Feeling like a foreigner at home – the strange nature of dual nationality

What's it like to be a stranger in your own country? Freelance writer Caroline Adolfsson interviews four Swedish nationals who didn't grow up in Sweden.

Feeling like a foreigner at home – the strange nature of dual nationality
A stranger here, a stranger there? Photo: JonatanStålhös/

Swedes born abroad, or those with citizenship rights or maybe even dual citizens, are a specific subset of the migrant population here in Sweden.

As a dual citizen myself, American/Swedish, I can personally attest to the weird bureaucratic and personal challenges of migrating to a country you're already a citizen of. For example, I paid almost $200 for my passport from the Swedish embassy in New York City, only to arrive in Sweden and realize it had been issued with my non-registered tax ID number and not my personal number. The passport was invalid upon my arrival in Sweden and I had to pay to get a new one.

Conversely, it's been amazing to see that people actually know how to spell my last name (Adolfsson) but annoying to explain that I don't speak Swedish since I didn't grow up with my Swedish parent!

I spoke to four other Swedes who had similar migration paths; persons whose histories weave them in and out of the country they have heritage to and in which they currently now reside. Mixed identity, language barriers, and social interactions were the three of the biggest topics.

Caroline Adolfsson interviewed people who, like her, have one foot in one country and one in another. Photo: Private

Emily, 28, grew up in the United States of America

Well, in many ways the transition was seamless, in the logistical sense, because I was blessed with a personal number! It was more the social barriers for me that were the biggest shock of all.

I spent a lot of time in Sweden during the summers when I was growing up visiting my grandparents and childhood friends. So, the picture I had of Sweden was sunny, warm, filled with people who I had long standing relationships with. Now that I live and work here full time, I realize that the social aspects are much different. You really have to start over. Making friends as an adult is hard but I feel like in Sweden it's especially challenging. I find that here you need a specific reason to hang out with people. It's weird to hint at wanting to hang out just to hang out.

Luckily since I started working, I've been forced to get over this uncomfortable feeling when speaking but I speak pretty fluent conversational Swedish and I have a pretty good dialect so in the first two minutes you wouldn't exactly know, but then after a few minutes you'll notice that my vocabulary is limited, that I conjugate things incorrectly, I use -en or -ett incorrectly, and then they look at you like “are you stupid or something?” This is all because I don't sound like I have an American accent when I speak Swedish so I have to go through this whole awkward explanation. I'll say “yeah I am half Swedish, I've lived in Sweden for two and half years”, and the moment you do that, they'll switch to English. 

Because I only spoke to my grandparents, who used a bunch of old words and phrases that no one really uses any more, I kind of speak like an old lady. But, I've recently been managing a team of 60 teenagers. So since I've had this job, I've been getting hip with the Swedish slang!

Emily from the US. Photo: Private

Edgar, 25, has moved between Egypt, America, Jordan and Sweden

I can break it down for you: I was born in Sweden, then a few months later we (my mum, my dad and I) moved to Cairo, Egypt, because of her job as a correspondent. We lived there for five years and then moved to Washington DC – also because of my mum's job. Five years later we returned to Sweden for a three-year period, and then when I was 13 we moved to Jordan, where I graduated high school. That same autumn I moved back to Sweden for studies in Lund. Now I'm living in Stockholm.

Identity is different when you're younger. I felt Swedish in the sense that I spoke the language, had family there, and was introduced to Swedish pop culture by my parents – albeit from the 70s. Definitely did not feel like a migrant, because that's one of the first realizations I had when I came back: that there is a clear separation between those who are considered 'Swedish' and those considered 'immigrants'. However, returning when I was older was different. I couldn't understand this new form of hospitality – I'd like to say Swedes are hospitable but in their own, subtle way. Arabs go all out, and never let go of a chance to invite people over to their place and organize things, offer to pay for things. Swedes are quite different – I was lonely at first.

Edgar has lived in Egypt, the US, Jordan and Sweden. Photo: Private

Alex, 30, born in the US with Swedish citizenship

I was born in America and had Swedish citizenship since birth. We then moved back to Sweden when I was one and returned to the States when I was six. We moved again to Sweden when I was 16, and I've been here ever since.

I was really excited to move back to Sweden [when I was 16], to move back to a place that was part of my culture, but I think my expectations were too high and weren't met. We moved to a small town where everyone already knew each other and it was really hard to make friends. And out of all the friends I eventually did make, only one was 'Swedish' and the rest were Czechian, Bosian, Albanian, Serbian… It was like I couldn't get to know people because I didn't know people – I couldn't get invited to parties because I didn't know anyone and I didn't know anyone because I wasn't getting invited to any parties.

I guess I've been able to filter out what I like about each culture and merge them into my personality. I think I never feel what I am culturally, where I am physically. I feel Swedish in America and American in Sweden. Even though I recognize things, I don't feel like I'm American really any more when I go back to the States.

Alex feels Swedish in the US and American in Sweden. Photo: Private

Imran, 20, grew up in Tanzania with a Swedish father

I lived in Tanzania until I was 16 and then I moved to Sweden for high school.

Schooling is really different in Sweden. I was always studying in English back at home because I went to an international school. But in Sweden, I studied in Swedish. It's tough because my Swedish just isn't at university level yet even though I spoke Swedish with my father growing up. My father, who is Swedish, wanted my siblings and I to go to Sweden for our high education. So my old sisters went to Swedish school and my parents even fixed a tutor for us. They gave us the basics but I guess it wasn't enough for university studies. People sometimes think that I'm from Stockholm because I have my father's accent plus the slang that I use and then I have to explain.

