‘I’m one of those people who don’t know where they belong’

The Local's intern Saina Behnejad, whose Iranian parents moved from Stockholm to London when she was five, explains why she will always keep returning to Sweden.

'I'm one of those people who don't know where they belong'
Saina Behnejad in Stockholm. Photo: Emma Löfgren/The Local

I’m a Londoner through and through. I enjoy the hustle and bustle, the uneven streets, and the feeling that I’ll never finish exploring the city. But Stockholm is my second home.

A city with more of a town vibe, Stockholm is where I have spent numerous Christmases, half-terms and Easter holidays.

I’m technically a Swede. I have a passport to show for it and a birth certificate that states I was born here. But I don’t feel like one. Given that I moved to London when I was five, I guess that’s understandable.

But while growing up in England, my classmates and teachers would say my accent sounded ‘American’, although Americans themselves would disagree. It’s best described as a strange twang, perhaps Scandinavian, that not everyone notices. British gingerbread will never live up to the delicious pepparkakor. I’d also like to personally thank whoever invented the infamous kebab pizza.

I’m one of those people who don’t really know where they belong. Born to Iranian parents in Sweden, growing up in the UK and studying for three years in the United States can make you feel grateful as well as confused. I’m a foreigner everywhere I go, whether by my heritage, accent or passport, and when I find myself explaining my background the person asking often gets a longer answer than they anticipated.

I admire the Nordics, but I know they’re not perfect. The picture portrayed to the rest of the world is not necessarily inaccurate, but it’s incomplete. During my time in Florida, it was amusing to hear the varied views Americans had of Sweden. American conservatism, so different from its European counterpart, meant that Republicans thought of Sweden as a socialist wasteland, while those on the more liberal side of the spectrum expected me to paint a verbal picture of a perfect society.

I’ll admit, I only started to pay attention to Sweden’s day-to-day news in the last few years. I can credit my renewed interest to how America made me appreciate what Sweden, and in general, Europe, has to offer.

Given my inadequate Swedish, I’m thankful The Local Sweden exists. It’s where I get the majority of my Sweden related news, fostering a tentative connection to the country I’m so familiar with and yet so removed from.

OPINION: 'If you ask me where I'm from I'll be proud to tell you'

I have a sense of both gratitude and resentment. My family left Iran in the 1980s and most of them ended up in Sweden as refugees. They settled in relatively well, allowing them to learn Swedish, go to school and university and become productive members of society.

Iranian Swedes are an immigration success story. Integrated, educated and successful. The high percentage of Iranians in medicine and engineering attests to that.

But this is where the resentment comes in. Success was very difficult to attain. My parents faced racism in university because they weren’t Swedish, often having to study even harder than their Swedish counterparts to get a fair grade, and rejection from employers because of their accents. This is why we ended moving to the UK. My parents just couldn’t get jobs after finishing degrees in dentistry.

I’m told it’s a lot better now. But seeing the reported rise of racism in Sweden and other countries during the refugee crisis is concerning. I feel a sense of kinship with those people, although what they are fleeing and what my family fled are vastly different.

That’s not to say Sweden’s reputation of humanitarianism isn’t well-deserved. It’s taken in more refugees per capita than any other European country since the refugee crisis began, although its asylum rules have been tightened since. There will always be some hurdles to overcome when faced with such responsibilities. I might have held Sweden to an impossibly high standard and that’s unfair of me. Especially given the messy situation the UK has found itself in after the Brexit vote.

So, it’s evident that I’m a mixed bag of opinions and emotions about the place of my birth. But Sweden will always be a place I run to for family time, a break, a breath of fresh air. And delicious food, obviously.

This article was written by Saina Behnejad, who is currently interning with The Local in Sweden.

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Gothenburg: is the dream of a new city turning into a nightmare? 

Sweden’s second city is the site of Scandinavia’s largest urban development project. But there is rising concern that the costs outweigh the benefits, says David Crouch

Gothenburg: is the dream of a new city turning into a nightmare? 

Last week, residents in the area of Fågelsången (birdsong), a quiet street at the very heart of Sweden’s second city, woke up to read the following news: “Explosions at Fågelsången: On August 8, week 32, we start blasting around Fågelsången and are expected to be done by week 40. When blasting, for safety reasons, no one is allowed to go out, open their windows or be within the blasting area. We will work weekdays 7am to 5pm.” 

