Alexandra Sandels

Produced by: Sharq.Org
Part of the Curated Collection: Peaceful Coexistence in the Diaspora,
Original Interview Length:
Interview Location: Stockholm, Sweden
Production Team:
Available Collateral:

Alex is a 38-year old Swedish journalist who studied Arabic and has worked in the Middle East, including in Syria, since 2008. She first travelled to Syria with a friend following language study in Cairo where she lived for 2 years. For years thereafter she worked as a journalist in the region and covered Syria for the Daily Star, which was independent at the time.

What struck her immediately was that in Syria political subjects were avoided, and she felt a palpable fear under the surface of normality.  She did not know much about Syria at the time, but was told: “Do remember that walls have ears here.” Her understanding of Syria started with a basic understanding that it was a warm and lovely place with so much history (it was booming with tourists at the time) but with a dark side - political prisoners and Assad’s portraits everywhere.

She lived in Beirut from 2008-2013, travelling to and around Syria several times a month. People justified the government by saying it could be worse (like Lebanon). This duality and the dark justifications started to break down during the war. She remembers a particular moment on the border between Lebanon and Syria during a snow storm. There was a long lines of cars and her taxi driver said in public: “yes, no one is sent to shovel snow as they are all busy shoveling blood.”

She finds Syrians to be hard working, authentic, down to earth people compared with the Lebanese. She speaks Arabic fluently, which makes her feel safe, opens a direct connection to the people, and allows her to make her own judgments. She feels what remains challenging are the different regional dialects and the vast vocabulary. In Syria, she had friends and places she stayed where people in the neighbourhood knew her. When she met strangers in Syria they were always surprised to find a Swede speaking fluent Arabic and liked to imagine that she must be half-Syrian (pointing out that in the north of Syria people are fair-haired) or that someone in her family was Syrian. They tried to integrate her into the community given her fluency and were surprised that she had no familial connection to the region whatsoever.

The most memorable moments from her time in Syria were the times she interviewed political activists. They would be disguised, waiting alone in a side street to meet her. She felt afraid for their safety but respected their insistence that their experiences be communicated to the world. Alex is not religious and read about the religions (and histories) of the region as intellectual and cultural subjects. Her opening up to difference, “the other,” commenced with Jewish friends in school in Sweden and continued during her studies in the USA, where there was such diversity on campus. Working and living in the Middle East made her appreciate living in a secular state with individual rights.

She maintains important international friendships, which include many Syrians, both in Syria and in Stockholm. She continues to be very active in civil society in Sweden and worked for Sharq organizing panel debates in Beirut and Stockholm on Syria and, most recently, ‘Syrian women and Biographical Theater’ (with director Lina Abyad and produced by Sharq). She often sees her Syrian friends socially, cooks with them, frequently makes Syrian food, goes out to Syrian restaurants and lends support to the Syrian refugees she knows and meets. She talks about the need for Syrian refugees to trust the state and change the attitudes they hold based on their experiences in Syria.

No one in her family took a similar career path. Her family is very supportive of her and trusted her judgment during the years she worked in the Middle East. She describes them as liberal people and says they feel very proud of her fluency in four languages (English, Swedish, French and Arabic) and her work as a journalist.

What she misses from Syria the most are the souqs and the general feel of the place. What she took with her to Sweden is showing anger in public in case of disrespect or incompetence. She feels “calm about difference, foreign influence and presence in Sweden” especially in the face of media reporting such as “Is Sweden disappearing?” or complaints about only finding halal meat at night. She feels it is great that there are shops open in small places at night where you can buy juice. She feels Syrian refugees should be given a chance regardless of language proficiency and be invited to peoples’ homes. She says that Syrians need to learn about Sweden and work together to integrate with Swedish ways. She notes that the biggest problem is with segregation in Sweden (involving housing politics).

She misses her many road journeys to Syria from Lebanon, and getting a coffee with a mountain view on the way.