I am three years old when I see my mother leaving on a blue bus.
I don’t know for how long.
I know she has to go.
I’m waving and smiling to hide my tears.
I don’t want to bother my mother.
She holds my baby sister in her arms.
She is leaving me behind with my grandmother, who I call mamá since my mother also calls her mamá and she’s my mother’s mother and the one who takes care of me when my mother is working in a yarn factory in Thessaloniki to support us.
My grandmother’s name was Sofia, a Greek name that means wisdom. She bore her name with pride. Even though she never went to school and couldn’t read or write, she was the greatest storyteller. And all her stories were true. She survived three wars and two dictatorships. She fled and, just like millions of refugees around the world, she left everything behind twice. She worked as a maid from the age of twelve. She begged in the streets to feed her kids, two of which she lost in the war.
My grandfather is in bed. He only has one leg. He lost the other in the war when Nazis shot him. He lost members of his family and his future. But he ended up in some history books as a war hero. Unlike my grandfather, my grandmother never made it into the history books. Neither she nor millions of other ignored and invisible women that sacrificed their lives during the wars.
I live in a small, sleepy village in Northern Greece ruled by a military regime. It’s the first but not the last time I hide my sadness. Only to protect others. I’m three, and I already know that, as a girl, I’m expected to smile. Even if it hurts. I’m three, and I already know that, as a girl, I’m expected to accept the unacceptable and suffer in silence. To protect others. My mother and her mother and her mother’s mother did the same.
Three years later, my mother comes back just to pick me up and take me to what she calls a paradise. A place where you can work and study and prosper. Where you can live with dignity.
So we left our homeland, the cradle of democracy that turned into a dictatorship, to emigrate to one of the world’s most robust democracies. After two and a half years of hiding while waiting for our papers, we finally got them. And then life really was a paradise until I learned Swedish and found out they were calling our suburb a hell. A ghetto. A no-go-zone. Because there were too many migrants and refugees concentrated in a small area. Because we were poor. Because our parents spoke broken Swedish. Because they cleaned toilets and offices. Because they blamed us for everything that went wrong. We were the scapegoats. The bloody ”blackheads”. The others.
I am ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen years old and I live in a home where things break, crash and fly. I live in a home that breaks my heart.
I can’t sleep at night. I learn how to recognise all the small sounds. The opening of the door. The key. My father’s footsteps.
I’m waiting for my father to come home and fight with my mother about nothing and everything. And the next day we pretend that nothing happened.
When self-help gurus tell me to get out of my comfort zone, I laugh, because I have never had one. I was always an outsider. Inside and outside my home.
Being a migrant. A bloody foreigner.
Being a girl and a woman.
Being a poor working-class kid.
Born and bred in a divorced, dysfunctional family.
I was doomed to fail. Ready to fall.
My destiny was sealed at birth.
I am 23 years old, the first in my family and my neighbourhood to go to university. I fight for human rights, equality and social justice. I fight against racism, marginalisation, and segregation. I represent Sweden in the European Council campaign ”All Different – All Equal”. In Strasbourg, other European representatives nominate me to the board. But the Swedish bureaucrat is deeply disappointed. She should be on the board instead. She tells me I’m just a ”poor, naive migrant girl from the ghetto. I’ve been fighting my whole life for people like you”. My white saviour didn’t really want to save me.
I’m 33 years old and I’m a TV presenter in Sweden. The only one with a migrant background. I’m one of the most threatened persons in the country since my first day at work. Racists and sexists warn and threaten me that they will rape me, hurt me, kill me. They call me names. They lie about me. They spread rumours. It’s like a constant low-intensity war.
One day, a gang of masked Nazis come to my home with weapons. They take a photo that is then published on the front page of the biggest newspaper in Sweden. My employer does nothing to support me. In fact they replace me with a Swedish journalist because they are afraid.
So, I lose everything – my work, my home, my relationship. And that’s when I write my first book ”Beyond Mum’s Street”, where I break the silence about the hate and the racism I have experienced.
I’m 34 years old. I move back to Greece to become a TV presenter. I learn everything about sexism. When I’m hosting a morning show, my boss tells me ”Never mention your academic studies, your books, your travels. Diminish yourself. Be the girl next door. Pretend you’re naive and they will adore you.”
I have hundreds of anecdotes I could share, but looking back, I realise that everything that happened to me made me who I am today. The resistance I met showed me I that I was doing something important. Thanks to my enemies, I found my mission, my passion and my vision. I found things that are worth fighting for until the end.
Despite everything, I feel privileged. But privileges come with duties. I want to pay back by empowering those that still struggle. I want to open doors and smash the glass ceilings and tear down the concrete walls. Even if that scares some powerful people and burns bridges.
I came from nothing. That’s why I appreciate everything.
I was not supposed to be here.
But I am. Even though they tried to break me.
They try to stop me.
But their resistance only makes me stronger.
It fuels my fight.
Nobody has the right to define who I am and where I’m going.
I’m a citizen of the world. Free as a nomad. Naive enough to believe I can change the world.
I’m here to support my sisters and to give the voiceless a voice. I’m here to put the spotlight on those living in the shadows.
So let’s keep talking and writing and arguing and laughing. Let’s break the silence and the solitude. Every step forward makes it easier for the next generation.
History shows us that small groups of determined people change history. Even when or especially when everyone tries to stop them.