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How this Swedish journalist tracked down her secret American brother

Long-kept secrets, well-intentioned lies, lucky breaks and unknown family members on the other side of the world.

How this Swedish journalist tracked down her secret American brother
A happy family reunion in Washington DC. Photo: Carina Bergfeldt/SVT
These are the key ingredients of a story that has tugged on heartstrings in Sweden this week. 
 
For Swedish journalist Carina Bergfeldt, it all began with an offhand remark from her ex-stepmother that triggered a memory that had been buried for decades. 
 
“At my nephew's first birthday party, I saw my former stepmother for the first time in ages and we were just sort of casually talking when I mentioned how fun it was that so many of us had gathered for the occasion. She suddenly said, 'Yeah, the only person missing is your half-brother' and I almost spat out my coffee and was like, 'What?!?'” Bergfeldt told The Local. 
 
Her stepmother referred to “that kid your dad had in the US” and went on to recount a phone call that Bergfeldt's father had received in 1992 from a Colombian woman in the United States who said that she was raising a son that was the result of their short-lived fling in Florida a few years ago. 
 
Bergfeldt said the revelation left her “dumbfounded” and spurred all kinds of questions. Was this true? How could that woman in the US be sure that it was her father? After the birthday party, Bergfeldt spoke to her older brother Nicklas, who was as shocked as she was. But then his memory was triggered. He recalled overhearing parts of that phone call – something in English about a child. 
 

Jeffrey Nielsen is set to come to Sweden this month to attend his new half-sister's wedding. Photo: Carina Bergfeldt/SVT
 
“He suddenly figured out that what he had heard so long ago was true. So then we started talking about what to do next. My ex-stepmother could only remember the first name of this woman: Mariana,” Bergfeldt said. 
 
Armed with that, and a journalism background that netted her the Swedish Grand Prize for Journalism in 2012, Bergfeldt started chasing her biggest story ever. The story of her secret brother. 
 
Reporting assignment takes an unexpected turn
After moving to Washington DC in 2016 to become Sweden's public broadcaster SVT's US correspondent, Bergfeldt was struck by the barrage of advertising she heard for DNA testing sites like ancestry.com. She thought this could be the best way to discover the truth, but she was scared. 
 
“I bought a DNA test but I sat on it for a year. I was afraid of finding out and I was afraid of not finding out,” she said.
She eventually decided to contact ancestry.com to pursue a story on the new American obsession of do-it-yourself DNA kits and flew out to the company's headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah. Her test results pointed to an unknown seventh cousin, leaving Bergfeldt “so disappointed”. 
 
“I realized then and there just how badly I wanted to find out that I did have a brother,” she said. 
 
Bummed by the results, Bergfeldt caught a lucky break. The ancestry.com employee she was interviewing mentioned that the annual RootsTech conference, the biggest genealogy technology fair in the world, was under way in the same city. This was her chance.
 
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Bergfeldt decided she could not let this “random twist of fate” go to waste. She went to the conference and took basically every DNA test available. Even if she didn't discover anything about a long-lost brother, she figured it would at least make for a good story for SVT. But a week later, her 23andme results came in. 
 
“I clicked the link, and then he popped up. Jeffrey Nielsen, half-brother.”
 
Ever the journalist, she took out her phone and filmed her immediate reaction. Then she and her four brothers started to Google “like obsessed people”. The only clue they had to go on was Jeffrey Nielsen's short 23andme bio: “Military, frequent traveller.” Her report, and her life, had just taken a major twist. 
 
'I just blew it off'

 
Jeff Nielsen, meanwhile, had pretty much forgotten all about the DNA results from his 23andme test.
 
“When I got the results, I was really interested in my mom's side, because she is Colombian. So the results showed I was part South American, part West African, all this cool stuff. When I saw that my dad's side was Swedish, I didn't think much of it because my dad had always said he was Danish, and I figured they were close enough,” Nielsen told The Local from the Joint Base Lewis-McChord military base outside of Tacoma, Washington. 
 

Carina Bergfeldt and Jeffrey Nielsen reunited in Washington DC. Photo: Carina Bergfeldt/SVT
 
What the 28-year-old American didn't realize is that his dad Ken, who had raised him from when he was a baby, wasn't actually his biological father. But since the DNA test results didn't raise any immediate red flags, Nielsen didn't think much of it. He had bigger things to worry about, like his upcoming wedding and his career in the US military. 
 
In March, as he was about to start a vital training exercise, he received a Facebook message from a Swedish woman claiming to be his half-sister. 
 
