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How this Swedish journalist tracked down her secret American brother

Long-kept secrets, well-intentioned lies, lucky breaks and unknown family members on the other side of the world.

How this Swedish journalist tracked down her secret American brother
A happy family reunion in Washington DC. Photo: Carina Bergfeldt/SVT
These are the key ingredients of a story that has tugged on heartstrings in Sweden this week. 
 
For Swedish journalist Carina Bergfeldt, it all began with an offhand remark from her ex-stepmother that triggered a memory that had been buried for decades. 
 
“At my nephew's first birthday party, I saw my former stepmother for the first time in ages and we were just sort of casually talking when I mentioned how fun it was that so many of us had gathered for the occasion. She suddenly said, 'Yeah, the only person missing is your half-brother' and I almost spat out my coffee and was like, 'What?!?'” Bergfeldt told The Local. 
 
Her stepmother referred to “that kid your dad had in the US” and went on to recount a phone call that Bergfeldt's father had received in 1992 from a Colombian woman in the United States who said that she was raising a son that was the result of their short-lived fling in Florida a few years ago. 
 
Bergfeldt said the revelation left her “dumbfounded” and spurred all kinds of questions. Was this true? How could that woman in the US be sure that it was her father? After the birthday party, Bergfeldt spoke to her older brother Nicklas, who was as shocked as she was. But then his memory was triggered. He recalled overhearing parts of that phone call – something in English about a child. 
 

Jeffrey Nielsen is set to come to Sweden this month to attend his new half-sister's wedding. Photo: Carina Bergfeldt/SVT
 
“He suddenly figured out that what he had heard so long ago was true. So then we started talking about what to do next. My ex-stepmother could only remember the first name of this woman: Mariana,” Bergfeldt said. 
 
Armed with that, and a journalism background that netted her the Swedish Grand Prize for Journalism in 2012, Bergfeldt started chasing her biggest story ever. The story of her secret brother. 
 
Reporting assignment takes an unexpected turn
After moving to Washington DC in 2016 to become Sweden's public broadcaster SVT's US correspondent, Bergfeldt was struck by the barrage of advertising she heard for DNA testing sites like ancestry.com. She thought this could be the best way to discover the truth, but she was scared. 
 
“I bought a DNA test but I sat on it for a year. I was afraid of finding out and I was afraid of not finding out,” she said.
She eventually decided to contact ancestry.com to pursue a story on the new American obsession of do-it-yourself DNA kits and flew out to the company's headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah. Her test results pointed to an unknown seventh cousin, leaving Bergfeldt “so disappointed”. 
 
“I realized then and there just how badly I wanted to find out that I did have a brother,” she said. 
 
Bummed by the results, Bergfeldt caught a lucky break. The ancestry.com employee she was interviewing mentioned that the annual RootsTech conference, the biggest genealogy technology fair in the world, was under way in the same city. This was her chance.
 
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Bergfeldt decided she could not let this “random twist of fate” go to waste. She went to the conference and took basically every DNA test available. Even if she didn't discover anything about a long-lost brother, she figured it would at least make for a good story for SVT. But a week later, her 23andme results came in. 
 
“I clicked the link, and then he popped up. Jeffrey Nielsen, half-brother.”
 
Ever the journalist, she took out her phone and filmed her immediate reaction. Then she and her four brothers started to Google “like obsessed people”. The only clue they had to go on was Jeffrey Nielsen's short 23andme bio: “Military, frequent traveller.” Her report, and her life, had just taken a major twist. 
 
'I just blew it off'

 
Jeff Nielsen, meanwhile, had pretty much forgotten all about the DNA results from his 23andme test.
 
“When I got the results, I was really interested in my mom's side, because she is Colombian. So the results showed I was part South American, part West African, all this cool stuff. When I saw that my dad's side was Swedish, I didn't think much of it because my dad had always said he was Danish, and I figured they were close enough,” Nielsen told The Local from the Joint Base Lewis-McChord military base outside of Tacoma, Washington. 
 

Carina Bergfeldt and Jeffrey Nielsen reunited in Washington DC. Photo: Carina Bergfeldt/SVT
 
What the 28-year-old American didn't realize is that his dad Ken, who had raised him from when he was a baby, wasn't actually his biological father. But since the DNA test results didn't raise any immediate red flags, Nielsen didn't think much of it. He had bigger things to worry about, like his upcoming wedding and his career in the US military. 
 
In March, as he was about to start a vital training exercise, he received a Facebook message from a Swedish woman claiming to be his half-sister. 
 
