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:

The most exciting melting pot in the world

IMG_4850bChild Migrant Stories set out to collect first impressions of East London at the Fun Day in Stepney Park, part of the Festival of Communities. Richard Lue, aged 7, only knew the day before that he was flying to join his mother in East London. ‘It was the wickedest winter I can ever imagine. I was trembling. I remember the horsehair blankets. I had 13 of them.’ Gabriela, our resident artist for the day, was inspired to draw Richard wrapped up in blankets dreaming of sun and sea in Jamaica.

Drawing by Gabriela Bran inspired by the story of Richard Lue

Two people who came over as children were happy to be interviewed. Abdul came over from Bangladesh aged 10 with his mother and sister to join his father who himself had come over at the same age to join his father. Abdul remembers thinking, on his way from the airport, that Britain seemed more organised. People were not sounding their horns or ringing their rickshaw bells. He was not ‘over the moon’ when he first arrived as, from what people had told him he thought it would be a, ‘fairy wonderland.’ Now he loves East London – ‘so diverse, so dynamic’.

Rahima came to East London at the age of 17 after an arranged marriage in Bangladesh to a man who already lived in the UK. She liked nothing about East London when she arrived. It was cold, there was no sun, space or leaves on the trees. She missed people. Now she doesn’t miss anything or anyone – her parents in Sylhet have died. She’s settled. Her children and grandchildren are here and her children hate to go back to Bangladesh because of the mosquitoes.

Two women, one from New York and one from Australia, who migrated to the UK as adults thought East Enders were, ‘friendly, welcoming and nice neighbours’. A woman from the Congo wrote that, ‘Although a language barrier people were helpful.’ A woman from Bangladesh wrote, ‘ Shopping are Bengali style here … feel like living in our own country.’ One woman told us of how she was brought from India to do housework but was thrown out by her employers. The local police, court and others all helped her find food and shelter. One man, originally from Bangladesh, who moved from West London thinks East London, despite being more run down, beats Notting Hill for parks and there are, ‘a lot more activities for children.’ Two East Enders, who moved out of the area, wrote, ‘East End community is more friendly and supportive. That’s why we moved back from Essex.’

For one person migration is something that affects us all. ‘We are all drifting in one way or another. If you embrace it God’s love will bring us together on an amazing wave.’

But we weren’t just interested in first impressions of people who’ve moved here. We wanted to know what people who have always lived in East London like or hate about it. Here is what they said and drew.

Drawings of hearts and smiles underlined the words of how people love the multicultural nature of East London.

IMG_4853bSultana writes, ‘ I love East London. I was born and bred in Stepney. There’s lots to do and good public transport and a diverse community.’ Mahbub wrote, ‘ I love the community, the mosques, the people from other cultures and other faiths. I love Britain and Stepney because it’s a place of peace and joy.’ Someone else wrote, ‘I can be who I want to be. It’s friendly, cool and cheap.’ Sahima wrote that she is happy that, ‘strangers support others.’ IMG_4853eFatima and others wrote about what the area has to offer. ‘East London has everything in it. From doctors, hospitals, markets, schools and parks right on your door step.’

As if in response Meriem of French Algerian origin, whose mother was cooking delicious crepes for the festival revellers, sat down and drew a beautiful fair ground in the park (Gabriela, watch out you have some competition!)

Merrier draws the fairground in Stepney Green Park

Someone else wrote that there is, ‘Lots to do for all. From going for a curry down Brick Lane to getting a samosa in Whitechapel to the arty hipsters.’ This prompted Gabriela to get out her drawing pad again.

Curries down Brick Lane and a bicycle riding, coffee drinking East London hipster by Gabriela Bran

Freya thinks, ‘ East London smells good’. There are places to ride bikes, the marathon, the Olympics, a safe environment, music, good schools, good universities. A very assured Candy Lin, whose mother originally came from China and who benefits from her daughter’s brilliant bilingual skills, wrote, ‘What I like about East London is that London is a city with different people. This makes London unique because many people have different cultures and traditions, London has a variety of landmarks too for tourists to see.’

Candy Lin spells out why London is good for residents and good for tourists

Wendy Simps seized my pad of post it notes and summarised her likes and dislikes.

Wendy Simps on right with friends

She likes Brick Lane, 24-hour shops and Victoria Park. She doesn’t like living on a main road, the landlord and the Central line – I could not agree more!

