosnians and 3600 Kosovo Albanians being granted asylum in Sweden. We exchanged upon the fact that, unfortunately, the psychological challenges of being a migrant, refugee or asylum seeker can be underlooked and there is a general tendency to “demonize us”, as Blerta sharply put.)
13:37 . I was six years old when we arrived in Sweden with my family – as refugees from Kosovo. Back then, the Serbian regime had cut down the public state completely: there were no hospitals, no schools working, so my dad decided to take us away. I remember our journey in detail: my parents hastily packed our belongings, we took a first bus to Ukraine, then a bus to the Czech Republic, another to Poland and we finally took a boat to Sweden. It was really windy.
It was difficult for me to live because as a child, I did not fathom the gravity of the situation and thus felt sad to leave my relatives behind. We were welcomed by the government, but even back then, Sweden did not have the background or infrastructure to deal with refugees. We lived in tents at first until the government gave us an apartment, and we moved again and again until we settled in Göteborg. We lived in a segregated area but that actually felt homey, because that meant even though I was a minority, I still belonged to a community. But it got tricky when I started noticing that the quality of Swedish language teaching at my school and ‘other’ schools in our areas was way worse than the quality found in regular Swedish schools in the city. Later on, as a teenager, people started putting labels on me, would refer to me as ‘the immigrant girl’, probably because I have an Albanian name. I’m not saying any of these people had racist motives; they simply assumed I was not a Swede because ethnically speaking, I aren’t one. It is quite a homogenous society. Why, since people kept on labelling me as ‘the other’, I became ‘the other’. And I never minded that; I didn’t mind being different. But once, I went to a party after school and this guy – Mattias – came by and started insulting my Albanian friends, so I stood up to him. He grabbed my neck and yelled “you immigrant whore, get the hell out of Sweden!” until his own friends pulled him away. At that point I thought: Oh, it is not that beautiful to be the other after all. It then took me twenty years to say: I am Swedish. What changed my mind? I went to Kosovo, where I did an internship at the Swedish embassy. There I was representing the Swedish community; but I also felt part of the Kosovars – and I realised that I can be both. I don’t need to identify to the nation state and I can actually be a hybrid between cultures. Because so far I had always been proud of being different. So yes, I had phases in my life when it felt like I didn’t belong, but I never let these limit me.
(Apparently; especially since living in Brussels, Blerta has started identifying as a Swede more than ever before.)
-Do I feel more like a Swede now?
Oh yes. I now keep custom of throwing crayfish and midsommar parties at my flat in Brussels. In Sweden, I never organised these parties. For example, this week is my birthday and I am responsible for the Fika, you know what it is? It is a traditional coffee break in Sweden. Except this time, I am going to make the Kosovo traditional dish which is called Fli – it’s pronounced ‘flee-ya!’ (She laughs). So that my Swedish colleagues get to taste food from my hometown as well.
-Does culture come into question when it comes to my love life? Yes and no.
It’s not that I don’t date Swedes but I find it difficult to find someone who understands me fully, but certainly I would feel I would have more in common with people from my community. On one hand – Swedish men are so spoiled with what they call strong women, who know what they want. They don’t make an effort, so they have a lack of initiative. I am strong but culturally I still want someone to care for me in some ways. Ugh, I know – it’s a paradox! Maybe there are parts of me that are still old school.
-vCan Sweden handle the new migration wave?
Yes. People need to understand that we (the others’) actually don’t want to depend on social welfare : they want to contribute, they want to have a job, they want to feel like they belong. So yes, we can and should handle this new wave. We need more people to work and to live in our societies. We need these people for our economies.