I returned to Oslo just two days after the attacks. My husband and I learned via text message of the blast in the city centre. At the time of the blast we were in Gaza so we watched events unfold flicking between news channels. It was bizarre to watch such scenes considering that we thought we were the ones in a ‘hot spot’.
It was not long before we read a Facebook post from a friend (long time member of Norway’s Labour Party) ‘There’s a shooting at Utøya. Don’t call anyone. They are hiding in the bushes. The police are on their way.’
I have been living in Oslo for nearly two years and an occurrence like this has never entered my thoughts. After all it is here where a woman can take the bus home close to midnight after watching a late show at the movies. A place where you can lose your passport on the bus, call the bus company only to discover that it is still in the same spot you left it on the bus.
On arrival at the airport, the mood was sombre. The first noticeable change was the long queue to enter the baggage hall. We soon found out that all passports and ids were being checked before we could enter something that has never ever happened during the numerous times I have been there. There wasn’t the usual rush to duty-free to get tax-free alcohol and discounted sweets in bulk.
The grief was palpable. At midday on Monday 25 July, Norway alongside all other Scandinavian countries observed a minute of silence. I joined my mother and father-in-law in front of the TV watching the event taking place at a university in Oslo, when the minute approached; we rose to our feet with tears in our eyes. The next day we went to the city, Oslo city center being quite interconnected, there were several roads where you could witness the damage from a different angle. At each of these sites were hundreds of flowers, Norwegian flags, lit candles and some messages. It is chilling to see the damage near the offices of a popular tabloid, VG, as it is situated at a bus stop we use whenever we go to town. The Oslo Cathedral has become a central location for placing flowers, there were very low whispers about and there wasn’t a dry eye in the vicinity.
As an immigrant in Norway, I too grieve with Norway.
For some time I have expressed, to people I know in close circles, that I felt anti-immigrant sentiment was growing in Norway. But I never imagined it taking this form. I honestly expected it to take the form of immigrants being harassed as we see in South Africa.
I based this on the comments many of us immigrants hear at dinner parties such as ‘she is the kind of immigrant we want’. This referring to Madina Salamova, a.k.a Maria Amelie, the Russian-born author who lived in Norway undocumented for many years, also named “Norwegian of the year” for her book Illegally Norwegian. As last I read she was deported earlier this year for violating immigration laws. The woman who made this comment to me said her deportation was an outrage because she had done everything to learn about Norwegian society and culture and was contributing to it.
I also often hear ‘why do they have to bring everyone’ (referring to people who emigrate with extended family), ‘it’s too easy to get into Norway’, ‘you live here and you don’t speak the language’ (passport control officer at the airport after i had two months of language classes following a six-month wait to be enrolled into a class) and my personal favourite ‘i can’t say how long the application (for residence permit) will take because there are a lot of foreigners in Norway’ (from an official at the immigration office).
News reports have even written things like ‘Her assailant was described as a man of African descent’ reporting on an attempted rape case.
The other case to cause public outrage in Norway in 2010 was that of Laila Navrud, a woman from the Philippines married to a Norwegian national, they had a child together who was about six-months-old at the time she was due for deportation. She was in Norway on a work permit as an au pair but was later offered a job in a cafeteria. They checked if this was ok under the visa she had and were given the go ahead. Of course the stamp in her passport said ‘Work permit UF 4a 2b’ with no explanation what those codes mean.
In my own experience, whenever I have received my permit to live in Norway, the terms and conditions of my permit are given to me in Norwegian even if I am not at all fluent. I rely on my husband to translate this legal document.
I want to go a step further by saying I do not feel that government in Norway has not done anything to manage relations with and basic education about immigrant communities. I hear a while back, when people first started to enter, immigrants were called ‘new countrymen’. Like many European countries, Norway has not managed to figure out how to respect the cultural identity of various immigrant groups and what is believed to be Norwegian values. There is little room for immigrants to breathe. Quite frankly all the messages coming at us say assimilate into Norwegian culture or die.
The continued growth of Norway’s Progressive party for example (known for its anti-immigrant sentiment) is contrary to this idea of Norway as an open society. I have always said Norway is perfect if you are Norwegian. Many immigrants of course do not have voting power so we have no one to complain to if we sit for hours in queues to apply for new permits or when we are not chosen for an English-language job because our references do not come from Norway. I have once experienced not being helped at the post office because I could not communicate in Norwegian.