Wendy Simps dislikes on left and Gabriela’s interpretation

There were other dislikes. East London is ‘busy, higgledy piggledy’, ‘food costs a lot’, ‘crime and drunk people on the street,’ ‘young people getting into drugs’ and ‘I don’t like sweet stealers!’  This prompted Gabriela to get out her drawing pad again.

So are they stealing sweets perhaps? Drawing by Gabriela Bran

But the overwhelming response was positive.

“Would find it hard to live anywhere else. Love London.”

People looking and posting their responses

East London has a tradition of welcoming people from abroad who are fleeing conflict, war, poverty and discrimination. When we asked East Enders what they thought about the UK accepting 3,000 unaccompanied migrant children from Europe they rose to the challenge.

‘ Of course – children’s safety and rights come first – and you know there’s plenty of space. If you’re opposed then address the wars forcing people to flee.’

‘Children’s rights are UN-DISPUTABLE!!!’

‘The EU is slacking and should do way more if people are terrified, worried enough to leave their own homes. We should help them from the safety we have.’

The woman who came as a child from Poland, now studying at QMUL, spoke from her own experience.

‘ I feel blessed to have the opportunity of growing up in London and strongly support having migrant children brought here. London is now my home and I want to share this city with others.’

3,000 is the number put forward by Lord Dubs in his parliamentary amendment. Lord Dubs has reason to be passionate about this issue. He came to the UK on the Kinderstransport scheme that rescued children from the Nazis. Save the Children says as many as 26,000 unaccompanied children arrived in Europe in 2015. The EU’s Criminal Intelligence Agency estimates 10,000 are missing, many feared to have fallen into the hands of traffickers. Given these facts and the numbers of migrants that countries surrounding Syria are accommodating, 3,000 seemed a paltry number for one festival goer.

‘3,000 is a ridiculous low number to even debate.’

This prompted Gabriela, daughter of Henry Bran, a child asylum seeker from El Salvador, to get out her drawing pad again.

What about those left behind? Drawing by Gabriela Bran
IMG_4864 (1a)
Thanks to Gabriela, daughter of child migrant from El Salvador, Louis from V&A Museum of Childhood  and Nileema, daughter of a child migrant from Bangladesh who made the day go with a swing

If you would like to see how we have captured more experiences of children who have migrated to East London come to our next event for the Festival of Communities. We will be screening short films based on child migrant experiences at the Floating Cinema on QMUL Campus day, Mile End from 12 noon to 5pm on June 4th. If you are interested in booking a place email


Lost lifeline for 3000 unaccompanied child migrants in Europe

Just 18 votes made the difference blast night between the UK refusing and accepting 3000 unaccompanied vulnerable child refugees. The government narrowly defeated a cross-party amendment to the immigration bill, tabled by Lord Alf Dubs in the House of Lords. Dubs knows the importance of the issue. He came to the UK through Kindertransport, the government backed programme that brought over 10,000 child refugees from Europe in the run up to the second world war.

The government argued that accepting 3000 of these vulnerable children, would encourage families to send children on ahead of them. But it takes a teenage refugee from Syria, who met Cooper and Dubs for an event outside parliament, to make the salient point: “Most of the children in the camps do have their families and parents with them but those stranded around Europe and in Calais are very vulnerable because other people could do something to them. That is the fundamental difference between the children in Europe and those in the camps.”

10,000 of these children have already gone missing according to the EU’s Criminal Intelligence Agency. Many are feared to have fallen into the hands of criminal gangs.

Read more about this on Dubs, himseldfvote-against-accepting-3000-child-refugees?utm_source=esp&utm_medium=Email&utm_campaign=GU+Today+main+NEW+H+categories&utm_term=168928&subid=492575&CMP=EMCNEWEML6619I2

Spotlight: Balquis

This story is drawn from the interview with Balquis by Eithne Nightingale as part of her research into child migration to East London.

So many people of every colour and nation

Women in abayas and conical straw hats in Hadhramaut, South Yemen Photo by Steve McCurry from

We had war in Yemen so my family had to go to Somalia and live there for a couple of years. Then we went back to Yemen because there was war in Somalia. I was one-year old maybe. We went back to live in Hadhramaut, a small town in the South. A lot of my family live there.

Photo of Hadhramaut by Eric Lafforgue

pixel-2 It’s really, really hot. After sunsets we go upstairs, take our mattresses, have dinner, talk a little and then go to sleep ‘cause you can’t sleep inside while it’s hot.

I have four brothers, three sisters. I’m in the middle. In Yemen my father worked in a shop, selling groceries. My mum used to bake samosa, spring rolls and falafels. Then she’ll sell them.

