CULTURE

A ghetto kid takes over Sweden

Alexandra Pascalidou enjoys walking in her home city, Stockholm. A regular pastime, you might think. Just a few years ago, however, under threat from a group of neo-Nazis, Pascalidou walked the streets in disguise, hiding from the world. Not an easy thing to do when you are a household name. A television personality, journalist, producer, author, spokeswoman against racism and human rights activist, Pascalidou is one of Sweden’s most recognizable faces. Born in Romania to Greek parents, she and her family moved to Sweden when she was a child. With a window-cleaner father and a mother working as a cleaner in a nursery school, the family settled down in immigrant-populated Rinkeby. Right from the start, the young Pascalidou was stigmatized by name, complexion and address. «If I had come from a middle-class, more affluent, educated family, perhaps I wouldn’t have had all these difficulties,» she says. «Whenever I said that I was from Rinkeby, people thought that I would steal their mobile phones. I’m a ghetto kid.» The road from the ghetto to the city is narrated in «Bortom mammas gata,» an award-winning, autobiographical account, originally written by Pascalidou in Swedish. Under the title «Se Xenes Geitonies» (In Foreign Neighborhoods), the book was recently published in Greek by Okeanida, with a translation by Anna Papafigou, as part of the «Adventure of Man» series. In it, Pascalidou traces a going-against-all-odds life: growing up in an enclosed environment, entering the media world, rising up the professional ladder only to fall when her rising popularity turned her into a target of life-threatening racism, facing a newspaper conspiracy and cover-up, going through a painful trial and re-emerging – a winner. This victory became a tool for further action: Nowadays, Pascalidou travels the world fighting for issues that matter. «We are good at covering things up. When prime ministers meet, for instance, they never discuss marginalization, segregation and discrimination, the kind of issues that have to do with people who are voiceless, who don’t have the right to vote, access to media or the power to influence.» Pascalidou visits ghettos and townships, talks at conferences, interviews top-ranking officials. What does she see? «In Europe, before enlargement, there were 12 million registered immigrants, not to mention the illegal ones – a huge ratio,» she says. «At the same time, there are more and more Muslims, meaning that Europe is no longer a Christian continent – things are changing rapidly and Europe’s top political leadership has not realized it yet,» she says. In Rinkeby, for instance, the situation is getting worse, with poorer and particularly traumatized immigrants – including refugees from Iraq and Somalia – who encounter great difficulties in integration. The volatile situation is also reflected in Greece, a country which up to recently was prone to bidding its people goodbye. «I believe that it’s payback time,» says Pascalidou. «But Greece is a ‘tired’ country, and cannot be compared to a country such as Sweden with 200 years of peace and a prosperous economy and heavy investments.» Comparisons may be unjust, yet Pascalidou seems surprised at the way things have turned out in this country. «We feel for Nick the Greek living in Astoria and forget about Nick the Pakistani (in Greece) who is going through the same thing,» she says. «It’s naive to say this, but I was hoping that Greeks, who have the experience of being abroad, of being a foreigner and living outside their home country while dreaming of coming back home, would show solidarity and live up to the principle of philoxenia.» A wave of change Public awareness in Europe is on the rise, however, and the publication of Pascalidou’s account by a major Swedish publisher is an encouraging sign – the book is used in sociology and ethnology courses at Swedish universities and literature courses in high schools. «This is the first book of its kind, perhaps that’s why it caused such a fuss and I hope that there are more to come; the country has matured in the sense that they understand there are problems,» she says. «Though I criticize Swedish governments a lot, I have been invited by the government and the media (to talk about these issues).» And not just because she is another pretty face. «As women, we are not expected to be critical, to be outspoken and to point out what is wrong about sexism, racism and class differences,» says Pascalidou, who is a frequent entry in Swedish «beautiful people» lists. «I’m very interested in the media mechanism; they would like me to be only some kind of object of desire. But that minimizes and de-dramatizes my message, my struggle. I don’t want to play a role dictated by somebody else.» The same attitude will prove decisive in deciding whether she will enter politics – at this point in her life at least, given that numerous proposals, from both Sweden and Greece, are flooding in. «I don’t believe in party politics, I think that you can be active politically in more substantial, more militant ways,» she says. «It’s hard to be a member of a party, because you have to follow party line, even when you disagree.» Given her background, Pascalidou is, no doubt, an ideal candidate for Brussels, for instance. Yet for the time being, she believes that the energy to influence people and politics should be channeled through a different route. «Unfortunately, politicians have lost their credibility,» she says. «Mass media and the arts, on the other hand, can influence and exercise social criticism in a better, more powerful way.» It was during an extended trip to New York and Los Angeles that Pascalidou decided to give her career a new direction by concentrating more on fiction, instead of hard facts. With a script – combative heroine included – already in the works, Pascalidou is confident that she can be even more influential and perhaps even more provocative. Meanwhile, she is busily preparing for the upcoming Athens Olympic Games, where she will be a commentator for Swedish television. Does this mean that the war in her own life is over? «I’m still fighting, still receiving threats, still coming face to face with prejudice and discrimination. It would be easier if I were a blond Swedish man or woman. And above all, if I kept quieter.»