Nov. 1, 2020
To be torn away from home, especially for an aspiring writer, heralds a sure death of the Soul, albeit a slow one. That is how I felt when, after years of deliberations with myself; I left my country, Eritrea. For decades on end, I had considered myself an active participant in the realization of a Dream—an Eritrean Dream. That dream shattered when the state of Eritrea started cannibalizing that national vision, and dictatorship was in full swing in no time. Whatever leftovers of freedom we enjoyed started vanishing into thin air when the state agents took journalists and politicians into God-knows-where and terror reigned in every corner.
Like many Eritreans, this turn of events and betrayal took some years to sink into my conscience. It was a maddeningly despairing matter, but I was resolute that I should have no part in this state of affairs. And the time came when I had to decide between staying there and witness the ordeal my home country was going through or leaving the country and keep myself far away from witnessing the horror of a dying dream in front of my very own eyes. And hence, I found myself in Uganda after crossing Sudan in 2010.
First, it didn’t take me much time to realize that what we had been going through in Eritrea was a complete nightmare. I was mesmerized by the level of political rights the people enjoyed in a country that bore no democracy credentials. Verily, I realized that Eritrean dictatorship and ruthless social engineering is the worst of its kind, perhaps with no matches in the contemporary world. I and some other Eritreans, eager to tell the world the story about the Pol-pot of Cambodia’s type of homicide in Eritrea, made the best use of that freedom. We were so efficient in adding another stream of voice into the widening pool of Eritrean opposition in exile that we attracted the government agents’ fury. We stood in the face of constant threats—the revolution has long arms, Uganda is within our reach!
Rendering deaf ears to the then ongoing threats from regime operatives in Uganda, I continued voicing the cause I still stand for, doing what I usually do – writing. I have always thought of reaching out to the masses through my writings. Then, in mid-October 2012, I was relocated to Norway under the ICORN program. I had never dreamed of finding myself here. Since my formative years in the revolutionary school, the West and its values were demonized by the so-called revolutionaries who were acting as the guardians of the war against the perceived enemy – Ethiopia – on every occasion. Eritrean ideologues and their leftist inclinations framed the Eritrean cause as a struggle against the Western capitalist system and its imperialist ambitions.
Curiously enough, my orientation with the West left no room for craving economic prosperity, which, according to the ideology that revolutionary guards indoctrinated us within the revolutionary schools, was the fruit of the working class’s oppression by imperialism. We were so imbued with these ideals that a future global dictatorship of the proletariat and the withering of the state presented itself as a gospel truth lurking in the thresholds of history. We were raised to see ourselves as being on the desirable side of history and to shun everything that has to do with the West, including western world ideologies and economic prosperity. It was long before I knew a country named Norway, whose political economy belonged to this western camp.
In many ways, being distant, dislocated from my past part of Africa, Norway rarely came into the mouths of people. I still remember the incident that made me wonder about this very same country where I happen to live now as a matter of historical coincidence. I was a student in grade 5 by then. Our geography teacher mentioned Norway as a country where its people see the sunshine at midnight. This was an out-and-out alien and incomprehensible miracle, and we challenged the teacher with odd questions. Our teacher, who chose not to discuss the subject any further with us, said, “Don’t bother yourselves kids… this is a country in the far desolate fringes of the North Pole, just beyond Arctic Circle!”
Now, I am in the very fringes of that North Pole. The weather shock has run its course, and I have long started to see Norway with snow-freed eyes. Yes! Norway represents everything that anyone can dream of. It is the pinnacle of democracy and freedom of expression. It was infinitely intriguing at that! I found that Norway’s people have a unique attitude, a curious mingling of nobility, palpable humility, and respect for other people’s rights. It suffices to say a delight for someone coming from a country where abuse and terror are in no short supply. This is what Norway really is to me. But what am I to Norway?
