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  • Writer's pictureGrace McCallum

Finally facing my Waterloo with PUT Slipping Through my Fingers

A young woman from Australia dreams of singing with ABBA, and then gets to do just that. After taking on the Stockholm startup scene, getting the key to the city, our dear friend is still dearly deported - with no permanent residency.

One of Us

The first music I ever remember hearing was ABBA. In my car seat, I sang along to ABBA before I could even formulate words. When I was 3, I won my first walkman in a game of pass the parcel. For the next 6 years I only had one cassette: ABBA Gold.

I listened intently to their harmonies and when the opportunity arose to enter my school talent quest at the age of 8, I paid my 50 cents to enter. As a usually shy child, my parents were nervous. They didn’t know I could sing. I performed Mamma Mia and won first prize. This was the beginning of a life-long love affair with Sweden.

In an interview with Channel 10 in Australia after being chosen as the 'Missing Member'

Cut to the end of 2013 when I was scrolling through Facebook one day and saw a contest. ABBA The Museum, together with Benny and Björn, were looking for one international member to join the 49 Swedes in the choir they were putting together to celebrate the 40th anniversary of ABBA winning Eurovision.

I auditioned, reached the top 10 from around the world and then was chosen as the “missing member”.

It was an absolute dream come true. It’s hard to even describe the elation I felt at that moment. The next morning I was getting calls from news organisations wanting interviews. I did back to back interviews and appearances across all major TV and radio channels in Australia, having vastly underestimated how excited other people would be about my story.

Feeling warmly welcomed after landing in Sweden for the first time

I remember touching down in Stockholm and heading to ABBA The Museum. One of the management team welcomed me and asked how I was finding Stockholm so far. I’m not entirely sure what came over me, because I’d only been there for half an hour at that point, but I responded, “I love it. I think I could live here one day”.

My Key of Honour to the City of Stockholm

She passed me an envelope. Inside I found a welcome pack, containing a Key of Honour to the City of Stockholm. Over the course of the next five days I packed in rehearsals, interviews, media appearances and as much sightseeing with my new friends from the choir as I could. After our performances in Stockholm, where Benny accompanied us, and then London, where I met Björn and Frida, I returned home.

Rehearsing with Benny (I’m in the pink, because I wasn’t Swedish yet!)

I was offered my dream job as a journalist for the ABC, but my mind was constantly on Sweden. Was I going to take a chance and risk everything I had to try to make it in a country I’d only spent five days in? The answer was yes. I bought my one way ticket to Sweden and planned to leave my family, friends, dream job and everything I’d ever known behind and try to get into the music industry there.

13 days before I was due to leave to begin my new life in Sweden, my dad was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer.

13 days before I was due to leave to begin my new life in Sweden, my dad was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer. Much to my dad’s disappointment, I postponed my move to see him through his treatment and into rehabilitation. After close to 10 hours on the operating table and having had his oesophagus removed, we went to see him in ICU. It was awful to see him like that, but he gathered the strength to open his eyes and gesture for me to come closer. I put my ear to his lips to hear the first thing he wanted to say to me after his ordeal; “When are you moving to Sweden?”.

My parents were so invested in my dreams that it gave me the strength to go a few months later. While it was very hard many times, I reminded myself I was only 24 hours away if anything happened. That thought often gave me peace of mind while living alone on the other side of the world.

Representing STHLM Music City in Taiwan

My dad is Scottish, making me a dual Australian and British citizen. Until Brexit, that meant I had automatic right of residency in Sweden. It gave me the ability to start my life in Sweden comparatively easily. In my first few months I learned to navigate Swedish life and enjoyed some much needed time to unwind after the previous 12 months, where I simultaneously had to deal with both my parents having been diagnosed with cancer, catching up on my final semester of university because of my trip to Sweden to be in the choir, starting a part time job as a journalist at the country’s most esteemed broadcaster ABC and graduating with top marks.

After this initial period I knew I had to get started. I worked at schools, while I built my network and co-founded Stockholm’s music tech community, STHLM Music City, with the aim to bring the music and tech industries closer together and cement Stockholm as the global capital of Music Tech. We launched a co-working space on Djurgården called STHLM Music House.

Here as moderator with Ulf Ekberg at Start Up Grind

Through this I was invited to represent Sweden and its music industry on the Swedish Institute’s official delegation to Colombia in 2017 and have been asked to speak at numerous international events as an authority on “The Swedish Music Wonder”, including Taiwan, Iceland, Belgium and around the Nordics. I was chosen to give the keynote address for the Mayor of Amsterdam’s visit to Stockholm and hosted numerous international delegations. In 2020 I curated and published the Nordic Music Tech List.

I supported myself and kept this movement going by finding part-time employment and freelanced for various Swedish and international companies. I reported back to the ABC in Australia and the BBC in the UK about Swedish news. I edited the TimeOut Guide to Stockholm and produced content for the “Creative Nation” exhibition by Swedish Institute at The House of Sweden in Washington, in collaboration with the Swedish Embassy. I was interviewed for the first episode of Visit Stockholm 'A Woman’s Place Podcast’ and was the Production Coordinator for the BBC Radio show “The Arts Hour on Tour in Stockholm”, where we showcased talented Swedish musicians, artists, directors, actors and comedians to a global audience. I served as a Board Member of the Australian Business Council of Sweden for a period of two years and actively sought out opportunities to connect Sweden and Australian business interests. I truly believed promoting Sweden and its creative industries was my calling.

