‘Racists see me as a threat to what Swedish society should be’

Leila Ali Elmi’s earliest memories of Sweden are as a two-year-old who fled civil war in Somalia with her family.

She remembers her favourite pair of yellow trousers and moments of her childhood spent in the school playground.  

“I had that fairy-tale mentality. I didn’t see colour, I didn’t see class differences,” she said, speaking to Al Jazeera.

Elmi is the first Swedish MP to wear a hijab and the first of Somali descent.

“[As a teenager] I remember two Somali classmates of mine,” she said. “One wanted to be a scientist and the other wanted to be a professional soccer player. Our teacher said to them: ‘You will never amount to that.’ Prior to that, I believed any dreams were possible. But that was a defining moment in my life, because vicariously, through those boys, my dreams were crushed.”

Now a member of parliament for the progressive Green Party, the 31-year-old has become an impassioned voice for Angered, a north-eastern suburb of Gothenburg that has been her home for 29 years. 

Angered is home to a large migrant population, high unemployment, poor education facilities, housing shortages, and rampant segregation.

Elmi works with the labour committee on integration and employment.

“I’m working against institutional racism, I’m working for equal job opportunities, I’m working for women to get the same opportunity to establish themselves in the workforce, and especially for women who are immigrants,” she said. 

I’ve become a symbol of hate for extremists and racists. They see me as a threat to what Swedish society should be.

Leila Ali Elmi, MP

The 2018 electoral campaign, which resulted in a months-long hung parliament until Social Democrat Prime Minister Stefan Lofven took office again in January, saw debates on healthcare, crime, and immigration – and the rise of the far right.

Sweden had adopted a liberal refugee policy; in 2015 it received over 160,000 asylum seekers, more per capita than any other European nation. 

Later that year, Lofven said Sweden needed “respite” from the tens of thousands of refugee arrivals. 

In August 2018, a wave of attacks involving young people, in which 80 cars were torched in a Gothenburg suburb, spurred the far-right Sweden Democrats to conflate immigration with criminality and set the tone for the electoral debate.

Support for the Sweden Democrats increased, from 12.9 percent in 2014 to 17.6 percent in 2018. 

Patricia Rodi, a researcher at Queen Mary University London told Al Jazeera: “The Sweden Democrats have vowed to protect the civil religion of the welfare state that the Social Democrats have long built upon and restore the concept of ‘folkehmmet’ (the people’s home), framing it as under threat by immigration, Islam and crime.”

Elmi said structural racism has led to social and racial inequality in Sweden, as she dismissed the populist claim that refugees and migrants have failed to integrate into society.

“It’s not a lack of integration. It’s a lack of opportunity and inclusion”, she said. “When you look for a job you will not be the first to get the job though you are qualified, sometimes even overqualified for a job, because your surname matters. The bar is much higher for the immigrant.”

Before becoming an MP, Elmi worked in civil society attempting to boost youth unemployment and steer vulnerable people away from hardline ideologies and criminality.

“I’ve become a symbol of hate for extremists and racists. They see me as a threat to what Swedish society should be. But I’m also a symbol of hope for others, because I represent an underrepresented people. My aim is to give young people political ambition, inspire them to be politicians, not just because they are black, immigrant, Muslim or LGBT,” she said.

The politician’s message has inspired members of her community.

“When we see one Somali woman with real-life experiences standing in parliament talking about issues that involve us, that’s why we want to vote for her, not because she is Somali,” said 22-year-old student and Somali-Swede Aeni Hussein.

“Even though there had been a rise of the far right in Swedish government, Leila’s election made me feel like we can all do something. I used to think once we elect politicians, we can sit back and watch them do something. But it’s important to understand that we, the people, have power because we choose them, and we can hold them accountable.”

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