Shara Hofmann embraces the unfamiliar during many moves across the globe, both the wanted and the unwanted. Hers is a story brimming with new beginnings, courage, and generations of maternal love.
I wish my grandmother could have seen my new baby, Magnus, wear these clothes. When he wears them, I feel connected to my mum, who saved them for me, and my grandmother, my mother’s adoptive mother, who made them. It’s like a thread that spans generations. These clothes and what they represent about new beginnings and the love of family inspire my desire to cultivate those loving relationships in my own life. I want to be that person somehow.
My name is Shara Hofmann and I was born in Colombia. When I was 13, my family fled the country for political and security reasons. This forced displacement took us to Ecuador where our new neighbours shared the same language, but very different cultures and traditions. Arriving in this new country and attending a new school was difficult for me. But it was also hard watching my parents struggle to establish themselves in a new place, especially with the feeling that we weren’t welcome there. There was a stream of refugees from Colombia to Ecuador, which resulted in a bit of a typical phobia that the refugees were there to take Ecuadorian jobs. This also made finding jobs hard.
When we moved to Ecuador my mother took on a strong leadership role. I think my father was in a state of shock. He’d had career success and then arrived in a new country where he was no one. After about six months the savings we brought with us were gone and we could not pay our expenses. My mum said, “We’re going to do something”. Back in Colombia, she used to attend classes on Saturdays like baking or doing nails, just hobbies.
Usually, at Christmas, we’d have a special cake. Now in Ecuador, she started baking cakes and took them to malls and cafeterias so people could try them and order them. She founded this little startup, very simple and modest, obviously, but it allowed us to survive for a year and a half. Her initiative kept us alive, truly. My father took on the infrastructure and logistics to support my mother’s initiative and my mother engineered the cake business. The children were all involved as well. We got up early before school to help. It was tough, but I think it was very enriching for our family. It bonded us together and it kept us alive. My mum gave so much of herself, but she wasn’t mad at my father for his struggles. He had provided for us for so many years and this was a time to alternate the roles, always supporting each other. The culture that she established in our family still gives me wings to this day.
We survived in Ecuador and eventually moved to Sweden, being placed there by the United Nations as political refugees. This was yet another new beginning, one that required learning a new language and adapting to a culture even further from my original one, not to mention the significant climate difference. I knew a little basic English but my parents knew none. That was very difficult for all of us. We arrived in a very small town in Sweden where there was just a library and a grocery store. Buses went to the next town only four times a day. It was physically and mentally tiring because we were a little scared wondering what was waiting for us and the constant questions of “Where does the bus go? How does public transportation work here?” It was very difficult, as simple things like going to the grocery store were hard as we did not know where things were.
When I think of these enormous changes we went through as a family, I can’t help but think about the women in my family. I’ve always admired my grandmother and my mother as strong figures in our family. My mother always had a relevant place in our home. She had a kind of power that I noticed and remembered growing up. I never felt that my father was the only decision-maker in our home. My mum always played a very strong role in our family constellation, in part because my father always gave her that space. I’ve thought a lot about that because I come from Colombia which, at least when we left, was well known as a male-dominated culture, but my father and my grandfather were not like that.
I never heard, “No, you’re a girl, you cannot do that,” from my father - or my mother. That kind of thing was never spoken. My father wanted me to be an engineer, which might not be the first profession most fathers mention for their daughters. My brother and I were always equal and I saw that between my parents as well. In my family, there was no distinction such as, “You’re a woman and women say this or women don’t do that.” Because of that, I don’t think I ever had the mentality that I couldn’t do something because I was a woman. I’ve always had the conviction that I am a woman, this is who I am, and I can do everything I want.
When my grandmother died in 2017 I was so sad and I missed her so much. I longed after her and felt such a deep love. After I got married, I hadn’t been that excited to have children right away, but when I thought of my relationship with my grandmother, I felt a spark that helped me clear my mind and my desires. I wanted to have children and I hoped my parents and my husband’s parents could have the kind of relationship I had with my grandmother. Motherhood has been another new beginning for me and has helped me feel connected with and close to my grandmother.
My grandmother made this set of newborn clothes for me when I was born. I wore it and my siblings wore it and now Magnus wears it, too. It represents so much to me. I think of how my grandmother and grandfather anticipated my arrival and loved me even before I was born. It’s meaningful to me because the love my grandmother had for me goes beyond any blood connection.
My mother came to my grandparents as a teenager. She wasn’t with them very long, but a loving relationship developed. These newborn clothes remind me that relationships are perpetuated through love. Even though my grandmother never had children of her own, these clothes are a strong indication of motherly love. They give me a strong feeling of caring for someone and taking care of someone, that loving instinct of motherhood.
My grandmother made clothes for a living, so this set also represents her professional life. The factory where she received her pension made a high standard of clothing for women and children, so I also see her profession in these clothes. They’re well made, of a very soft fabric with beautiful crocheted details. It’s white with a few little delicate flowers of yellow, blue and pink with green leaves. My parents didn’t know my gender because you couldn’t tell from the sonogram, so my grandmother made it work for a boy or a girl.
I believe my grandmother inspired my mother because my mother made an outfit for Magnus when he was born, too. It’s a physical item to pass on, but it turns into a representation of our love. I see how my mother or my in-laws treat my baby and it’s very, very beautiful to see. I recognise that love because it was so important for me growing up.
Before we came to Sweden, my mother spoke to a religious leader in Ecuador. He told her that our move to Sweden would be a big cultural change, almost like being born again. He said, “Just take the best parts of the culture and learn and live the best of it and keep your culture as well. Just add on, add on.” My mother shared that with us and that’s what we’ve been doing as a family. I think that for me, everything has been an addition and turned into my very own mixture.
I’ve had many new beginnings in my life. First my birth in Colombia, then our move to Ecuador, then Sweden. I lived in the United States and now have moved to Switzerland. Every new beginning has been difficult, but you do get smarter about things and more confident that you can make it—that you will make it—because you have done it before. That doesn’t make it a walk in the park, but you know it’s possible. It requires a lot of dedication, hard work, patience, support and love from people around you—and endurance. I think that is how it is with every new start.
I can identify parts of me that have come from my different cultures. Like a Colombian, I’m very talkative and happy, very keen to make new friends. I love to eat and be extroverted. Like a Swede, I am a very structured person and want to have order. I like to be settled and serious in many ways and I think that is very Swedish of me. Of course we can’t put everyone in one pocket. That is not the truth in any country, but there are some similarities. Now I am in Switzerland and I am still learning. I guess that’s still part of the process of adding on to my cultures. That has been my motto, to add on.
Sometimes you wonder, “Who am I?” You sometimes have to fight to have others recognise or validate you, but in the end, you really have to validate yourself first. It’s okay to be a little Colombian, a little bit Swedish and a little bit Swiss. That helps me understand people better, to enrich other lives with different influences, attitudes and additions. My child will have to consider his identity, too, and will probably have to wrestle with this as well.
I don’t think much about what I’ve lost, though. It’s very much about becoming rich, gaining something from every place I’ve lived, embracing the best out of every place, every culture, nationality, everyone that has been a part of my life, to bring that along and become a beautiful combination of it all. That’s what new beginnings are all about for me.
Pre-production: Emma Reyelts
Interview: Louise Paulsen
Transcription: Amy Epps
Writing: Amy Hackworth
Editing: Amy Epps & Louise Paulsen
Audio: Emma Reyelts
Photography: Shara Hofmann