Golnaz Hashemzadeh Bonde
“My parents were still teenagers when they left university in 1979, to join Iran’s Cultural Revolution. They fought dictatorships since the moment they learned to think.”
With fake passports and constantly on the run, the young couple lived underground. Amidst the chaos of a raging war, their baby girl was born.
“I remember the sounds when I was three years old. I remember running for shelter, but the bombs would not go away. I didn’t know why we were leaving Iran but knew it was something we had to do. I remember walking off the plane in Sweden and waiting on a bench while my parents spoke with police. I feared if they said the wrong thing, the plane would take off and I would have to go back with it.”
Golnaz often wonders, with all their hopes and dreams of starting a new life, what were they expecting to find?
“You would think that certain things are innately human; if you are ready to give up your life for freedom and come to a place where you are suddenly free, should that not be enough? Or, if you’ve escaped war and come to a land of peace, would you not be happy?”
The young family settled only 20 minutes outside Stockholm; however, in the mid-80s, Gustavsberg felt like a completely different world.
“We were among the first refugees. I think my parents were quite shocked: giving up everything to come to this land of opportunity and then having to live like this.”
Golnaz was bullied during the first few years of school, mocked for her dark skin and thick hair.
“The society wasn’t very informed then; I think that’s where the racism stemmed from. One teacher took me aside and said: ‘You will never be Swedish, and Sweden will never be your home.’ It’s hard not to let that get to you.”
Golnaz’s stubbornness became her strength.
“It made me more motivated to prove them wrong. Then, another teacher who came from Korea and was adopted as a baby into a Swedish family, privately told me I was doing great and not to listen to anyone who might say otherwise. I never forgot that. This struggle taught me to appreciate life and focus on what truly is important.”
Humility is at the very core of Golnaz’s being. She speaks with such respect for those who raised her, even though they often betrayed her.
“I knew what my parents had sacrificed just so I could have a better life, so I needed to prove to them that they hadn’t given up everything for nothing. I had to be the best, but it wasn’t easy.”
In high school, all I did was schoolwork. There was never anything else: no after-school activities, no sports clubs, and no music lessons. I graduated with the highest grades, but that was more exasperating than it was celebratory. ‘Finally,’ I thought, ‘it’s over.’”
One day, Golnaz’s father handed her a copy of Dagens Industri, Sweden’s business newspaper. The people featured in the publication all seemed to have graduated from the same university: the Stockholm School of Economics.
“The fact he just showed me the paper was something I appreciate because he came from a traditional background in a very remote village, yet he still managed to be a liberal and progressive person. I was always expected to become either a doctor or an engineer because those positions held a high status among Iranians; economics did not. The path before me had always been limited by rules about how I should be. This never allowed me to be an individual. Perhaps because of the racism I experienced, I had always felt that who I am as a person was quite uninteresting – perhaps even a burden – and the only thing that mattered were my accomplishments. By choosing SSE, I thought maybe this is my chance to become a person.”
Golnaz explains why her mother was also hesitant about the school.
“Many immigrant parents want their children to become doctors because once you can save lives, you have a value regardless of where you come from. She said to me: ‘We cannot help with creating a network for you if you go into this – whatever it is.’ I had worked so hard and endured so much; I wanted to somehow become my own person and not be just an immigrant girl trying to prove her value.”
Golnaz’s focus on achievement was all-encompassing. She asserts it had much to do with her background as a refugee and was her way of compensating for everything her parents lost when they left their home and their family in Iran.
“It was important to me that they could feel that fleeing Iran and coming to Sweden led to something good. I think many whose parents have fled, carry that weight.”
The pressure, however, became more than Golnaz could bear. She speaks so honestly of a phenomenon that is far too common in the lives of many young people today: particularly, teenage girls.
“I developed severe anorexia; it truly was the only way I thought I could gain any control at all. But it raged on for three years and essentially took over my life.”
Golnaz would like those who are also struggling to know there is hope and help for something that feels like it will control you forever.
“People ask how I could have possibly survived, and I say it was a process of learning that you can only do your best. You don’t have to be the best. That notion was totally unknown to me until I was 25. Doing my best was never enough. When I was 17, I spoke to a doctor who said that most people outgrow this disease by the time they’re 30. Thirty!?! That was a lifetime away. I wasn’t the slightest bit reassured. I just stood up, walked out the door, and decided the only way out of this was to do it for myself.”
Golnaz remembers speaking to a guidance counselor who had recently graduated from university.
“I’ll never forget her words: ‘Everything doesn’t have to be a consequence of the past.’ From that point on, I had that in the back of my mind: the future is mine now to build.”
And so, Golnaz started creating her own world and developing her own network. She vividly remembers the first morning at SSE.
“I was trembling with both excitement and anxiety. I took the subway from the suburbs and saw this grand spectacle in front of SSE: an orchestra, a red carpet, and people all dressed in black tie and beautiful gowns.”
This time-honored tradition welcomes new students to the Stockholm School of Economics.
“I thought to myself: ‘Oh no, there’s an event! I don’t want to disturb anyone, but I must get inside.’ So, I take up as little space as possible, squeeze past everyone and sneak in through the side door.”
Never once did it occur to Golnaz that this ceremony might be for her.
“Those first months were extremely difficult; I went home crying every day. Immigrant. Female. Socialistic background. I felt like such an outsider. After a while though, I met people and found my way.”
Golnaz attributes her inclusion to insight.
“We are all much more alike than we are different. Most people feel they don’t belong, and everyone is quite insecure and searching for how to fit in. We all carry this with us. Realizing that saved me.”