Fully immersing myself in my adopted home

And then the pandemic hit. I remember talking to my family back home in Australia and seeing news reports about the pandemic that was sweeping the world. I looked outside my window and life in Stockholm was going on as normal. Stefan Löfven had started giving daily press conferences but I couldn’t discern anything about restrictions, rules or guidelines to follow. Was it just lost in translation, I wondered. Were there restrictions and I just hadn’t understood? Were they taking this as seriously as Australia after all? After a few weeks I realised there were no Covid rules in Sweden.

My heart in Sweden

In stark contrast with my other home where a pandemic had been declared, and I found myself caught between which information to trust and country do I trust? With all the uncertainty that the pandemic would bring and although things seemed pretty scary at the time, nobody could have foreseen how long border closures and flight disruptions would go on for. With the information I had at the time, I had to make a decision within hours. “Should I stay or should I go?” I wrote on Facebook. People offered their thoughts and opinions.

The Prime Minister of Australia issued a notice for all Australians to return home immediately.

Thinking I’d only be away for a few weeks until the pandemic “blew over”, and fearing that the luxury of getting to Australia within 24 hours if anything were to happen was to be temporarily unavailable to me, I chose to be with my parents. I prepared for the trip, closed the door and turned the key in the latch, locking the door to my home of nearly five years, leaving all my clothes, jewellery; all my worldly possessions behind that locked door for what I now know was the last time.

Arriving in Australia a mere 24 hours before Australia closed its borders (after which followed a very strict lockdown), it was not simply a matter of deciding when I will return to Sweden. The Australian borders were closed and didn’t reopen until December 15, 2021. While I was trapped inside its borders, unable to leave Tasmania, over 40,000 Australian citizens were trapped outside and unable to say last goodbyes to loved ones. Even if I was able to successfully apply to leave Tasmania, I would have faced restrictions entering the EU too. It was all very complicated.

During this time, I was hired by a Swedish company and also freelanced widely with other Swedish companies. I was still paying my taxes in Sweden, paying the rent on my apartment, which I always imagined I’d return to, and I continued to advocate on behalf of the Swedish music and arts community during the pandemic.

I applied for residency, having lived in Sweden for seven weeks shy of five years. After much deliberation, it was declined. I appealed twice and was declined both times. On what grounds, you might ask?

Two reasons.

1. Being outside of Sweden for longer than six months (because of an unprecedented global pandemic)

2. That during my first summer in Sweden, five years previously, when I wasn’t working, the comprehensive health insurance I purchased to cover me, didn’t cover skiing or snowboarding. It was deemed that although I didn’t cost the country any money, I could have, had I gone skiing or snowboarding and injured myself. It was also noted that as the period in question was between May to October, I probably wouldn’t have gone skiing, but they couldn’t be absolutely certain.

Now, at this point I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. An extreme sportsperson I am not.

The sad thing is, that had I been able to continue on with my regular life in Sweden and stayed an extra 7 weeks, I would have been eligible for citizenship. There are two main factors at play here: Brexit and COVID-19. Had Brexit happened without COVID, I would’ve continued to live in Sweden and applied for residency like all the other Brits at the time and been approved.

Had COVID happened without Brexit, I would’ve been able to leave and come back whenever borders opened without applying for residency. In this freak accident, these two things happened at the same time and meant that the life, career and connections I had lovingly pieced together over almost five years counted for nothing.

Here I was on the other side of the world, having left Sweden for what I imagined would only be a period of about two weeks; unable to get back to my apartment, my belongings, my businesses, my job and my friends, who had become my extended family, reflecting on the time I’d been flown there, welcomed with open arms and given a key to the city of Stockholm.

I honestly feel like I was in a long term relationship with Sweden. I fell fast. We had built our lives together. I invested myself fully in the relationship for half a decade. Then one day, without warning, I came home and the locks had changed. Sweden was ghosting me and my key to the city suddenly didn’t fit anymore; in the aftermath I was left to sign the divorce papers for my company, my apartment and the population registry wiping away the remnants of any life or plans I had in Sweden. Had my employer not been so supportive in that moment, it could’ve also cost me my job.

So here I am in Australia, starting again. “Why not get a work permit?” people ask. That would mean I would have to hope that after those four years I wouldn’t get kicked out again. My first five years went back to zero with one person’s decision. What’s to say in four years that won’t happen again?

That would involve me placing trust in a system where the goalposts shifted suddenly and mercilessly on me. I simply don't have that trust anymore. I can’t do that to myself again, neither emotionally nor financially.

All the effort I had once invested into my adopted dream home, Sweden, will be invested into Australia instead. I look forward to building my life and my legacy in Australia. I will attract talent to Australia and will advocate for the Australian arts, culture and tech industries.

This decision came with painful and unforeseeable ramifications for me, and it saddens me that I was made to choose between my family, or my life and the home I’d built for myself in my adopted country of Sweden.

I would like to see the following changes:

  1. When I flew to my parents home in 2020, I did not formally relocate to Australia; I went to visit my family as any normal trip away from home. The lockdown which occurred was an event I could not reasonably have foreseen to last as long as it did. My communication, the embassy's communication and the media clearly conveyed the lockdown conditions in Australia to immigration in Sweden. The covid-19 situation should have been taken into account, not only as being beyond my direct control, but also beyond the control of Sweden.

  2. I had lived in Sweden for seven weeks shy of five years. Due to events beyond my direct control, with nothing but vague guidelines, I failed to meet the snowboarding and skiing insurance requirements even though, to the best of my knowledge, I had in fact met all the requirements by purchasing fully comprehensive medical and health insurance. The specific requirements should be clearly outlined.


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