Owning a jacket was a big thing for me, I had never owned a jacket before I lived here. Because before this, the maximum I had to have was a hoodie. I realize that it's something I should have accepted by now but it's still something I complain about.

I'm still trying to figure out who I am because I'm still pretty young. Here, I don't feel Swedish. I tell people here that I'm Tanzanian but then when I'm in Tanzania, I don't feel Tanzanian either and I'm more Swedish. So it's more of a mix and match, I have the option to choose at least. I refer to Tanzania as home. It's an internal thing where you have to think about who you are and who you want to be, I guess. I'm still trying to figure it out, if I'm Swedish or not Swedish… I guess I'm both, It's already been decided for me, I guess I don't have a choice. Like being a dual citizen, I've always been one up until recently. In Sweden you can have two passports but in Tanzania you can't, so I had to give up my Tanzanian citizenship at 18.  So technically I'm no longer Tanzanian which is weird. Now when i go back I have to get a visa, no residence permits, it makes me feel like a tourist when I go back home.

Imran has had to give up his Tanzanian citizenship. Photo: Private

Caroline Adolfsson is a research assistant at Malmö University and freelance writer.

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OPINION: The far right now dominates the immigration debate in Sweden

A televised debate between the party leaders last weekend showed how Sweden’s third party, the far-right Sweden Democrats, has shaped Swedish politics since the last elections four years ago, argues David Crouch

OPINION: The far right now dominates the immigration debate in Sweden

In the build-up to the 2018 elections, the world’s media descended on Stockholm, expecting a breakthrough by the Sweden Democrats (SD) who had been polling as high as 25 percent. In the end, SD took third place with around 18 percent of the vote.

Four years later, SD are hovering at around the same level in the polls. However, Swedish politics has been utterly transformed, as the other main parties have moved onto political terrain previously occupied by SD.

This would have been unthinkable just a few short years ago. When they first entered parliament, SD were treated as political pariahs, a racist party, held at arm’s length by the other parties who refused to cooperate with them in any way.

Attempts to bring the SD into the mainstream of Swedish politics fell flat. The leader of the centre-right Moderates lost her job after suggesting it was “time to stop demonising” the SD. Her replacement, Ulf Kristersson, said he would neither negotiate nor govern with them. After the elections, two smaller centre-right parties – the Centre and the Liberals – agreed to prop up the coalition of Social Democrats and Greens to prevent the SD gaining any influence in parliament.

It was clear, however, that the only chance for the centre-right to govern would be with SD support. After all, in Finland and Norway right-wing populist parties had entered government with the centre right. And in Denmark, the centre-right had governed with populist support. If it worked there, why not in Sweden?

In early 2019, the SD leader Jimmie Åkesson famously had meatballs for lunch with Ebba Busch, the leader of the tiny Christian Democrats, who acted as a bridge-builder. A few months later, Kristersson met the SD leader for the first time in his Stockholm office. By early 2021 the cordon sanitaire dividing the parties had been truly dismantled, and in the autumn the three parties presented a joint budget.

Meanwhile, the Moderates stepped up their rhetoric against immigration and crime. But perhaps the influence has worked both ways? Maybe the far-right have toned down their policies, compromising with the centre so the parties can work together?

On the contrary, Åkesson and other leading SD figures have stoked up the fire and brimstone in their anti-immigrant message. For the SD, the problem is dark-skinned immigrants from Muslim countries whose values conflict with Sweden’s and who should therefore be deported.

The response among the Moderates – and also the governing Social Democrats – has been a deafening silence.

After the Easter riots in six Swedish cities, the Social Democrat government proposed a package of coercive measures to help the police and social services crackdown on criminals.

A televised debate between the party leaders last weekend brought this out very clearly. More than that, it showed how the Sweden Democrats have shaped Swedish politics since the country last voted four years ago.

In the debate on Sunday, prime minister Magdalena Andersson talked about being tough on crime and boasted that Sweden now has one of the strictest immigration regimes in Europe.

It was left to the Green Party (polling 4 percent) and the Centre Party (6 percent) to challenge the SD on immigration. They pointed out that the violent minority is tiny, and that tens of thousands of recent immigrants hold down jobs, obey the law and contribute to Swedish society.

Centre Party leader Annie Lööf listed some of the SD’s more extreme proposals, including demolition of high-immigration neighbourhoods, dawn raids on refugees, and collective punishment for crimes committed by a single family member. This was “pure racism”, Lööf said – where were the “red lines”, beyond which the centre-right would turn against the SD?

All the parties agree that segregation along ethnic lines has gone too far in Sweden, that integration efforts have failed and that something must be done. But there is a paucity of bold ideas that could really make a difference.

Immigration will once more be a battleground at the elections in September, with key politicians competing to be the toughest in dealing with unruly “foreigners”. Meanwhile, the underlying problems that have fuelled disaffection among people with immigrant backgrounds are unlikely to be addressed.

A few weeks ago, Swedish journalist Janne Josefsson spoke to Ahmed, one of the stone-throwing youngsters who shocked the country at Easter.

“We are second class citizens. You let us in, but then Sweden doesn’t care about us,” Ahmed told him. “We are trapped here. I have studied, but will never get a good job. At least once a week we are stopped by the police. In the end, you feel hunted, like a quarry. Do you understand?”

It seems that Swedish politicians don’t really want to.

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


Listen to a discussion on Sweden and immigration on Sweden in Focus, The Local’s podcast. 

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