Young Migrant Stories from Norway

The classical story about youth with a migrant background in Norway, told by social scientists, has been the story about the rebellious hip-hop loving boy, growing up in one of Oslo’s multi ethnic suburbs. Several years ago, while working as a teacher at a secondary school in a small town in Norway, I was asked to teach the Norwegian language to a small group of students who had fled from their former home countries and were now settled in the town. Getting to know these students made me reflect upon how different their experiences of settlement and life in Norway seemed from the stories I had heard of growing up in Oslo. This made me curious to find out more about the experiences of youth with a refugee background and their settlement in small towns and remote places in Norway.

During my PhD-project I have had the privilege to spend time with 38 young individuals with a refugee background living in (or on the outskirts of) four different small towns in counties historically defined as rural or coastal. The teenagers have let me share their experiences through showing me their everyday life at school, letting me tag along to after-school activities, introducing me to their families, and providing me with photographs of places that hold different meanings for them. Through interviews, the teenagers have told me their stories of migration and settlement, feelings of belonging and non-belonging and of the network of people and places that make up the weave of their lives. Of course, each individual’s story is unique and varies depending on factors such as length of residence, geographical location and population size. Many experiences are also shared and I will highlight some of them here, especially the experience of being a visible minority.

The first thing the teenagers emphasize about living in a small town is that it is safe and that they can walk around anywhere without either themselves or their parents being worried. For some of the female participants and their families, choosing to stay in a small town has been a strategic decision to increase the chance of integration and avoid social control from one’s own ethnic group. However, making friends among ethnic Norwegians has proven to be difficult. As one girl said: “You can get friends, but they are not real friends. They will say hi to you in school, but after school you won’t have any contact with them”. In Norway, the home can be seen as the main space for socialization, even for youth, who besides doing organized activities, spend much of their time either in their own home or at a friend’s house. This can be viewed as a barrier for many newcomers, as the spaces for meeting people can seem few and out of reach. There is a gender difference in this regard, since many of the boys play organized football and make friends with other members of the team. However, few of the participants in this project have ever visited the home of an ethnic Norwegian family. Most find their friends among other teenagers with a migrant background with whom they share the experience of being an outsider, especially concerning language. For some of the participants this is no alternative, since there are no other (visible) migrants in their school. Especially for them, the internet plays an important role in making new friends and keeping in touch with old friends and family in different countries and across Norway.

Both boys and girls, talk about “a longing to be the same as everyone else” and wonder what it would be like to grow up in an area surrounded by other youth who look like themselves and with a similar culture and religion. Being a visible minority often means being treated as a representative of the minority rather than being seen as an individual with other identities besides “immigrant” or in many cases “Muslim”. The public discourse, repeatedly connecting Muslims to oppression and acts of terrorism, affect the youth in this project, who define themselves as Muslim, in such a way that they feel a responsibility to “educate” their surroundings about Islam and Muslim people. One boy explained that he was teaching himself about all the religions so he was prepared every time the questions and discussions about Islam occurred. Some of the girls believed that they are the ones who carry the heaviest burden as wearing the hijab makes them a symbol of their religion. Boys, they say, do not have to make any drastic changes in clothing or lifestyle to blend in, while they (the girls) are viewed as different. Girls experience both avoidance and name-calling. A few even speak of verbal and physical assault because of skin colour and religion.

In areas with a larger concentration of members of a specific ethnicity, girls talk about being subjected to rumours and being criticised if they, for instance, are not using what is seen as proper dress. The way I see it, a first step to address such a problem is to include the population with a migrant background as a natural part of the Norwegian “we” rather than treating them as “the stranger” or “the other”. The understanding of “Norwegianness” today can still be experienced as very narrow. Regardless of the amount of time the participants, with whom I discussed the issue, had lived in Norway, they would not define themselves as Norwegian. Several explained that this was because of their skin colour, that they did not speak perfect Norwegian or that they held a religious belief, which is not very common in large parts of Norway. Although this should be of concern to the authorities, it seems that the possible identities to choose from are getting fewer. After my fieldwork was concluded in spring 2015, the debate toughened as the government decided to drive a hard line to stop the “flood of refugees” coming to Norway. The rhetoric used by many politicians today is exceedingly problem oriented and based on fear, so much so that a highly profiled Norwegian writer and lecturer told the media that, after 20 years of seeing herself as a Norwegian citizen, she now feels labelled as an immigrant again . The question is how this will affect the younger generation and their willingness to stay and use their abilities and talents in Norway.

Tina Mathisen
PhD candidate
Department of Social and Economic Geography
Uppsala University, Sweden

Dagsavisen 21.05.16:

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