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From Racist to Reconciler: An Interview with Siavosh Derakhti

SWEDEN

As a teenager Siavosh Derakhti was an unrepentant racist. But then his father took him on a trip to Auschwitz, which marked a turning point from his life of hatred.

Today, the young Swede fervently resists anti-Semitism, and his work for peace and understanding between Muslims and Jews has led to personal meetings with US president Barack Obama and Germany's Angela Merkel.

Siavosh Derakhti was only 19 years old when his journey toward becoming an ambassador for peace and understanding began. But early in his teenage years, Siavosh had problems. He dropped out of school, and he started hanging out with criminals and tried drugs.

Now at 24 years of age, he is a poised young man who speaks out on racism and immigrant integration in his society.

"I am a Muslim, but my best friend was a Jewish guy. We were neighbors. We've known each other since we were six years old. We used to hang out. We tried drugs. We even tried to rob people in the streets," Siavosh tells TMP in a café in the center Stockholm.

Sitting across from this polite and articulate young man, it is hard to imagine Siavosh trying to rob anyone. At that time in his life, however, he was an angry person, frustrated by the indignities of life in an immigrant family.

"My parents come from Iran," Derakhti says. "They are well educated, but arriving in Sweden they could not find any suitable jobs. And if you look around in Sweden, you will find many academics from other countries working as taxi drivers or in restaurants.
 
"Seeing this made me angry. I thought it was unfair. So I said to myself, 'Why bother about an education? It didn´t help my parents. So why would it help me?'"

Siavosh lives in Malmö, a city in southern Sweden known for its struggles with the integration of immigrants and for its growing anti-Semitism. The poverty and social exclusion there make young people angry and frustrated. Siavosh was one of those frustrated young men. He thought Sweden was a racist country, and so he decided to become a racist himself and to strike back at society.

"I called myself a racist. One day my father said he had heard enough. He said, 'You speak about racism. You don´t know what it is. I fled from Iran because of my religion.' He decided to take me on a journey to Auschwitz so that I could see what racism leads to," Derakhti recalled.

The journey to the place where thousands of Jews lost their lives changed Siavosh. Coming home, he began reflecting on the fact that his best friend, the Jewish boy, might be forced to leave Malmö due to rising anti-Semitism.

Derakhti decided he would not let that happen. From that moment, he became an ambassador for peace and dialogue between Muslims, Jews, and Christians. He started a network of young people in Malmö called Young Muslims Against Anti-Semitism, and organized trips to Auschwitz and Dachau. Later, the network was renamed Youth Against Anti-Semitism and Xenophobia to include Christians, Jews, Roma, atheists, and others.

"It is important to have a mix of people in the group," Derakhti says. "In Malmö, there are many projects directed toward young people from areas of social exclusion. But those youngsters only meet others with the same background. I try to mix people who have failed in school with those who are successful.

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