From fighting neo-Nazis in Stockholm, to being featured in the Hunger Games soundtrack and helping refugees in Lesbos.
Last week, activist Maria-Teresa “Tess” Asplund, 42, took part in a counter-demonstration during a Nordic Resistance Movement rally where she stood alone with her fist firmly raised confronting hundreds of neo-Nazi marchers.
The act of defiance lasted for only a couple of seconds, but was enough for photographer David Lagerlof to capture the action.
Asplund was adopted when she was seven months old by a Swedish couple, who brought her to Sweden.
She describes herself as Afro-Swedish and is a part of the Afrophobia Focus organisation that addresses afrophobia and hostility towards people with a sub-Saharan African background in Sweden.
Her picture went viral and was widely praised on social media by, among others, Harry Potter author JK Rowling, who called her “magnificent”.
Al Jazeera: What made you stand alone confronting these several hundred neo-Nazi marchers?
Maria-Teresa “Tess” Asplund: I saw the Nordic Resistance Movement marchers parading down a street and that made really angry, because what they are parading for is to promote hate speech and I could not tolerate that in a country where I was brought up.
I got a rush of emotions and the dominant one was anger. I ran towards them and raised my fist in the air like Nelson Mandela. He is my hero and I believe he loves compassion and humanity, so that’s why I raised my fist; to send a message to them that we believe in justice, freedom and love.
What do you have to say about the Nordic resistance movement and the march?
I think it is an organisation that promotes hate speech. What else are they trying to promote? I just cannot understand when they say we don’t want migrants coming in to our country. Hatred and discrimination like this leaves a mark from generation to generation. This needs to stop, we are all human and cannot be treated based on our background or colour. I still wonder why they were allowed to march.
What kind of issues do people of colour face in Sweden?
In Sweden today we see that racism is on the rise and it is scary. I can be in a store or anywhere on the street and anyone, anywhere can use the “N-word” for me. As a person of colour, I’ve been attacked in the past because of my race and background. I’ve faced several racial attacks, which is why I pledged to become an activist to change the trend and the mindset of such people promoting hate towards other humans.
Why do you think the image of you standing in front of the demonstrators went viral?
I am shocked myself. All this media attention I just cannot understand it. I am not a hero, I just did this for a cause and to promote peace and freedom. Social media is very powerful these days, this one picture has reached millions – just this one picture. The photographer, David Lagerlof is the actual hero who took this picture and released it. He is the messenger who has let my word out.
You were removed by police during your protest. What was your reaction?
The police were just doing their job. They took me away but they were not harsh to me. The neo-Nazi marchers gave me an ice cold stare when I came close to them raising my fist. We were both staring at each other. We didn’t speak … it was just a few seconds of stares, not very pleasant ones of course.
What happened in the aftermath? Did you get any negative feedback?
I did not receive any threats, but on social media I did get negative comments on my picture, but I try to avoid seeing them because my purpose is way more than what they think of me and my actions. I would like to focus more on my purpose than anything else.
Your actions have also put a spotlight on Afrophobia Focus. What is the cause of this organisation?
Racism has been normalised in Sweden. It is very sad to accept this fact, but it exists. We are living this nightmare. People need to open their eyes and look around to know what is happening. Our organisation is helping others to share their experiences which further helps us to work together on how we can change the mindset of people who think that using racial slurs is normal. We are trying to create awareness and hopefully we will be successful one day and we won’t live with ignorant people any more.
What do you think of people who justify the rise of Nazism?
People who justify Nazis are racist and promote hate speech. Their actions cannot be justified in any way possible. Any form of promoting hate among each other needs to stop. This is affecting our children and is becoming a vicious cycle.
What do you think of the fact that people are blaming refugees and migrants for the rise of crime in Sweden?
I feel ashamed to be living around such people. Migrants have nowhere to go, they are homeless. These people have risked their lives to make it here for a better future for their children. They are under threat back home, they are living a nightmare every day. They are not protected anywhere in the world, where will they go? Someone has to accept them. They don’t deserve all this. We cannot blame other people for our own faults. We need to take responsibility of our own drawbacks and mistakes.
What would you like to change in Sweden?
I want people to open their eyes. Racism and hatred exists and we are living it. People have to step in and help people in need instead of spreading hate. We won’t have a better future for our children and their children if this continues. Marches like this needs to be banned by the government and everyone should stand united against the discrimination, racism and hate.