XOV interview: The success story of a refugee in Sweden
From fighting neo-Nazis in Stockholm, to being featured in the Hunger Games soundtrack and helping refugees in Lesbos.
Just a few weeks ago, 29-year-old Damien Ardestani, who is better known as XOV, was on stage in Berlin playing to an audience of more than a million.
Standing in the centre of the stage, looking out towards a seemingly endless crowd of cheering concert-goers, it felt a long way from the Greek island of Lesbos and the refugee crisis unfolding along its shores.
But humanitarian worker is as much a part of Ardestani’s identity as recording artist and performer, and his Instagram account, with its images from the studio, the stage and the shores of Lesbos, testifies to these intertwined personas.
The plight of those on the beaches resonates with Ardestani, who came to Sweden from Iran with his family as a one-year-old infant fleeing the Iran-Iraq war. He grew up in Tensta, a suburb of Stockholm with a large immigrant population.
“Tensta is an amazing place,” he says. “It’s a melting pot of different cultures.”
His childhood was a happy one.
“I was raised by my mother,” he explains. “My dad was a drug addict and I haven’t had any connection with him for 10 years.
“My mother did a great job raising me. I was a happy child.
“I didn’t know what being rich was and I didn’t know what it felt [like] to have a father or siblings.”
But he did have a second family of sorts – a Swedish couple with children.
“I would go and spend the weekends with them every other week. It was my mother’s quest to integrate me into society and for me to feel part of a family with children,” he explains. “The children were like my siblings.”
In Tensta, most of his friends were of different nationalities. Visiting them, he says, felt like visiting another part of the world – replete with its own type of food, dancing and music.
It was the music that really appealed to him.
He recalls how, as a child, he used poetry as a way to express himself.
“I was nine years old [when] I wrote a poem as part of a school assignment. It was about a palm tree that was extracted from its roots and placed in a cold environment.
“It came from a place within me. I didn’t know at the time the deep meaning of it. But my teacher recognised that it was a metaphor and it symbolised my broken family tree,” he says.
The poem was published in a children’s book.
“Kids tend to express themselves very creatively. This is something we see in Lesbos a lot with kids trying to express what they have gone through.”
He started writing music when he was 11 and was in multiple bands.
“I was very successful for a while when I was 17 and 18, but I got lost in the money-making … and I forgot about the music for a while.
“I was constantly chasing money and status. I felt that these were the two things that I never had and I thought that having money equates to happiness,” he says. “I was wrong.”
By the time he was 24, he was the chief executive of a company he had founded. He had everything he thought he wanted. But he was miserable.
“I left that position, took all my money, borrowed from my mother and started a record label. At the time I was very cocky. Everything I touched turned to gold.”
But it did not last.
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“The record label and many bad choices from my end led to my bankruptcy,” he says. “I went from having everything – success, status and money – to nothing.”
He left it all behind and moved into a cabin on an island in Stockholm. There, he began to put the pieces of his life back together and to make the music he loves.
“When I lost everything, that was when I found myself,” he says.
He wrote Lucifer, the track that got him signed by a record label and attracted the attention of recording artist Lorde.
She contacted him via Twitter to say that she loved Lucifer. She was curating the soundtrack for the film The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 and wanted to include his music in the movie.
“I didn’t think it was real at first,” he laughs. “[I] thought it was a joke!”
One day, on my way out from an event in central Stockholm with my friends, this group of neo-Nazis came from nowhere. I was jumped by this neo-Nazi who started to hit me with his fist. He knocked out all my front teeth. I was 13.
His life took a turn for the better.
“I started touring, and had a lot of success all over Europe,” he says.
But getting to where he is now has not always been easy, and when he remembers his teenage years, a sometimes dark picture emerges.
Fighting neo-Nazis and feeling rootless
As a teenager, fights with neo-Nazi gangs were common. But one would scar him for life.
“One day, on my way out from an event in central Stockholm with my friends, this group of neo-Nazis came from nowhere,” he remembers.
“I was jumped by this neo-Nazi who started to hit me with his fist. He knocked out all my front teeth. I was 13 at the time.”
It took several years of surgery to fix his jaw.
“Growing up in Sweden, I had this constant feeling of being rootless: I couldn’t identify as a Swede, and I couldn’t identify as being Iranian.
“I didn’t feel that I could say I am Swedish. It was not accepted. It is not like in America where people from all over the world can say I am American. It’s not like that in Sweden. So I couldn’t identify.
“I had never been to Iran since my family escaped, so I was not really that Iranian. I couldn’t identify as Iranian,” he reflects.
“That is when you see many kids get into violence and lose direction,” he says.
