Name: Robert Hannah
Hometown: Gothenburg, Sweden
Occupation: Member of the Swedish Parliament (Riksdagen)
As a child, did you always know you wanted to be politically active as an adult? Not at all. My father was an active member of [the Assyrian-Iraqi political party] Zowaa, but I grew up in a suburb of Gothenburg where no one was politically active in Swedish politics. My goal was to become a diplomat and travel the world.
What political party do you belong to and what are some issues that are important to you? I represent the Liberal Party of Sweden. I am also the youngest member of the party’s central committee. The party ideology is social liberalism. We believe in a free market economy, free individuals and comprehensive, but market-based welfare state programs. I am the spokesman for my party on housing issues. Other than that I work mostly with the political aspects of integration of immigrants: policies to combat segregation and foreign policy focusing on the Middle East.
Can you share an early childhood memory with us? My family came to Sweden in the early 1980s. During that time there weren't many eastern Assyrians, Suraye, in Gothenburg. So we were like a big family. There were big parties or weddings almost every month and all the kids were just put in a side room once we fell asleep. It was like a big slumber party in that room. Today there are so many Assyrians in Gothenburg that I only know a small portion of them.
You went to law school at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., correct? Why did you decide to study in the U.S. instead of Sweden? Actually, my law degree is from Stockholm University. I have also studied in the University of Vienna. After working in development aid for a couple of years focusing on Egypt and Tunisia I was given a Fulbright Scholarship to study in the U.S. I graduated with a Masters in International Legal Studies from Georgetown Law School. I chose D.C. because I am a political animal. I wanted to be close to where the political action is. I did a little campaigning for [President Barack] Obama back then.
How was living in D.C.? Would you ever move to the U.S.? I love D.C. Everyone you meet has an interesting job or life story. I would move back to the U.S., but not for life. The U.S. is great in most ways, but it is not a country that takes care of the weak and it is a bit too superficial for my taste. You can say, being born in Sweden, I am used to a standard of freedom and state support that the U.S. will never be able to provide.
You’ve been an advocate for Assyrian rights in the Swedish parliament for some time now. How receptive is the Swedish public to Assyrian issues? The Assyrian Federation of Sweden, A Demand for Action, the Seyfo Center and many other organizations in Sweden have been very influential in Sweden in the last couple of years. They have been making their voices heard by lobbying the Swedish parliament and convincing media to report. Assyrian-Swedes being more than 1 % of the Swedish population today makes us an important voting group. Our Prime Ministers and other party leaders make sure to visit Assyrian events and hear the group whenever they are invited. We are seen as one of the most successful immigrant groups. However, Sweden is a small country and Swedish politicians can’t do as much in foreign policy as American politicians can.
What is your favorite word in Assyrian? How about in Swedish? I really like animal names in Assyrian. They sound very funny. Like bool bool, [for] canary bird, or alie alo, [for] turkey. I don’t have a favorite word in Swedish.
As an openly gay man, you wrote about “honor culture” a while back and how Assyrian culture oppressed you by keeping you in the closet for much of your life. Do you still feel oppressed after coming out? No, not at all. I came out because I didn’t want Assyrians to vote for me without knowing who I really was. I was personally elected to the Swedish parliament one year later with the help of many Assyrian-Swedes. Many other Assyrian LGBT individuals are still very much oppressed. I know of many forced marriages that still take place. It is of the greatest importance to work for these Assyrian individuals' rights. There has been a shift in the attitude among Assyrian-Swedish youth since I came out. The subject has been eiba and tabooed before. Now everyone talks about it.
What is your response to those that say one cannot be both a proud Assyrian and be gay? Assyrians are not different to other mainly Catholic or Orthodox people [or] nations. Now even Italy has enacted the right for same-sex couples to marry. The Assyrian people have to change and advance with time, even though we don’t have a shared nation. Most Assyrians today live in liberal societies in the western world with LGBT rights. It is inevitable that Assyrians will have to change their attitudes on these types of issues. Nations in diaspora who are not willing to adjust will not survive in the long run.
How did your family handle your coming out? Is everyone OK with it now? They took it very differently – from not caring [at] all to being very bothered by it. Everything is fine today. If someone does not accept me for who I am, I don’t need that person in my life. Most of my older relatives don’t talk to me about it.
Looking back, what advice would you give your younger self? I would tell any young Assyrian to read up more on their history. Too many young Assyrians have no clue about their history, or why our people ended up in diaspora. Knowing who you are is vital to keep the Assyrian culture. Too many young Assyrians speak [the] Assyrian [language] very badly.
If you could vote in the U.S. presidential election, whom would you vote for and why? Hillary Clinton. She’s the only sane one running for president. The Republican policies on weapons, health care, abortion, LGBT rights and many other things are crazy to a Swede. Bernie Sanders on the other hand has an economic platform which is full of flaws. And he promises voters things he would never be able to fulfill. Voting for him will lead to Congress being even less productive than it is already.
How is the relationship between Kurds and Assyrians in Sweden? Generally it is good. However between people who are lobbying policies toward Iraq and Syria, there are at times very harsh words spoken. I think the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq and the YPG (People's Protection Units) in Syria is making things worse by their wrongful actions and discrimination [against] our people.
Would you ever run to become Sweden’s prime minister? Yes, the Swedish system is nothing like the American one. We have a parliamentary system, which means that the party leaders are the ones who run for [prime minister]. The party leader of the largest party in the largest winning coalition becomes the prime minister. I would have to become the party leader of my party first, and who knows, in many years I might run to be the party leader.
What is your favorite Swedish food or dessert? I love the Swedish kebab pizza. It is a pizza that immigrants from the Middle East invented in Sweden in the 1970s. It has become very popular and is probably the most eaten hungover food in Sweden.
Are you a fan of the Millennium series by Stieg Larsson (I am!)? No. But I have seen the movies. The Swedish movies are better than the American movies.
You met with internally displaced Assyrians and Yezidis in Iraq. How was that experience? Terrible. It was the worst experience of my life. I have been to refugee camps before, but not ones inhabited by my own people. Seeing your own people suffering, being scared, drinking dirty water, having no hope for the future - it is indescribable.
What are your thoughts on the dire situation of Assyrians in the Middle East? What is the solution? Very difficult. It is time for all Assyrians, Syriacs, Chaldeans or whatever name one uses to work together. The politics of divide and rule has been used far too long against our people. If the churches and political parties in our homeland won’t work together, we won’t survive. I believe our people will survive in the homeland, but the question is how decimated we will be. It will be up to how close we can work together and how much the international community is willing to help us.
Other than Stockholm, what city is a must-see when visiting Sweden? My hometown Gothenburg, the seaport of Sweden.
Is the Swedish city of Södertälje also known as “Little Assyria”? Yes, but it is not very little anymore. It is definitely worth a visit.
What music do you listen to? Mostly house music, R&B, or rap.
What is your favorite film? I like fantasy and sci-fi movies, but no favorite.
Describe yourself in three words: Spontaneous, fun and stubborn
Portions of this interview have been edited.
Follow Robert Hannah on Twitter @RobertHannah85.