Freelance writer and journalist, Afrah Nasser, sits down and explains that it’s been a long day. “The end of the semester is always the hardest,” she says.
Judging from her list of accomplishments, it seems the 29-year-old Nasser thrives on long days. A self exiled, political refugee, from Yemen, she has been residing in Gothenburg, Sweden, since May 2011. She is currently a graduate student studying communications at the University of Gothenburg.
Her blog, which focuses on human rights violations and revolution in Yemen, has been featured by CNN, BBC, The Monitor, and Open Democracy as being a top Middle East blog. The International Journalist Network cites Nasser as one of the most active female journalists on Twitter. She is this year’s recipient of the 2014 Dawit Isaak Prize presented by Publicity Club, and she has most recently given a talk at TEDxGoteborg. Her voice is regarded as one of the most important voices coming from the Middle East today.
I sat down with her to seek her viewpoints on settling into Gothenburg and what it means to seek refuge in a culture which is decidedly very different from her home country.
Nasser originally came to Sweden in 2011 to study a two week course provided by the Swedish Institute.
“I was selected as a participant in the Young Leader Visitors Program,” she explains. ”It was a leadership course and I was selected because I was active as a blogger and a journalist in Yemen.”
But Nasser’s story isn’t quite as simple as coming to Sweden to be a student – back in Yemen, revolution was erupting.
“So much happened in such a short time when I was first here in Sweden. It was overwhelming … very surreal. In Yemen, revolutions were popping up everywhere.”
“Violence and armed fights were happening on the streets. My family was displaced. I just couldn’t think about what to do or where to go. Thousands of people were killed. My friends here in Sweden recommended that I seek asylum. The only thing which served as therapy for me was to write. I had to write,” she explains.
”When I left for Sweden, I never even got to say goodbye to my mother. I always thought I’d be back. I was becoming heard in Yemen, and for us young people there, we felt that we were gaining power. But just because we wanted change, didn’t mean we wanted violence. It was unbelievable and I had so many commitments back home … I was only supposed to be in Sweden for two weeks.”
As an editor for the Yemen Observer, Nasser focused on social and culture topics, but she says, “The more I wrote about society and cultural problems, the more I realized it’s really about the political system. And then that made me wonder ’Where is the democracy? Where are the voices of the people?’”
She started her blog as a way to document her impressions on the political situations in Yemen. “You know, when you start a blog you never really believe anyone is going to read it,” she says.
But people did read it, and Nasser started receiving two radically different reactions to her writing. One was international fame as her voice and her words captured the attention of CNN and other international media outlets. The second reaction saw Nasser receiving hate comments and death threats from the regime.
She continued writing despite the threats and her blog has become her megaphone. ”I’m really writing about the things I think. I’m not telling anyone what to think.”
Integration into Swedish society has been what Nasser calls ’an adventure’. One might believe that it has become problematic for her to continue to write about issues happening in her country, so far away.
“Now that I’m living in Sweden, I’m seeing another whole dimension that I never thought possible. I’m talking to Swedish people and getting their perspectives. I’ve also travelled around Europe. I’m seeing things in two different contexts – it’s an interesting analysis. It’s a much more global viewpoint and there is a constant dialogue between the two worlds.”
Nasser recently received the 2014 Dawit Isaak Award. “I was so shocked by that,” she says. “I have no idea how they [The Publicity Club] found me.”
Nasser was very familiar with Dawit Isaak’s case, “As a journalist – when you come to Sweden – Isaak’s issue is one of the first things you learn. You know it’s a very important issue when it comes to journalism. I really would like to celebrate his release soon. There is a new government here – I don’t know if they are going to leave – but with the new information minister, I hope Isaak’s case is looked into more seriously. I take this opportunity to raise his name again and for the government to act responsibly in his case.”
She is a huge proponent of multiculturalism and she sees many areas where segregation and integration are still in need of improvement in Gothenburg. ”Integration is an important issue for Sweden. But we must remember multiculturalism and integration is a two-way process,” she says.
When asked about the most challenging aspects of living in Sweden, Nasser reflects, “It’s not easy to be far away from my home. I’m not saying I didn’t expect this – as I said many situations have been so overwhelming – it has been difficult to comprehend everything that has happened, but still I say, my body is in Sweden. My heart is in Yemen. Integration can sometimes be a daily struggle.”
Regarding her many trials, awards, and the international recognition she has received, Nasser says, ”the key is to be visionary. You don’t think about awards. You just devote your time to a cause.”
This article was created in collaboration with the University of Gothenburg and Chalmers University of Technology.