MY SWEDISH CAREER: Danni Askini, 36, has been in Sweden since July 9th, but she has visited the country ‘some 20 times’ previously. This time however, Askini hopes to stay: she has had to flee the United States after her work as a human rights defender has become too dangerous there.
This article is part of The Local’s My Swedish Career series. Read more interviews with international professionals and entrepreneurs in Sweden here.
Askini’s story is one of great hardships, yet she radiates positivity. Passionate and enthusiastic, the Seattle native talks frankly about her career, her private life, and her hopes for the future.
“I was adopted, and I grew up in foster care. It was a rough time. I went through homelessness, and I transitioned from male to female as a teenager. Since the late ’90s, I have been doing LGBT activism, but more specifically, trans activism. In 2006, I met a Swede and fell in love. From that time, I started moving back and forth to Sweden, until our relationship ended in 2015,” she says.
Getting to Sweden
But now, she intends to stay in the country long-term, explaining: “My work in the US has become too dangerous.”
White supremacists and Nazis have threatened Askini. As her visibility as a campaigner for transgender rights increased, she began receiving death threats and even experiencing violence. “From the federal government, I have not received help to keep doing human rights work in the US,” she says.
Askini’s future in Sweden is uncertain. Upon leaving the US, her passport renewal was rejected, despite providing the necessary documentation. She was granted a temporary emergency passport to leave, but according to the State Department in Washington DC, she still has not “demonstrated a legitimate claim” to US citizenship, refusing her a new passport.
“I had to fill out another form, the so-called N-600 certificate, with over 180 questions on it. Because I am adopted and I was in foster care, I do not know the answers to some of the questions,” says Askini.
If she has to return to the US, she says, “there is the real possibility that I would be arrested and detained at the border control on charges of identity fraud”. And if that happens, she is concerned about the risk she might face as a trans woman.
“In US immigration detention facilities, transgender women are often detained with men, and they run a huge risk of getting raped or sexually assaulted there. So I am trying to explore what my legal options are to remain in Sweden. It is rare, coming from the US, to apply for asylum in Sweden. I have a 90-day tourist visa until October 9th, so I have a legal status here, but I am in uncharted territory,” the American says.
“I am really fearful that my application for asylum here will be immediately labelled ‘manifestly unfounded’. At the asylum reception, they can declare your application unfounded and deport you within 14 days to your country of origin. I need to pay for an attorney to be able to have a chance to even have my application be considered. Despite the status of Sweden as an open country, it is quite hard to gain asylum here nowadays.”
One option is to request political asylum: “I have good reasons to think that I have been targeted because of my political work. For example, I am suing the Trump administration over the transgender military ban. I have sued military officials, and I took on the Seattle mayor last year, with him ending up having to resign.”
Awaiting new developments for her asylum request, Askini keeps a low profile online. “My fear is that even talking to The Local may tip off migration authorities to deport me or to deny my application on the grounds that I would not be in enough danger.” However, she also believes it is important to tell her story.
Trans activist and writer Danni Askini. Photo: John Victory
Generosity and opportunity
Askini lauds the Swedes for their generosity. “For all of the difficulties and the heated debate about asylum seekers in this country, the truth is I have been treated with nothing but kindness and respect by friends, friends of friends, officials, by all of the agencies I have encountered here. People here are generous in spirit and in means, and I think you don’t find that in the US any more. Swedish people offered me housing or knew someone who could offer assistance with asylum requests, without expecting anything back,” she says. “I am so grateful for that, and it has really helped me get a sense of safety, of belonging, of being welcome. I miss home, and it has not been easy coming here, but it has been a lot easier than I thought it would be.”
Askini sees opportunities for people like her here. “There is a strategic advantage for Sweden as an economy to be profiling itself with its human rights policy and culture. This is an amazingly open, innovative country, where LGBT people are treated with respect and dignity. Seattle is called Silicon Forest, because of all the tech companies there, and I am trying to convince my trans friends in tech there to come to Stockholm. There are so many tech jobs here, and I would love to bridge a gap between the LGBT community working in tech in the US and Sweden.”
In the meantime
During her time in Sweden, Askini has been working on a book for US audiences with Penguin Books.
“It will be a how-to guide for activism in the age of Trump, walking people through the basics of how to do activism and how to manage the emotional aspects of that work. It’s about conflict, and a lot of people are inherently conflict-averse. So my book discusses the emotions that come up: What are effective advocacy strategies in the US in times of increasing authoritarianism? I hope it will reach Swedish audiences as well. The same truths apply: Europe is experiencing a shift towards the far-far-right, and the traditional approaches on the left have lost their effectiveness.”
There is a vital need for insight into how much the US has changed with regards to its human rights situation, she says.
“I have been working so much with LGBT issues, and topics that overlap it. The information I have gained about this can contribute to building a new human rights framework for Sweden in negotiations with the US. I would love to work on this, as soon as I know more about my own fate. In the meantime, I am learning Swedish and hope to continue moving forward and strengthen people’s understanding of what is happening in the US,” Askini concludes.
Ruben Dieleman is a Dutch freelance journalist and an assistant researcher at the political sciences department of Gothenburg University.