“I completely thought it was a scam. I laughed at it and send it to the rest of the family, and just blew it off,” Nielsen said. “When I got back from training a week later, I answered her and realized she wasn't joking.” 
 
Bergfeldt convinced him to log in to 23andme and see the results for himself. “It was all true,” he said. 
 
Nielsen immediately called his mother, who was about to board a flight. 
 
“At this point, I figured it was true but I didn't know if my dad knew so I wanted to tread carefully for other people's sake. I asked her if she knew an Ingemar Bergfeldt and she immediately said yes. There was no quibbling about it. It was like the silver bullet had finally been fired,” he said. 
 
His mother Mariana and father Ken agreed that they would tell Nielsen everything once they returned home to Philadelphia.
 
“I tried to have fun with it. It turns out my brother knew, so the first thing I did was to call him and say, 'Dude, how could you have known I was Swedish and let me waste four years learning German!'” he said. 
 
Nielsen said that the revelation was surprisingly bereft of drama and that everyone was both at peace with it and perhaps even relieved that the truth was finally out there. But there was still one more twist. This whole deeply personal experience was going to be shared with all of Sweden. 
 
 
Personal story shared with all
 
Although Bergfeldt said she “really struggled” with whether or not to even tell Jeff Nielsen the truth, out of fears of destroying his family's life, she not only went through with it but also decided to film everything and turn it into a documentary for SVT. 
 
“That was an exceptionally awkward conversation but I had told him right away that I was a journalist and that I had found him while doing a story so I would want to film this,” she said. 
 
They agreed not to film their very first meeting, when Nielsen flew out to Washington DC to meet the Swedish sister he never knew he had. But the rest of their weekend together, as well as Bergfeldt and her other brothers' search, all played out in front of rolling cameras.
 
The result was the 24-minute documentary 'Min hemliga bror' (My secret brother), which premiered on SVT on Tuesday and is already the most-seen programme on streaming service SVT Play. 
 
Nielsen said his decision to participate in the documentary was “really easy” and that he fully supported the idea. 
 
“This is just the truth of my life, there's nothing to be embarrassed about,” he said. 
 
Nielsen said his mother had some reservations about the whole thing but he's not only thrilled to have found his Swedish family, he's also happy with the way the documentary turned out. 
 
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Bergfeldt too said the reaction to the short film has been completely overwhelming. 
 
“I have hundreds of messages from people saying that they were crying while watching it. My Instagram is just drowning in sweet messages,” she said. 
 
Nielsen and his wife will make their first ever visit to Sweden later this month to attend Bergfeldt's wedding in Skövde and meet his four brothers. One person who will not be involved in the family reunion is Ingemar Bergfeldt. Carina hasn't spoken to her father in around ten years and her discovery of a long-lost brother only widened their rift. 
 
“I feel bitter towards my dad because he kept a person from us for 28 years that I wanted in my life and I don't feel like it was his decision to make to take that brother away from me,” she said. “So I'm pissed off, but Jeff is more understanding and completely accepts why his parents did what they did.”
 
Although she said they are still “nailing down” the agenda, the siblings are excited to show Nielsen the best of what Sweden has to offer. 
 
“For Jeff, this will be like a parallel universe. If my dad and his mother would have made a different decision, he could have just grown up as a Swede in Sweden instead of an American growing up in New Jersey and Philadelphia,” she said. 
 
That idea of getting a glimpse of a life that could have been isn't lost on Nielsen, either. 
 
“I already sort of had that because my mom's Colombian. Had she never met Ken, I might have grown up there and been a completely different dude. Now I have two places in the world to get that feeling – it's crazy!” he said. “I'm just so excited to meet all of them and hang out with. It turns out we have a lot of shared interests so I'm sure we're going to have a million things to do.”

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FAMILY

Three things not to do as a foreign parent bringing up kids in Sweden

Are you raising children in Sweden? Here are a few very personal tips for what not to do from Alex Rodallec, who was raised in Sweden by a French Breton mother.

Three things not to do as a foreign parent bringing up kids in Sweden

Raising children is hard enough as it is without having to do it in another country. The added difficulties of being a foreigner can be taxing: grappling with the language, the cultural differences, not being well acquainted with how the system works.

So how do you get advice from someone who knows a bit about the issues your child might face growing up as the child of an immigrant in Sweden? One way is to ask someone who was raised by an immigrant parent in Sweden.  Someone like me.

I am no expert in child rearing, and have no children of my own. I can, however, tell you a few things that you should try to avoid. Here are a few of my best tips for what not to do.

