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When Refugees Lead: The Youth Leader Fighting Deportations in Sweden

As part of our series, “When Refugees Lead,” we speak with Fatemeh Khavari, the 18-year-old Afghan founder and spokesperson of Young in Sweden (Ung I Sverige), which campaigns against the deportation of unaccompanied refugee minors.

Written by Rory Smith Published on Read time Approx. 6 minutes
A demonstration against migrant deportations in Malmo, 2017. Magnus Persson/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

As a naturally outgoing person, school in Sweden was hard for Fatemeh at first. Fatemeh was silent for the first few months of school as she was unable to speak Swedish.

But after six months of dedicated study, Fatemeh began to speak – and she hasn’t stopped since. In 2017, she cofounded Ung I Sverige (Young in Sweden), a social movement that aims to stop the deportation of unaccompanied refugee minors.

Born in Iran to Afghan parents who fled Taliban persecution, Fatemeh spent the first 15 years of her life as one of an estimated 1 million undocumented Afghans with little access to formal education or healthcare.

In 2013, Fatemeh’s older brother Mustafa – 15 years old at the time – fled to Sweden. Two years later, having secured residency in Sweden, Mustafa sent for his family. Fatemeh and her family arrived that same year, months before the massive wave of migration began in Europe.

To get involved in politics is a way for me to actively engage in life, to contest political decisions, and not just be a victim.

It didn’t take long for Fatemeh to become politically active in Sweden. Early on, despite having little knowledge of Swedish, she traveled alone to Almedalen Week, Sweden’s largest annual gathering of politicians that takes place on the island of Gotland, to better understand the politics of the country.

There, she approached Mikael Ribbenvik, the general director of the Swedish Migration Services, asking him about her schoolmates facing deportation: “Don’t you care about my friends’ lives?” The question resulted in an hour-long conversation with the general director.

“Politics need people that burn,” Gustav Fridolin, the spokesperson of Sweden’s Green Party told Swedish newspaper Expressen recently. “With the energy and motivation Fatemeh has, we cannot rule out that one day she might become prime minister or the U.N.’s General Secretary.”

Refugees Deeply: How did growing up in an Afghan refugee family in Iran influence your political outlook and interest in influencing policy?

Fatemeh Khavari: I had no rights in Iran. I was an illegal immigrant my entire life. My world was very small. And politics was the reason for all this. Politics determined that we couldn’t move around the country, that I couldn’t go to school, that we weren’t accepted, that we lived illegally. Everything that happened was the result of political decisions. My whole life has been decided by other people.

Because of that, it’s important to me that we all raise our voices and say, “Hey! We are the product of your decisions. Your decisions decide whether we live or die.” I think a lot of people all over the world forget this. To get involved in politics is a way for me to actively engage in life, to contest political decisions, and not just be a victim.

Refugees Deeply: Since you arrived in Sweden, how have changing policies and attitudes towards refugees impacted your life?

Khavari: In 2016, during the height of the refugee crisis, I started a new school. Instead of being surrounded by Swedes, like my previous school, I was surrounded by Afghans and other refugees. I had never been involved or engaged in the politics of immigration before. It had never occurred to me that somebody could be deported, because I had come to Sweden before the crisis and had received permanent citizenship.

But my classmates, the people I sat next to each day, were under this constant threat. They had to live in fear every day while I was safe. This is when I became more involved. As I spoke pretty good Swedish, at that point I began helping friends with migration paperwork and other migration-related questions.

Refugees Deeply: How did Ung I Sverige begin?

Khavari: I was playing volleyball one night with friends when I received a phone call from an Afghan friend named Ahmad Rahimi, who received the “Young Courage” award from the Raoul Wallenberg Academy for his work raising awareness about the rights of unaccompanied refugee minors. He was shattered, saying he had worked so long and was about to give up as he didn’t see any of his work making a difference. Lots of Afghans were being sent back at this point.

“They send us back and no one talks about us. We disappear and no one even knows they deported us,” he said to me. I told him, “From this day on I am going to talk about us.” He thought it was a joke, but as soon I left the volleyball match I started calling everyone I knew to get a group together to demonstrate for three days in Stockholm.

On the first day of our sit-in, we were 15 people. On the third day, after being attacked by neo-Nazis, there were several thousand of us that marched. [Editor’s note: Swedish newspaper Flamman reported that at least 1,000 people took part.]

Refugees Deeply: What does the group mean to you personally?

Khavari: Each time somebody gets deported it doesn’t just affect them, but also their friends, the people that work with them, their caretakers, the entire societal structure is affected. When we came to Sweden we gained so many rights compared to Iran or Afghanistan, and now they’re being taken away again. That these rights are upheld is extremely important for me. That and for people to see unaccompanied minors as a part of Swedish society. We should see them as resources – as young Swedes are seen – not a burden.

Refugees Deeply: What are the group’s main policy priorities, and strategies for achieving them?

Khavari: The main priorities are to raise awareness about the rights of unaccompanied refugee minors and prevent their deportation. We use different strategies to achieve this. For example, sit-ins are a way of showing ourselves instead of hiding and getting people curious about what we are doing.

We frame the issue not as “we are refugee victims” but that this is a societal problem. It’s best if we do this together. This isn’t a problem of young Afghans, but a Swedish problem. We are fighting for Sweden’s future, not for just the Afghans, but for all of Sweden.

We reach out to civil society and invite them to participate so as to engage more people in the debate. There are lots of people involved, but more people involved the better, because in a democracy, it’s the majority that makes the difference.

Refugees Deeply: Have you faced challenges as a prominent leader and spokesperson who is young, female, Muslim and a refugee?

Khavari: Of course, as a Muslim woman wearing a hijab I’ve had to work a little harder to win everyone’s trust. There has especially been pushback from older generations of Afghans, but this is based more on ethnic differences than anything else. But I’ve never given into the hate and the criticism that has come from them or anyone. Ung I Sverige is about creating a movement that doesn’t put gender or religion at the forefront. This is about the youth in Sweden – all the youth – and creating something much bigger than religion or ethnicity.

This isn’t a problem of young Afghans, but a Swedish problem. We are fighting for Sweden’s future, not for just the Afghans, but for all of Sweden.

It hasn’t been too hard for me to do all this as a woman because we are in Sweden. But had I been in Afghanistan or Iran this would have been impossible. In Sweden, it is the complete reverse. Everything that’s seen as bad in Iran or Afghanistan is seen as a strength in Sweden.

Refugees Deeply: What have you learned about leadership through your work Ung I Sverige that you hope to apply in future?

Khavari: I have learned that everything and anything is possible. But importantly, that you need to be objective and that you should never take sides within a group but stick to the core mission of what you are doing and always be looking for solutions. It is extremely important to understand people’s opinions as well as their strengths and to be constantly looking for different strengths in each person. You have to know how to listen to people. And you can’t force people to listen to you but you have to engage then in an intriguing and non-intrusive way. You have to find common ground.

Refugees Deeply: Any lessons that you wish more Swedish, or global, political leaders would take note of?

Khavari: See us as the future resources of your countries, not victims. It is easier to deport someone that you view as a refugee instead of a person, that has been turned into “the other” and depersonalized. Moreover, short-term fixes aren’t going to solve the problem. There needs to be long-term solutions to these issues that don’t change with governments.

In Sweden, I don’t see very much courage from the politicians right now. They are only doing what other E.U. countries are doing. To be a politician means to be a leader, but no politicians are showing any kind of leadership related to these issues. Recently, some politicians in Sweden have crossed party lines to vote in favor of unaccompanied refugee minor rights, and it’s that kind of bravery we need more of.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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