Eat, Sleep, Wait : Living in Norway as a Refugee

(Article in German, containing illustrations and links)

Over the course of the last year, approximately 2 million refugees and immigrants have arrived in Europe. Not all of them ever intended to move here and some came with a clear vision of where to live and work with friends and family, who had been living here for decades. One of those who came is Abdul, 25 years old, from Tartus in Syria. He had been living in Damascus most of his life, but when his father was killed in a strike carried out by the Assad government, his family saw no other option than to move back to his birthplace Tartus, a quiet little town by the sea, safe from the war so far, since the Russian military has been stationed there for 40 years. In 2012, Russia moved their bases temporarily, to back out of the war situation.

Abdul, who had finished two studies and speaks several languages, took the opportunity to move to Dubai to support his family. But when the war raged on, he had to leave his new home and figure out, where to go next. That’s how he ended up in Europe. Neues Deutschland did a feature on his journey, but time has passed ever since and thing haven’t changed exactly for the better for Abdul, who is currently living in Oslo. I caught up with his situation, to figure out, what happened in between.

Norway, one of the richest countries worldwide with a GDP twice the numbers of Germany and only about 13 inhabitants per km² (227 in Germany, 5.2 million inhabitants overall) lately decided, to send back refugees at -30 degree winter temperature over the Russian border on bikes (because the Russian border may not be crossed by foot) and therein denies the basic humanitarian support, the EU is trying to grant to war refugees. The attitude towards help seeking families with kids and young men especially has become quite aggressive. How is life going, when you’re one of those refugees, that are currently allowed to stay in Norway? I talked to Abdul about his troubles up there in the North.

Hello, Abdul! How have you been, since ND did the piece on your journey from Syria to Dubai and over to Europe? How did your journey go on and where did you end up?

I met Jan Brock in Turkey at the Shanti Hostel in Izmir where he was planning to do some reports about refugees arriving. I was with two of my friends of mine, Gaith and Firas and we talked about how the government in Dubai started kicking out all Syrians, just because they are Syrian.
I had been working in Dubai as secretary and translator to the ambassador Nawaf Alfares, former Syrian ambassador in Iraq, and worked as a property consultant and event planner. After the Dubai government told me to leave, it was very hard for me to choose where am I should go. They told me, you’ve got 72 hours to leave the country and how I am not allowed to stay anymore for my nationality only. I could not go back to Syria because of the situation there. After they had killed my Dad already, I chose to be safe in Europe, where I would be welcomed.
So I decide, together with ND, to film my journey and I finally ended up in Sweden. It took me 20 days to get there and after I arrived, they started publishing the articles and videos. All the support I got during my journey was from my Norwegian friends, the ND journalists, two ladies from Sweden and in Greece I met Dr. Frank from Oxford University who was working with refugees. I got a lot of support from him and he also booked me a hotel room until I could move on to Macedonia. I probably wouldn’t have made it without all the kind support.

You got to Sweden in October. Now you’re living in Oslo – What happened in between?

Yes, that was in October. After arriving in Sweden, we reached Malmö and I moved from Malmö to Gothenburg and stayed with my aunty for a few days to get some rest from the journey. Then I booked a bus to Oslo. When we reached the border, the control came to the bus start checking for IDs and then they took me to place near the border in Råde. I stayed there for 7 days. They took my fingerprints and my passport. Then they did a medical check on me. After all the formalities were done, they gave me back my luggage and my phone and transferred me to another camp, a temporary one. It’s a hotel in the South of Oslo. I was sick quite a lot, as I have a heart condition.
Once we had reached the hotel, one of my Norwegian friends came driving down 4 hours to Oslo to pick me up. We then stayed a night in his apartment, where he welcomed me with amazing things. Next day we booked an appointment in the hospital and then I went to my cousin’s home in Oslo. In the hospital they wrote a paper to the department of immigrants in Norway. It read that I should stay in Oslo because of the heart problem and of the treatment in the „Lovisenberg sykehus“ hospital and the Ulleval clinic.
You mentioned, that your health status hasn’t been ideal, to say the least, ever since. How are you currently and have you been able to get proper medical treatment so far? Does Norway provide health insurance to people in need for it?

I’m getting treatment for free for my heart but I have developed a serious depression. To get any kind of therapy or medication for this, you have to wait until you meet the immigration department. When they call me in for an appointment, I will have to ask them for some kind of health insurance. But health insurance is only possible in Norway, once you get a residence permit. If I’m lucky, I can get that fast. What I really try doing right now, is to stay calm and patient. My condition is really bad lately and my heart is hurting. I have a surgery scheduled in February, that will hopefully do something about that. At least I’m getting medication for my heart and a checkup every three days at the hospital, so the situation doesn’t get worse.