Today, he identifies as Swedish because he believes Sweden formed him. But, he adds, “I am very proud of my Iranian heritage”.
It worries him to witness racism on the rise in Sweden and to see neo-Nazis on the streets again.
“Right now it’s the worst period I have ever felt in Sweden,” he says. “The refugee crisis highlighted how Sweden has not been able to cope with the influx in a good way, and the right wing propaganda has taken advantage of that.
“In Lesbos I work with families. All we see are women and children. They are the victims; they are the ones suffering from all the propaganda. You are building propaganda and opinions to punish these women and children.”
He fears that if an election were to be held in Sweden today, the country would vote for the far-right Sweden Democrats [SD].
“I don’t think these people are racist, they are just scared.” And that, he says, means that “the propaganda is working”.
But he also acknowledges the way that failed integration and segregation has left many youngsters feeling like “outsiders”.
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Tensta was one of the areas that saw riots in 2013. Ardestani does not excuse the behaviour of those who set fire to cars and buildings but he does understand how the young people there can feel frustrated.
“You always feel like you are not part of society, like I did. I didn’t feel like I belonged. It led to frustration. I understand where the frustration comes from, but I condemn the way they [express] it.
“It’s a two-way thing,” he says. “You can’t blame it all on the Swedish system. These kids need some middle ground, and society needs to acknowledge and address the root of the integration problems.
“I wish I could take them to Lesbos so they can appreciate the support system that is available to them,” he adds.
I AM YOU
His first trip to Lesbos came about because journalists would focus on his refugee background and ask him for his views on the unfolding crisis.
“I wasn’t satisfied with my answers and I felt that I needed to learn more about what was happening,” he says.
A meeting with Peter Bouckaert, the emergencies director of Human Rights Watch, led to him boarding a plane to Lesbos – at the centre of the refugee crisis.
He went with a close friend, Rebecca Reshdouni.
He describes what they saw there as “crazy and chaotic”.
“I expected to see ambulances, professional people,” he says. “[But] we realised that there were many volunteers just like us.
“So as boats came we had to jump in and help. It was like take this baby and we had to jump in the water and just do that. We ended up volunteering during those five days.”
“I witnessed so much trauma – unconscious babies, pregnant women, one even had a miscarriage,” he says.
“It was intense and we didn’t sleep.”
On their flight back home to Sweden, Ardestani and Reshdouni felt compelled to do something about what they had seen. They decided to start a volunteer initiative called ‘I AM YOU’.
The name was chosen because, he says, “we are one, regardless of ethnicity, skin colour and [our] lot in life”.
He turned his release party for his latest album into a fundraiser, to which he wore the same trainers that he had worn on Lesbos.
Within a week, the organisation – a non-profit group that coordinates volunteer relief operations at Europe’s borders and, specifically, on the Greek islands – was up and running.
It provides carefully selected volunteer teams with special skills.
Since October it has had permanent volunteers on site.
Finding balance and a voice
But balancing his career and humanitarian work can be tricky.
“I have to cancel many things, argue with people and explain why I need to be in Lesbos,” he says. “But this is something I have to fight for.”
“Finding the balance is the biggest challenge in my life,” he reflects.
Every trip to Lesbos leaves him with more haunting images to remind him of how important the work his team carries out is and why he must always talk about it so that the world does not forget.
“I remember the face of this little girl in a lifejacket, sitting on the beach with an emergency blanket around her,” he says. “She moved me; she was part of a family that I pulled off a boat.
“She was Syrian. She had this confused … look on her face … She would go from crying to having this confused look. Her family wasn’t there to comfort her.”
It saddens him that some people think of refugees as a burden.
“I am a refugee myself. If it wasn’t for Sweden letting me in I wouldn’t be the successful recording artist that I am today.
“Refugees are an asset to society in the long-term with the correct mechanism in place and integration policy.”
It is important to differentiate between those who abuse the vulnerable and their victims, he says.
“There are women who are escaping sexual attacks and ISIL [the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant]. There are abused boys, women abused by smugglers, horrific stories we hear every day.
“I need to be the voice of all these people … and to ensure that their stories are told.
“I need to reach people with my music. Music is who I am; the artist that I am is a reflection of my life.”
And he is confident that this wave of refugees will contribute to the continent he calls home, just as he did.
“There are so many people like me that made it despite the odds that were stacked against them. There are no excuses, you have to do it. Get up, stand up, do the work and prove people wrong. Have confidence and make it.
“There are so many successful immigrants in the world. Find these stories, get them and get inspired and just do it. If I can do it with my background then all the others can do it too.”
You can follow Fatma Naib on Twitter @FatmaNaib