I sought asylum in Sweden in July 2013. I was hosted by a Swedish–Palestinian woman my age for a few months, a few determining months to preserving my dignity, ability to find the ground under my feet and power through this phase of my life. The woman did not know me, she met me accidentally and would not accept that I would stay anywhere except at her home.
The Employment Agency contact person acknowledged my expertise but said: “Unfortunately, you don’t have experience from Sweden. All I can offer you is cleaning or kitchen jobs.” Jobs I would be happy to take, if they were the only options available. I asked for a chance to find work on my own.
Before a decision was taken about my asylum claim, I found myself working with a former neo-nazi who became my supervisor. I worked on the 7th floor, a floor full of ‘’formers’’ and ‘’Ex-es’’, ex-criminals, former hooligans, former extremists, etc. A place, if I don’t contextualize, Jimmie Åkesson [the leader of Sverigedemokraterna, a Swedish national-conservative party, editors note], would think is where a filthy asylum seeker like me naturally belongs.
The 7th floor, was the kindest, warmest, most open and generous place I could ever imagine myself to be at that point in time, in my refugee process in Sweden. My supervisor, who turned out to become my best friend, invited me to every important meeting, never tokenized me, never put me down, always recognized my expertise and treated me equally.
One day, it was just him and I on the 7th floor of the Swedish NGO where we worked, just after 5 pm. As we were wrapping up, I told him I could never imagine he would have wanted me out or hurt at any stage of his life. He pulled out the photo album where he was dressed up in full-fledged neo-Nazi markers with a militant expression on his face.
All I felt in that moment was humility towards his courage, openness, and kindness. For the first time in my life, I learnt that change is possible for those whom we oppose the most, for those whom we ‘’otherise’’, and those whom we think we share nothing with. Change is beyond good and evil. There is no such a thing as hardened hearts, change is possible for all hearts.
This is the first blog out of four by Ola Saleh addressing the theme of change, drawing from her experiences and encounters as a refugee in Sweden.
The following posts:
A Muslim in the House
A Jewish Guest
All Hearts Can Change
Ola Salehs best friend is a former neo-nazi. As an Arab with Islamic background she accidentally found the meaning of home between a Palestinian host and a Jewish guest.
She has extensive experience in programme design, management, mediation and leadership in conflict and post-conflict contexts. She works as the peacebuilding advisor at the Kvinna till Kvinna foundation in Sweden. She came to Sweden as a refugee in 2013.