Do not reject your adopted country’s culture

This does not mean that you should assimilate completely. It is, however, a good idea to try to embrace your adopted country’s culture as a positive, rather than a negative, for the sake of your children.

Why? Because your children will not have your cultural identity, at least not entirely. And this will be true no matter what you do to prevent it. They will in part become Swedish, imbued with many of the values and customs of Swedish society, with the behaviour and norms.

This might not sound so serious, but if you are someone who is resentful of Sweden, or if you ever become resentful of it, it might become a serious problem.

My mother, who was French, first came to Sweden as a tourist and then later to work, but with no plans of staying. Then she met my father, a Bolivian man, whom she would eventually divorce when I was around two years old. After that my mother went to live in France with my big sister and me, and with the intention of staying.

The next part I am not so sure about, but I believe my father might have threatened legal action if she did not return with us to Sweden. Whatever the reason for her involuntary return, I do know that my mother’s dislike of Sweden grew with her resentment of having to stay there. And sad as that may be, because of our Swedishness she eventually began seeing us children – though only intermittently – as physical manifestations of the country she hated. Or perhaps we were a constant reminder of the fact that she could not leave. Why could she not leave? Because she loved us. How complicated the twists and turns of life sometimes play out.

Growing up, my mother would often tell us that it was our fault that she was “stuck in this country”, and her most common use of the word ‘Swedish’ was as a profanity directed at us, her children. Naturally this created a dissociation with Sweden and Swedishness, primarily in myself and my big sister, and to a lesser degree in my little sister.

And even though my mother had put my big sister and I in private schools with other children of immigrants (The Catholic and English Schools in Gothenburg), coupled with the fact that we went to preschool in France, we had still committed the cardinal sin of absorbing ‘Swedishness’. My little sister had it the worst when it came to this. She went to a Swedish public school, and never had the experience of going to preschool in France, and so was the most ‘Swedish’ of us all.

To this day, the subject of Swedishness and the like or dislike of Sweden is still a topic of conversation whenever I talk to or meet my sisters. My little sister has accepted her Swedishness, and lives in Gothenburg where we grew up. But my big sister and I both live abroad, and to varying degrees have issues with the country we grew up in. I am slowly learning to love and accept my Swedishness while living in France, but my big sister lives in London and baulks at the thought of ever moving back to Sweden. We are a separated family, in part due to our varying degrees of acceptance of Swedishness.

Perhaps I should stress that my mother was not a horrible person, but she suffered greatly from the circumstances of her life.

So, do not fill your children with your resentment of the country they will grow up in, it may very well be detrimental to their well being and their integration into the society they grew up in.

Do not ignore the complexity of cultural identity

Even though cultural identity can become symbolic of underlying issues, as was the case with my mother, it can also be a great resource, albeit one that might need some help along the way.

Being half French, half Bolivian, born and raised in a Swedish multiethnic suburb, had me untangling the threads that make up my cultural identity for decades. An experience common among multi-ethnic children. Your children might eventually need your support in this, I know I could have used some help.

My advice is to promote the idea that one can be many things all at once. And that to a certain degree these things are contextual. I myself am Bolivian to a greater degree when I spend time with the Bolivian side of the family, and more French when I spend time with the French side.

Having multiple cultural backgrounds also has benefits. Your reference points are multiplied compared to someone who has only one cultural background. You can act as a sort of cultural bridge, much like Commander Spock in Star Trek, for the Trekkies out there. Beyond that, having multiple languages is an asset, children who grow up speaking multiple languages struggle a bit at first, but then tend to outdo their peers in language mastery.

Do not be intimidated by how well your children adapt to Swedish society

This one might be slightly odd, but is an experience that many of my friends of immigrant background have shared with me.

Because your children will grow up as cultural insiders they will master the ins and outs of Swedish society much better than you. Most parents want their children to outdo them, but a parent also wants to feel useful and capable in front of their children. You might have a hard time coping with the fact that your children at a certain point, and perhaps much quicker than they would if you were in your home country, will outdo you. On top of that, in many cultures there is also a more authoritarian parent role, where children ought to know their place as children, and let the parent lead and decide.

My advice is: if you have an issue with your children making you feel inadequate, try to think of yourselves as a family unit. If your children can help you do better, that is good for all of you, try to embrace that. And why not look at it as a great opportunity to learn?

What are your best tips for parents raising children in Sweden? Share your experiences of parenting in Sweden with The Local by emailing us at [email protected] 

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