This was a question evolving in my mind, along with the earlier impression imprinted in me, and the growing comprehension of what Norway is. A few months after my arrival, Norway represented a safe haven for writers and journalists persecuted by their governments. Then, I realized that Norway is a multicultural society that thrived in a state that upholds democratic and liberal ideologies. Everyone who subscribes to these ideals automatically joins into this family of nationality to reproduce them and, in return, contribute and flourish together. Norway is a tribute to humankind’s successful experiment with democracy. This latest conception of Norway revealed itself to me as an exciting and humbling experience at the same time. Exciting as it bore every fruit of an idea I had always craved for, and humbled by the consciousness that my contributions do not match at the lode of opportunities she presents. A feeling that sparked a desire for self-development struck deep inside me. And it made me ask a weird and strange question I had never wished to ask myself about Norway. The country that gave me the chance to revive my hope in humanity. But, has Norway presented itself as ‘a cow to be milked for free’?
I am not posing this question out of the blue. I had an unfortunate encounter with a Norwegian woman. This ill-fated experience has made me realize that not all my perceptions of Norway are accurate. I am quoting a Norwegian woman who said this phrase in the course of our conversation. It was not a slip of the tongue, but a deliberate expression of an underlying discourse that was not very friendly towards refugees. It comes from the same quarter informed by the extreme rightist assumption that only natives can have exclusive rights. The refugees are only a burden – if not an antithesis to prosperity according to her understanding. I was shocked into a whole new reflection into my and other refugees’ relations with Norway. A parasite never realizes that the host’s death it consumes from inside will finally bring about its own demise. That is an unfitting reference to an immigrant community in Norway, a society composed of vibrant souls eagerly striving to be a positive contribution to Norway’s self.
Having lived for nearly a decade in Norway, I have grown so much. I can confidently say that I am accustomed to the way of life and ideals of Norway. I have almost convinced myself to no longer see myself as a refugee, let alone an opportunist who is eagerly waiting to be served with “free milk.” Full integration is a process that continues for a lifetime, but speaking in the language of democracy and human rights takes only an experience of dictatorship to appreciate. Immigrants have come to Norway from different countries with a plethora of cultural experiences, a potential powerhouse for working multiculturalism. Seen through the prism of liberalism, one can plausibly argue that pluralism does not pose any threat. Hence, I saw myself as a single note of a flamboyant symphony—that is, Norway.
Getting back to the initial question that I posed for reflection: Did I feel like a graft by the new realization that I am seen by some quarters as nothing but a refugee looking for a free lunch? A resounding No!
That unfortunate encounter made me experience the grim reality of living in a democracy where divergent views can live side by side in harmony, however different and contradicting to each other they can be. I never had the opportunity to experience any taste of democracy. But now, I am facing it – maybe this is the starting point of meeting democracy in the most challenging and even personal way. It is what deliberative democracy has to offer us. In a democratic discourse in Norway, some people hate refugees and have their reasoning and validation. Others endorse and accept the fact that we are human beings who are vulnerable and need each other in times of trials and tribulations. I am more convinced than ever that Norway is a platform where ideas, no matter how unpleasant, can be, and are, in circulation.
Yes, however much her words wounded my feelings, I had to accept that in a democracy, we have to live with opposing views and respect each while we are different. However, as I keep hearing the echo of what the lady had uttered to me, I am fighting inside to convince myself that no, a free rider is not what I am. I am what I am. Being a refugee will not change my whole being. Moreover, it made me realize that those who believe in democracy and humanity, we have a long way to go in the struggle for mutual understanding. We need to do more to convince those who have simplified migration – of people who left behind everything to seek asylum in a new place where they can start afresh – to an issue of misusing the welfare system. We need to tell them that no, refugees are not free riders. Refugees had hopes and dreams like everyone else. They are seeking asylum in a new place because brutal dictators shattered their dreams. We need not be tired in telling them that – No! Refugees are human beings waiting for a second chance to contribute, not to exploit others’ hard-earned welfare system.
I think I have responded politely? Anyway, I am free to respond to this in the best possible way – after all, freedom of speech is what I stand for.
Dessale Berekhet is a former ICORN guest-writer in Bø, Norway
Originally published in Shuddhashar.