The government grants a certain financial support for refugees, I guess, but I never subscribed for any of that. I don’t need money from the government right now. Some of the asylum seekers need the money to buy basic food supplies and clothes, but I honestly didn’t escape from Syria and move from Dubai, to get financial support. I need protection from the war. I’m learning more languages, concentrating on Norwegian at the moment, to support myself and I do get support from my Norwegian friends and their families.

Has your condition been that bad before, or would you say, the stress and trauma of war and having to run on your own, made it worse?

Honestly, it’s never been that bad before. I was okay, but the constant change of rules and the war in my home country is too much of the stress for me. Two days before New Year’s my brother was killed by the government. And I am here only able to sleep and eat, I am not allowed to work or do anything distracting. I’m learning Norwegian on my own and I’m lucky I have some friends here whom I’ve been knowing for a long time. But I am only human and I really can’t stand doing nothing at all.

Of course I can’t complain. Compared to immigrant camps and treatment in the Arab countries, Norway is amazing. But I need to focus on my future. I have a family. My mother, sister and brother escaped to Lebanon but they aren’t allowed to work there either, or support themselves. In most of the Arab countries women aren’t allowed to work anyway, based on really bad laws. So if there are women in your family, you need to support them all. I am responsible for my whole family, basically.

Sorry to hear about your brother. You are 25 years old, I guess you would like to do other things with your life than sitting around, even if you didn’t need to support your family financially.

I know, I would really love to get out of this situation. But in Norway, asylum seekers are not allowed to work without a permit. Some get the permit after talking to the immigration office, but many try to work black, as in working without any permit. I don’t like the idea, it’s bad and they are breaking laws that should not be broken. I’m certainly not going to break any laws in a country that took me in and for now I am just really glad, they are taking care of my heart condition.
I’m being very patient here, but from time to time I’m getting helplessly angry. I’m talking to my family regularly and they respond, that the situation is getting worse all the time. One of them has just fallen sick. It makes me angry, to not be able to change anything about this and I start crying all the time. I don’t know, for how long I will realistically have to wait for an appointment with the Immigration agency, but I will wait. And I will definitely respect all the laws that go with it.

If you could work right away, what would you work in, what do you specialize in? You finished different studies before, in what field?

I graduated from tourism higher institute as a tour guide. I speak English, French, Greek, Hindi, Hebrew, Arabic and now I’m learning Norwegian. I once took a cooking course, because cooking used to be my hobby. Also I’m a belly dancer. And during my stay in Dubai, I took a course in CRM and Online marketing of properties. I’m okay to work any kind of job to build my future and I know, that I will have to start from zero. I’d love to pick up and finish a study as a nurse or in business administration, after I get an educational and work permit. I’d be working to pay for my study.

That sounds really good, I hope you can do that. So far, how do you like living in Norway, what’s different? What do you have to get used to?

The differences are pretty big. Basically the whole culture is different from Syria, but I’m okay with it, because I guess, Norway is gonna be my home for at least a few years. I can’t go through with my traditions, as long as I’m here. I’ve always kept that ideal up, to respect other cultures. Norway is very free, we don’t have that freedom in Syria and even in Dubai I wasn’t allowed to actually do what I wanted without crossing some rules. My friends are teaching me about Norwegian traditions and culture and I read a lot on Norwegian history and the law system. Seeing the role of women in Norwegian daily life, kind of shocked me. In Europe, everyone has equal rights, I didn’t know this kind of situation in my home country. Oh and also some of the Norwegian food is similar to Syrian food. For example milk-cooked rice. However in Syria we cook it with sugar and in Norway, there’s no sugar added to it.

Talking of women’s rights. Have you followed the debate after the crimes in Cologne/Germany at New Year’s, that arose in Europe over ‚refugees‘ as a threat? Has Norway reacted to this and in general – How do people in Norway treat you?

People in Norway are alright, they are focusing on their own life and future. Here in Norway, the prime minister Erna Solberg talked about that, and they made the rules of immigration very strict. But life is continuing in a normal way around here, at least for me. When we heard about Germany, I was sooo sad, because all immigrants now get punished for a mistake, a group made. I agree with Germany, that they should start checking who is responsible for those crimes and whom of the refugees really needs help.

