To Be Human: Perspectives From Norway

“We’re prisoners of war. Our dreams have been doctored. We belong to no where. We sail unanchored on troubled seas. We may never be allowed ashore. Our sorrows will never be sad enough. Our joys will never be happy enough. Our lives never important enough to matter.”  From the novel, The God of Small Things,’ by the Indian author Arundhati Roy 

During the struggle for independence, ordinary Norwegians took initiatives to support liberation movements world wide. Norwegian groups, particularly in the field of veterinary and medical services, were actively engaged in supporting Eritrea at times of great need. Tore Sivertsen, an Associate Professor at the College of Veterinary Science, led the solidarity group on such a mission to Eritrea. The spirit of solidarity is still alive today and all those who lent a helping hand deserve to be thanked.

A lot of activities pertaining to Eritrea are going on in Norway since the end of last year. In November 2009, The Oslo Centre for Peace Human Rights (Oslosenteret) launched its alarming report on the Human Rights situation in Eritrea; it was written by Kjetil Tronvoll, the prominent Norwegian expert of the region. The Human Rights House was involved in supporting Eritrean civil societies in preparing the report and facilitated their attendance in the sixth session meeting of the UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review (UPR).  This month, Dawit Isaak won the Freedom of  Expression Prize. Perhaps, the least reported event was the sanctions imposed by Norway against Eritrea. But the above is not the main theme of my article for today.


In the last few months, there were two stories of asylum seekers that captured the attention of the media and the public at large. The first story is of the nine-year old Simon and his father Fekadu (Eritreans). There are more stories in the Norwegian language on the Internet about the case of the father and the son who had applied for asylum in Norway after coming through Italy where they first sought asylum two-years ago. In September 2009, they were returned to Italy based on the Dublin Convention which states that applications should be considered in the first country of asylum only. 

The action of the authorities created an uproar in the town of Fløro where they had lived. Simon was well liked by his classmates and spoke fluent Norwegian—one cannot help but fall in love with his smile. The mayor of the town and activists got involved in the case and prepared a petition against the deportation that was signed by 4000 people. The petition was delivered to the Prime Minister of Norway. Journalists went to Italy and filmed his in his homeless state but the Immigration authorities (UDI) stood firm by their decision.  


After staying for eighty-days in Italy a Norwegian support group smuggled Simon and his father back to Fløro in November 2009 where they were received with jubilation and took asylum in a church.  The police of the town yielded to a public pressure. They agreed to ignore the rules refrained from arresting Simon provided he went to school. It was very touching to see his classmates coming to visit him in the church with presents. Simon appeared on the major TV channels and newspapers. But later on, the immigration authorities decided to send Simon and his father back to Italy again—their case is still pending.  


In 2009, according to the UDI, 2667 Eritreans have applied for asylum in Norway, compared to just 50 in 2000. Of the 2174 applications that were decided on, 1379 applications were accepted for various reasons and 97 cases were rejected. Another  641 applications could not be considered because they have already applied in other countries for first asylum. The reminder of the applications fall under other categories—Simon’s case has recently been diluted by another case. 


The case that diluted Simon’s case involves a Somali single mother—Fathia and her six- year old son, Munir who were returned to Italy for reasons similar to Simon’s case. Fathia is a victim of several violent acts and she and her son suffer from post-traumatic syndrome. She was recently operated on and her stitches were not even removed when she was sent back to Italy. Her case appeared on the front page of a major newspaper for days and it created a heated debate in the whole of Norway: follow this link to see the pictures and read more about Fathia’s case. Within few day a Facebook based support group for Fathia’s case attracted about 6000 members. The newspaper received a storm of letters of support from people asking for advice on how to help Fathia and her child; some even travelled to Italy to help her. The immigration appeals board (UNE) was under heavy pressure to return her to Norway, yet until now, the UNE stands firm by its decision.  