There are a whole group of qualified immigrants unable to work in their field. And this is the ‘privileged’ category. Imagine being an asylum seeker where it can take more than a year for your case to be decided. During which time you are not entitled to work or have access to language classes so your only choice is to speak to people who speak your language. And people ask why don’t they speak Norwegian?
What is interesting though is people do not make the link between these cases and policies they vote for. They do not see that when you support a party with strong anti-immigrant sentiment, you directly impact how immigrants live in society. So I find this public outrage at the cases I describe offensive when it is they who support these policies.
The accused of the attacks Anders Behring Breivik has been called many things over the last few days including ‘not like anyone else’ by his lawyer on Norwegian television. Is it really the case? I want to argue that he is just the extreme version of views already held in the country.
I point specifically to Progressive Party leader Siv Jensen who, as reported on Dagbladet’s news site, in a speech to the Progressive Party’s national board in Feb 2009 warned against the ‘snikislamisering av Norge’ saying that this had to be put an end to. One of the translations for the word snik is literally sneak or creep. Therefore referring to sneaking Islam into Norwegian life. She added that ‘if the Progressive Party gets to renew Norway, it will be Norwegian law and Norwegian governance that will rule. We will not allow any special demands for special groups.’
The report said she painted a grim picture of what would happen if special treatment was allowed pointing to Sweden as an example the city of Malmö where she said Swedish law was replaced by sharia law in parts of the city where police hardly dares to go to those parts of town
Breivik was a member of this party from 2001-2003
It is hard to talk about Norwegianess so to speak without people feeling personally attacked. Despite many negative experiences, I have made many wonderful friends here. Based on my experience with Norwegian society I know that it will not go down well but it is a debate to be had.
I like to think that in SA, we have the healthy habit and ability to be self-critical and I dare say anyone is up for grabs. Here in Norway, I have silenced dinner parties with jokes about the royal family because that is a no-no even for people who claim to believe in a republic and not monarchies (which is where I stand).
Norwegians are socialised to be nationalistic and believe that their government and system is doing the best for them. Perhaps my South African cynicism is to blame for looking at this as odd. Norwegians will even defend the broken immigration system with ‘they have so many applications’.
Many Norwegians are really struggling to come to terms with the country as it is. I keep reminding them, you cannot turn the clock back and you cannot send people back ‘home’ as it often put to me.
I mention all this because it will be difficult to start this conversation on how to live with one another.
What disappointed me in Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg’s address in the hours following the attacks in Norway was that immigrants were not mentioned, once, as far as I understood. After all aren’t we the ones with a bounty on our head for spoiling Europe. Muslims are specifically mentioned in Breivik’s manifesto but I believe that immigrants form the larger part of the group targeted.
In the hours following the attack many with foreign backgrounds were harassed reported Christian newspaper Vårt Land on Thursday 28 July.
The early hours after the attack showed how deeply we all have connected terror with Islam. Bizarre as it was for news media to report that Breivik was tall, blond as well as born and bred in Norway; it really showed how shocked people were that it was not the usual suspects – Arab Muslim extremists.
On Tuesday 26 July Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre, Crown Prince Haakon, the Mayor of Oslo and the Bishop of Oslo attended the World Islamic Mission mosque in Oslo. A move I see as a necessary start to this debate.
The Mayor of Oslo had this to say at the event ‘The murderer is white and called himself Christian like myself. None of you have branded me a possible criminal, thank you for saying that’ the Mayor was quoted as saying. ‘In the same way I promise to never brand you if a Muslim does something that society cannot accept.’
‘From now on skin colour does not matter anymore,’ The Bishop of Oslo quoted from a message placed among the sea of flowers outside Oslo Cathedral.
This is Norway’s window to launch a robust debate on the treatment of immigrants. Norway is not the first country on earth to have immigrants, it can learn from other countries’ mistakes and do better. I think fundamentalism breeds where there is an absence of the ability to know one another. It will root out this tendency to say immigrants are like this or that. There are immigrants living here for 20 years who do not have one ‘ethnic’ Norwegian friend, read white.
Norwegians have to get to know about the other half of society and it is not enough to say you have contact with immigrants because you use Polish workers to remodel your home, you have a Phillipino au pair, you eat at Indian restaurants, you buy your veggies and fruit at the shop run by Turks and your regular cab service driver is from Pakistan.
My grief for the lives lost runs deep, I know Norway is forever changed. I think the key ingredient in Norway’s response to this tragedy is to, in the words of Vittorio Arrigoni human rights worker murdered in Gaza earlier this year, stay human.
Written July 25, 2011 at 5:30pm
With thanks, Norwegian news reports were translated by a Norwegian development aid worker.