If they find the people, who did that, they should kick them out of Europe. If I’m moving to a country, asking for protection, I have to respect and follow the laws of that country, where they actually welcome me. Most of the countries here treat Arab refugees better, than the Arab states do at the moment and help us in amazing ways. So if you’re not going to respect the people of that country for this, it’s probably better for you to stay in your country. If you’re going to live in Europe, focus on learning the language of the country you are in and try to get into work, to give back something to society quickly and say Thanks.

You wrote an open letter to the administration in Norway, to ask for proper healthcare and the possibility to integrate themselves faster into society by being able to work with Norwegians. Do you think, that work and independence will solve the tensions between Europeans and new arriving Syrians and people from other regions of war?

It definitely will. Once we or I personally can start working, getting to know Norwegian better will come naturally and honestly, Norwegians are such kind people. I have a lot of Norwegian friends already, just because I was a translator to them in 2010, when they were studying abroad in Syria. Getting into work also means, that we will pay taxes like every other European and stop living on support from the government. Work makes a person smart and strong and having a job makes the world around you respect you. I don’t like to be or to be viewed negatively.

My main message to all European leaders is just that: Please, please, please. I know you are doing your best to welcome us, but can you speed that up? We didn’t escape, because we want money from the government, most of us just want to integrate into society, start working and show you, that we are a positive addition to your countries.

Do you have an opinion about the right-wing radicalization of some of the countries in Europe and the policy of countries like Hungary and Slovenia, not to accept any war refugees?

I honestly don’t know much about that, but on my journey through Europe I encountered a lot of messed up situations where the police was shouting at us, trying to beat us and told us to turn around and go back to where we came from. But so far I am fine right now, trying to fit in with a country I chose staying at.

If the war in Syria stops during the next few years and Daesh gets fought down, would you like to go back to Syria, or probably stay in Europe if the study and work situation is fine?

I most likely will never go back to Syria because in many parts of the country they would try to kill me. I used to work in diplomacy and with political figures that have now been stripped of power. But if Syria can establish a democratic system like Europe has, I feel like I should check and visit my country and rebuild it, as good as I can.

Thank you for that view into your current situation. Do you have anything else, you would like to tell people?

I do thank you for the interview and I want to say a big Thanks to Jan Brock, the journalist who followed me through my journey! I am very thankful to my Norwegian friends, because of the awesome way they support me here. I want to promise to all Europeans, that I personally will do my best to show you, I am a good, positive person and my goal is to learn the local language as fast as I can, to fully do so. And I feel like many of the refugees and immigrants would agree to that.

(Interview by Samael Falkner, Jan 14th 2016)

Abdul’s open letter to Sylvi Lishtaug:

Dear Sylvi Lishtaug,

I came to Norway three months ago. They took my fingerprints and my passport, everything checked just fine. I got an asylum seeker’s ID and I thought I could put it to use, but quickly learned, that this ID is not worth anything in Norway and only needed for the registration in Udi. You took my passport and I got an invalid ID in return, that doesn’t enable me to do anything.

I’m fluent in six languages and finished two studies, why don’t I get to work? There was a discussion in politics about getting refugees financial support, but my friends support me right now and I just want to pay my dues. What use is it to Norway, if we are only allowed to sleep, eat and use up money, we would like to actually earn?

I have a serious health condition, but I get denied some of the health care, I need, because I have that invalid ID and am not allowed to pay into health insurance. I issued a request and never even got a response to that urgent health inquiry. And I am not allowed to do anything useful like visiting another school, either. I am 25 years old, fully trained and all I can do, is wait.

I escaped from the Syrian war, because I didn’t want to die just yet. Norway is a world-leader in terms of human rights, but lately you haven’t been such a big help in granting me any. Don’t get me wrong, I am safe here and I appreciate that, but you took my ID and told me where to stay. I am not free to move, to get a job, to study or to even get the trauma therapy I am in desperate need of. Last I heard, it was a human right to carry a valid ID, I never got mine back from your agencies.

The last months I spent studying Norwegian on my own, because that’s what I really want to do, integrate myself into the Norwegian society and not to bother my friends, who have taken me in and support me financially, any more. Waiting honestly isn’t helping my health status or my psyche. I am a human being, I am sick, I am in need of support and I don’t know how to deal with all of the sitting around.

I met my friends, when I was their translator in Syria in 2010. Back then they studied abroad in Syria and needed my help. Now I’ve used up all of their help in return and I really just want to be able to care for myself again.

Please, Mrs. Lishtaug, you are the Minister of Udi and I am supposed to stay in your region. You are somewhat responsible for my fate and all I am asking for is: Please respect my rights and the rights of all others who are only allowed to wait and trust in your support.

All the best,

Abdul (lastname known)