Golnaz continued the work ethic she had established throughout her formative school years: 100 per cent focus on her studies. As time went on, she became more involved in different projects and discovered SSE’s social side.
“I joined a small newspaper, debating issues concerning SSE’s Student Association. There was a very intellectual crowd running it, and I really enjoyed that setting. I had always loved writing, and I was just so sick and tired of spending my life in a library. Suddenly, they needed an editor, so I started running the publication.”
Golnaz soon had an idea to run for President of the Student Council but thought it would only be an experiment because of her gender and her background.
“I didn’t have a lot of confidence, but I felt this was a way of giving back to a place that already meant so much to me. Then, something totally unexpected happened; I got a lot of support from fellow students. So many started wearing ‘Golnaz for President’ pins and t-shirts. It was thrilling!”
Golnaz smiles as she remembers one event in particular: The Candidates’ Roasting.
“The auditorium was packed; people were crammed in the aisles and squeezed on the floor. A separate theme song played as each of the five candidates ran into the room. Suddenly, I hear Aretha Franklin belt out ‘R-E-S-P-E-C-T!’ and I think: ‘This can’t be for me.’ Then, my name is called; I run on stage, and the crowd goes wild. It was amazing!”
Golnaz was the first elected student council president in the history of SSE to come from a non-Swedish background.
“This was the end of 2003, and something happened that I never expected. People appreciated the very things I thought were to my disadvantage: my background and my gender.
I had never been to a place that was so open or more welcoming. Surprisingly, SSE became the most inclusive institution I had ever been to.”
The vital mixture of mindset and circumstance.
“I was fortunate to find myself among people who were open minded and who probably didn’t even think of my background the way I did. I don’t want to be disrespectful of those who didn’t share that experience; but, for the first time in my life, I honestly found a place that valued me as an individual. That’s when I allowed myself to develop a voice, a personality, and a character of my own.”
Golnaz still wanted to work at McKinsey, which she saw as the biggest affirmation that she belonged.
“I convinced them to take me in for interviews earlier than they normally did. I got an internship and was later offered a full-time job. But I realized that it wasn’t something I really wanted to do; it was the validation from others that I needed. So, I declined. Leading SSE’s student association taught me that I as an individual have value, which made me steer away from the traditional path. That was enough. And so was I.”
Golnaz completed a Master of Science and was named one of Goldman Sachs’ Most Promising Global Leaders. With a plethora of possibilities at her fingertips, there was one childhood dream that Golnaz could not ignore.
“As soon as I finished my last exam, I started writing my first book. Completing Hon är inte jag (She is Not Me) helped me to understand my choices and driving forces. I then entered into talks with investor P. O. Söderberg about my entrepreneurial vision.”
Together, they founded Inkludera: a non-profit organization dedicated to fighting marginalization in society by backing social entrepreneurs.
“Inkludera merges what I learned at SSE with what my parents taught me about being responsible for society and not just a passive viewer of the world. My team, our associate alumni, and my board are all SSE alumni; it really is bringing the SSE perspective into the non-profit world.”
In 2016, Golnaz was in New York when the inspiration for her second book came to her.
“I was in a taxi looking out the window at all these people who have left their homeland to create something new. They’ve escaped with such high hopes; but they’ve lost so much, and their hearts are broken. I wanted to capture the essence of their pain, their trauma, and their hopes for the future.”
Golnaz decided to explore the events in her mother’s and grandmother’s lives and the notion that fleeing does not always make you free.
“My parents fled Iran to find a better life in Sweden, but they died so young; my father was 50 and my mother was 54. Why is it they are gone from this earth, while their siblings and cousins in Iran are all still alive? Would my parents be alive today if they had stayed where they were? What if they had known the Revolution would haunt them forever, regardless of where they lived?”
Golnaz sought answers to these questions, wanting to understand the journey of her parents’ generation. What resulted is a searing portrayal of one woman’s trials, tribulations, and triumph. This powerful portrait stays with you long after the story ends. Det var vi (What We Owe) was a literary sensation, garnering worldwide acclaim. In 2019, it won the prestigious Dayton Literary Peace Prize: an award dedicated to advancing peace through the power of the written word. Golnaz is humbled just knowing that people want to read her story and are interested in understanding her parents’ path.
“Leaving and starting again is so traumatic; it sticks in our bodies and affects future generations. But every obstacle makes us stronger, and I want my children to know that resilience. As a mother, I need to make this heritage a source of strength for them too. My childhood
was hard in many ways, but the life we live today is because of my parents’ sacrifices. This is what we owe. I’m a better mother for them because of the parents I had. And if you bring the whole picture together, it’s a happy one because I got to have them.”
How does one shape the perspective of gratitude?
“If you haven’t suffered, then how can you know how fortunate you are? And, if you don’t know you are fortunate, can you still be grateful? I try very hard to teach my daughter to be grateful. I tell her that if you always look at what you don’t have, you will always be unhappy. We must learn to look at what we do have instead.”
Golnaz’s children are both Swedish and will never know the heart-pounding terror that leaves a three-year old breathless and decades older than she should be. They will never know the sound of bombs or the smell of war. They will bear witness to a land that is fair and free and welcomes them wholeheartedly. And they will be nourished by a feast of choice and possibility. Tears begin to fill Golnaz’s deep soulful eyes.
“My only wish is that I can be here for my children until they have children of their own and to have the privilege of meeting them too. If I can just have that, then I can look back at my life and be so grateful – for everything. The story doesn’t end until it’s finished. And with having children, you let it live.”
Text: Karyn McGettigan