Blasting deep holes in the granite – along with sprawling roadworks – has been the reality for central Gothenburgers for the past four years, as a vast rail tunnel is being dug to link the current terminus with other parts of the city and enable smoother connections with other routes. The aim is to triple rail passenger numbers and eliminate traffic jams on the main road through the city, at a cost of 20 billion crowns (€1.9 billion).

This railway, known as Västlänken (the West Link), is not the only big construction project in the city centre. It is just the largest element in a gigantic scheme to revive the docks area along the river, which was destroyed by a global shipping crisis in the 1970s. The great rusting cranes opposite the opera house and the disused Eriksberg gantry are an important aspect of Gothenburg’s skyline and self-image. The areas on the north bank were also home to many recent immigrants and a byword for poverty. The city’s mayor famously, and shamefully, referred to it as “the Gaza strip”.

So in 2012 the city launched an ambitious plan. Christened Älvstaden, the RiverCity, municipal investment aimed to build an attractive, modern waterfront while creating tens of thousands of homes and jobs. It is by far the Nordic region’s biggest urban regeneration project. A YouTube video commissioned by the city authorities a few years later neatly sums up both the breathtaking scope of this vision and the exciting / brutal (choose your own adjective here) nature of the transformation it would bring: 

The RiverCity revolved around two flagship projects: a new bridge over the river, the Hisingsbron (Hisingen Bridge), combined with major new office developments right in the centre; and Karlatornet, Sweden’s tallest skyscraper, which would literally tower over Gothenburg like a beacon of modernity in a city that traditionally has had strict rules against high-rise buildings. 

Add to all this a proposed high-speed rail link with Stockholm, and you have a recipe for quite spectacular urban upheaval involving billions of tons of steel and concrete. Visit Gothenburg today and much of the city seems to have been turned into a building site. There is a forest of cranes, while smart new office blocks puncture the skyline – a genuine metamorphosis is under way.

But many Gothenburgers are either uneasy or downright unhappy. The RiverCity is a vanity project to gentrify the docklands, they say. Karlatornet’s 73 stories of luxury apartments will be a scar on the landscape and a symbol of Gothenburg’s new love affair with finance and real estate, a slap in the face for the city’s proud industrial values. Västlänken is a vit elefant, a costly project that will deliver questionable benefits, many believe.  

Opposition to Västlänken was such that a new political party, the Democrats, took 17 percent of the vote in 2018 with its headline demand to stop the project immediately. This caused a revolution in local politics, overturning decades of Social Democrat rule. 

And now the gloss on these big-ticket construction projects is starting to fade. Karlatornet was the first to run into trouble. For most of 2020 building work was at a standstill, raising the threat that this flagship of regeneration would be nothing more than an unfinished stump, after American financiers pulled out of the project. The new Hisingen Bridge is open to traffic, but its construction was fraught with setbacks and the final cost to the taxpayer is still unknown. “There has been an awareness from the start that this was a high-risk project,” one of the project’s bosses said ominously this spring.

RiverCity is more than two billion kronor over budget, and facing accusations of mismanagement that evoke Gothenburg’s old nickname of Muteborg, or Bribetown, after a proliferation of municipal companies in the 1970s led to conflicts of interest, with politicians sitting on company boards. Opponents of the scheme argue that in any case it is unlikely to solve any of the city’s fundamental problems, such as the ethnic segregation that has created immigrant ghettos in outlying suburbs.  

In May, Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter published leaked minutes from Västlänken management meetings in which one of the main contractors on the project said it would be delivered billions over budget and four years later than its official 2026 deadline – in other words, four more years of earth-shattering explosions, roadblocks and associated upheaval. With local elections only months away, the Democrats have taken out advertisements on billboards and in local media demanding that top politicians tell the truth about what is going on. For opponents of the scheme, this is exactly what they have warned of all along

Next June, Gothenburg will officially celebrate its 400th anniversary, postponed from 2021 because of the pandemic. Visitors will experience a city on the move, with pristine new motorways and sparkling office blocks. So for Gothenburg’s urban planners, there is light at the end of the development tunnel. In the case of Västlänken, however, they will be hoping that the light is indeed that of an oncoming train. 

David Crouch has lived in Gothenburg for nine years. He is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It, a freelance journalist and lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.