I write about these issues just to show the human aspect of those involved in supporting people in need, irrespective of their ethnicity, religion, culture and background in the hope that we can learn a little humanity from them—the humanity that we have lost by misguided political partisanship. I hope also we can learn from all those who stand up against all forms of injustice and support the weakest among us. Such stories, I hope, would stimulate our traditional values of caring for each other, to forgive and value each other regardless of any form of divide. If it had not being for the dictatorial regimes, Simon and Munir would be living with their extended families in their respective countries. I hail all those who remind us that we are all human beings and we all deserve a dignified life. One fails to understand what went wrong to cause the mass massacre in Rwanda; neither can one understand all those who are presently opposing the health reform bill in the USA. 


We have been so much consumed by partisanship while the regime in Eritrea and some opposition groups work hard to sow mistrust among us. We are still very much divided by religion, ethnicity and politics. We have political blocks that negate each other, everyone claiming to be the only one that is right. We have organisations that claim to be vanguard, just because they state so.  


I have a few political colleagues with whom I have been involved in politics in one form or another for the last forty-years; we never talked about our families, never talked about our love affairs —what sort of social problems do we have? It was always politics; nothing else deserves a space! 


I met one of my old friends last year and we reflected how much our lives have been emptied and how society is facing many problems. Children used to be a blessing in Eritrea, now we have a country where it is a curse to have them. Eritreans live their lives burdened by anxiety and stress every time one of their loved ones is taken to Sawa; their whereabouts are unknown; rounded up to be subjected to endless military training where the youth are mistreated and dragged into unnecessary wars with neighbouring countries. We have a whole generation of youth who have been denied the chance to pursue their education. Youth who does not see light at the end of the tunnel. Youth who have been forced into developing drinking habits and other social ailments to get away from the mental anguish. We have youth in the Diaspora who face many challenges, living in a totally new environment and culture, struggling to find their way to study to adjust, and above all, to survive. To add insult to injury, we have some youth who live comfortably in the west but demonstrate so that the suffering of our people could be prolonged. 


At home, we have rampant domestic violence against women, our maid servants are mistreated at home and abroad—we rarely talk about these things and other relevant social issues. When it comes to psychology, it is either you are healthy or mad- no room for the spectrum in between. Most of our songs are about wars, about attacking the enemy and wining—our  music has been militarised. We have lost the touching romantic and poetic songs of Wed Amir, Ajolay and others. In the seventies, I remember watching a movie ‘Love Story’ written by the late Erich Segal in Khartoum Bahri (Cinema Al Safia) with a colleague who was not much into politics. By the end of the movie, my friend had tears flowing over his cheeks, I had none. He looked at me and angrily said, ‘Mohamed you have a stone heart!’  


Two years ago, I saw the film again; this time, I had tears on my eyes, too. Perhaps my heart had softened. 


Each 17th of May, the Norwegians celebrate in high tempo; the day marks their independence day. It is almost the only day in the year in which one finds Norwegians in their best attire and in their best humour. There is a children’s procession (barnetoget) in that day accompanied by school musical corps, where every school has one. The first day I saw the procession, I was overwhelmed and thought if our children had grown up playing with so many musical instruments, we would not have had so many wars in Africa. 


The South African writer Coetzee is one of my favourite writers and after reading his novel, ‘Life and Times of Michael K’, my hero was no more Mandela but Michael K. The simple human being who was not aware of apartheid, not aware of the situation of his country, who does not know one needs a permits to move around, who gets arrested for reasons he does not understand, was dedicated to taking care of his ailing mother—there are millions of heroes like him all over the world. 


Finally, please don’t consider this article a sort of a sermon but a reflection about our basic human values. It is a remote communication of ‘me’, of my thoughts and emotions, at a personal level where I communicate to share my thought—that, gives me relief. It is only with reading, writing and sharing my thoughts that I survive the harsh cold, snowy, long and dark winters of Scandinavia . Still, I am not sure which one is more of ‘me’, my physique, my thoughts or emotions—and there is always some degree of uncertainty.

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Dr. Mohamed Kheir Omer was an active member in the General Union Of Eritrean Students (GUES) affiliated to the ELF where he served as a member of the Executive Committee of the Union 1977-78. He joined the University of Asmara as a faculty member after independence where he served as the Dean of the College of Agriculture and Aquatic Sciences 92 – 96. He has authored or co-authored several scientific articles locally and internationally. He was a member of the G-13.


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