“I completely thought it was a scam. I laughed at it and send it to the rest of the family, and just blew it off,” Nielsen said. “When I got back from training a week later, I answered her and realized she wasn't joking.” 
 
Bergfeldt convinced him to log in to 23andme and see the results for himself. “It was all true,” he said. 
 
Nielsen immediately called his mother, who was about to board a flight. 
 
“At this point, I figured it was true but I didn't know if my dad knew so I wanted to tread carefully for other people's sake. I asked her if she knew an Ingemar Bergfeldt and she immediately said yes. There was no quibbling about it. It was like the silver bullet had finally been fired,” he said. 
 
His mother Mariana and father Ken agreed that they would tell Nielsen everything once they returned home to Philadelphia.
 
“I tried to have fun with it. It turns out my brother knew, so the first thing I did was to call him and say, 'Dude, how could you have known I was Swedish and let me waste four years learning German!'” he said. 
 
Nielsen said that the revelation was surprisingly bereft of drama and that everyone was both at peace with it and perhaps even relieved that the truth was finally out there. But there was still one more twist. This whole deeply personal experience was going to be shared with all of Sweden. 
 
 
Personal story shared with all
 
Although Bergfeldt said she “really struggled” with whether or not to even tell Jeff Nielsen the truth, out of fears of destroying his family's life, she not only went through with it but also decided to film everything and turn it into a documentary for SVT. 
 
“That was an exceptionally awkward conversation but I had told him right away that I was a journalist and that I had found him while doing a story so I would want to film this,” she said. 
 
They agreed not to film their very first meeting, when Nielsen flew out to Washington DC to meet the Swedish sister he never knew he had. But the rest of their weekend together, as well as Bergfeldt and her other brothers' search, all played out in front of rolling cameras.
 
The result was the 24-minute documentary 'Min hemliga bror' (My secret brother), which premiered on SVT on Tuesday and is already the most-seen programme on streaming service SVT Play. 
 
Nielsen said his decision to participate in the documentary was “really easy” and that he fully supported the idea. 
 
“This is just the truth of my life, there's nothing to be embarrassed about,” he said. 
 
Nielsen said his mother had some reservations about the whole thing but he's not only thrilled to have found his Swedish family, he's also happy with the way the documentary turned out. 
 
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Bergfeldt too said the reaction to the short film has been completely overwhelming. 
 
“I have hundreds of messages from people saying that they were crying while watching it. My Instagram is just drowning in sweet messages,” she said. 
 
Nielsen and his wife will make their first ever visit to Sweden later this month to attend Bergfeldt's wedding in Skövde and meet his four brothers. One person who will not be involved in the family reunion is Ingemar Bergfeldt. Carina hasn't spoken to her father in around ten years and her discovery of a long-lost brother only widened their rift. 
 
“I feel bitter towards my dad because he kept a person from us for 28 years that I wanted in my life and I don't feel like it was his decision to make to take that brother away from me,” she said. “So I'm pissed off, but Jeff is more understanding and completely accepts why his parents did what they did.”
 
Although she said they are still “nailing down” the agenda, the siblings are excited to show Nielsen the best of what Sweden has to offer. 
 
“For Jeff, this will be like a parallel universe. If my dad and his mother would have made a different decision, he could have just grown up as a Swede in Sweden instead of an American growing up in New Jersey and Philadelphia,” she said. 
 
That idea of getting a glimpse of a life that could have been isn't lost on Nielsen, either. 
 
“I already sort of had that because my mom's Colombian. Had she never met Ken, I might have grown up there and been a completely different dude. Now I have two places in the world to get that feeling – it's crazy!” he said. “I'm just so excited to meet all of them and hang out with. It turns out we have a lot of shared interests so I'm sure we're going to have a million things to do.”

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FAMILY

How does the cost of childcare in Sweden compare to other countries?

Parents in Sweden benefit from a cap on childcare costs, with parents paying different fees based on their household's income. But how does the generous scheme compare to other countries?

How does the cost of childcare in Sweden compare to other countries?

Preschool childcare is not free in Sweden, but fees are income-based, with a maximum fee across the country 1,572 kronor (€145) per child per month (fees for 2022).

There are also deductions for each child if you have multiple children attending preschool at the same time – in this case the maximum fee would be 1,048 kronor for the second child and 503 kronor for the third, with parents paying no fee for any further children.

Children over three are entitled to 15 hours of free preschool education per week, so these are deducted from your fee once your child reaches this age.

To get an idea of how much you would have to pay based on your income, you can use this calculator (in Swedish – similar calculators exist for other municipalities). These fees are adjusted yearly by the Swedish school authorities and are applicable to all municipalities. If your child has a preschool place, you have to pay even if you do not use it – over summer or during holidays, for example.

School meals and preschool meals are free in Sweden, meaning you don’t need to pay extra for your child’s lunch, breakfast, or any snacks served during the day.

Denmark

The exact amount parents pay for childcare in Denmark depends on the municipality. In Copenhagen Municipality, the cost of nursery (vuggestue up to 2 years and 10 months) is 4,264 kroner a month including lunch (roughly €573). For kindergarten (børnehave from 2 years and 10 months to 6 years) it is 2,738 kroner a month including lunch (roughly €368).

The government pays 75 percent of the cost of a place or even more if your household income is below a certain threshold. 

If you have more than one child using childcare, you pay full price for the most expensive daycare and half-price for the others.

Norway

The cost of nursery and kindergarten is capped at 3,050 Norwegian kroner, regardless of the hours attended or whether that facility is state-run or private. This means you’ll never pay more than roughly €295 a month per child in childcare costs.

Germany

The costs for daycare centres (Kindertagesstätte, or Kita for short) can differ greatly depending on where you live in Germany, as the fees are set by the local government.

In Schleswig-Holstein in the far north, parents pay on average nine percent of their after-tax income on childcare costs. In Hamburg, 4.4 percent of parent’s income goes on childcare as every child in entitled to five hours of free care a day. In Berlin, daycare is completely free. 

Spain

Costs can vary depending on whether it is a  private or public guardería or centro infantil (as nurseries are called in Spanish).

Public ones are heavily subsidised by the government and cost around €100-260 per month, depending on where you live in Spain and your situation. Private nurseries cost between €150 and €580 per month. There is also a fixed yearly fee called a matrícula or enrolment fee, which is around €100.

There is a 50 percent discount for large families and single parents don’t have to pay anything for childcare.

There’s also a deduction of up to €1,000 (cheque guardería) that is applied to the income tax return and works out at around €100 to €160 per month which is aimed at working mothers and is available up until the child is three years old.

France

In France, crèches tend to be the most affordable option and the cost is based on the family’s income. High earners might pay up to a maximum of €4.20 an hour (€33.60 for an 8-hour day), whereas low-income families might pay €0.26 an hour (€2.08 for an 8-hour day) at a crèche collective, which is for three months to three year olds. At the age of three, compulsory education begins in France.

The cost of a childminder is around €10.88 an hour and up to 50 percent of the costs of a nanny or professional childminder can be reimbursed by the government.

The OECD calculations on the percentage of income spent on childcare – based on two parents both working full time – is 13 percent in France. This is roughly similar to Spain and Italy.

Austria

Public nurseries and kindergartens are heavily subsidised and in some cases free, depending on where you live. For example in Vienna, parents only need to pay €72.33 a month to cover meal costs, with low income families being exempt from that fee.
 
Vienna also subsidises private kindergartens, paying up to €635.44 a month directly to the institution. 
 
In other provinces, kindergarten is free for part-time hours. It is mandatory for all children in Austria to attend part-time kindergarten from the age of five. They start school aged six.

Switzerland

The average Swiss family spends a massive 41 percent of their net income on childcare, three times the OECD average of 13 percent.

The average cost of childcare in Switzerland is CHF130 a day (€136). Due to tax breaks and subsidies paid out in the cantons, many parents will pay between 30 and 80 percent of this cost, depending on income. This equates to paying between €41 and €108 a day, roughly €902 to €2,376 a month. 

It’s even more expensive to hire a nannie, which will cost between CHF3,500 (€3,678) and CHF5,000 (€5,255) a month, including mandatory pension contributions.

United Kingdom

According to charity Coram in their Childcare Survey 2022, the average cost of full-time nursery is £1,166 (around €1,304 a month), which is even higher in some parts of London. There are some government subsidies available for low-income families and those receiving benefits and every parent is entitled to 15 or 30 free hours of childcare the term after their child turns three years old.

Childcare conclusion

The cost of childcare varies within each country, depending on family circumstances. However, for guaranteed low childcare costs for every parent, Sweden comes out best, with a maximum of €145 a month.

Average monthly cost of state-run childcare:

Sweden: €145 maximum

Norway: €295 maximum

Austria: €72.33 – roughly €500

Spain: €100 – €260 

Germany: €0 –  €368

Denmark: €368 – €573

France: €45,76 – €739.20 

Switzerland: €902 – €2,376 

U.K. €1,304 which reduces the term after the child turns three.

By Emma Firth and Becky Waterton

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