I went to school. In the morning it was all the boys and the afternoon it was all the girls. Sometimes we leave messages on the table, [Laughs]. But we didn’t see each other. I was really intelligent kid. I loved mathematics and science. I love art, but back in the days I used to hate it because they’ll ask you to buy everything and you just can’t afford it and then you get told off in front of everyone. That was really harsh.

Yemeni women in the desert landscape near Hadhramaut. Photo by Eric Lafforgue

After lunch we get dressed, my mum does my hair and I’ll go out with the girls and just play around. It’s very deserty, really hot. I had to be home before sunset.

Hadhramaut by Eric Lafforgue

It’s about 45 minutes to the sea. We used to rent a car. It wouldn’t fit us all sometimes so we’ll be put into the boot. The beach is beautiful. The sand is really white. We used to have lunch, swim and play with the sand. We collected rocks – different textures, different colours, different sizes. They look beautiful.

I remember Eid. We used to go to one of my family’s house and queue up for henna to get done. And then shopping. We’ll show off how you match your shoes with your dress and your hairclips. The women wear abayas and cover their faces.

My mum had a car crash and my dad had to look after us and we were kicked out of the house we rented. It was a very hard situation. We were coming back from a visit to another relative and my Dad asked, “Do you guys want to go to London?” I thought he was joking [laughs]. So we went to Sana’a for interviews. I think twice. My dad stayed away for nine months.

My dad had to come first and then I came with my family. I’ve never cried as much in my life, just leaving everything behind and never coming back.

We went from Sana’a to Qatar, and stayed there overnight. The hotel was lovely so I was just jumping up and down. Next morning we took a flight to London. I thought I’m watching a movie, because I never thought London would be this diverse, so many people of every colour and nation. I’d never seen someone different like me. I’ve always seen people of my kind.

I remember running to give my dad a hug. First of all we went to a hostel in Hackney- London Metropolitan Hostel. It was very weird.

Metropolitan House, Hackney. Photo by Eithne Nightingale.

It was the first Eid I spent away and I remember crying so much because we didn’t know where to go and what to do.

I started going to BSix College in Clapton. I’ve had a lovely teacher. She understood that we just came and made us feel comfortable. We had to mix with boys, but you get over that. I did one year of Entry 1 and Entry 2 ESOL, the second year was Entry 3. And then I went to BTEC diploma in media for the third year.

BSix College, Hackney. Aspired, Study, Achieve. Photo by Eithne Nightingale

When I was 17 the government stopped funding the course so I went to Tower Hamlets and did two years of my diploma in media.

Ravensbourne was the dream of my life. The first two years was a foundation degree in editing and postproduction, and then you do one year of BA top up. During the summer holiday, I used to take part in workshops and short courses, which Tower Hamlets used to do. I’ve loved the photography and collage. It was girls only and about the power of women.

It was really hard for me to feel I’m part of the society. How do I fit in here, what can I do to make myself feel at home? I’ve started meeting people, going to different places with my friends. Like art exhibitions, or open days or going to the park [laughs]. Most of the Yemeni community live in Sheffield.

We’ve been back to Yemen, was it 2012? It was my cousin’s wedding. When I first arrived I felt I am actually at home, that safe feeling of being where we belong. But with the heat and the electricity not working and too many people in one house I hated it. [Laughs]

Yemeni woman by Eric Lafforgue

I was very happy when I came back. I felt I’m home again. I was like, oh, I can’t wait to go to my bed. I miss my house in Newham so much.

I have my place where I keep my artwork and shelves of books that I I’ve read or I want to read. I still have my sketchbooks from those summer courses. I share my room with two sisters, but it’s all right.

I think if I were still on there (Yemen) I wouldn’t have a future. I wouldn’t have much, I wouldn’t respect myself and have confidence just like I do right now. I would have been absolutely a different person. I think I might be married at home with kids and running around going crazy. [Laughs]

You can hear recordings of Balquis, including excerpts mentioned here on Soundcloud:

With thanks to Eric Lafforgue for allowing us to use his wonderful images of Hadhramaut in Yemen.


Different people from different countries,

Sitting together

Homeless people

Wearing ragged clothing


Crying children

Desperate for food

Orphan child


Sound of desperation

Taste of determination

Explosion of landmine

Smell of death



Rap from young refugee from the Congo, created for the Te Papa Museum, Wellington, New Zealand

Among the crowd of souls

Perhaps one day I shall go out into the quietened city and recognise myself among the crowds of souls

I will say to them, ‘Hey look there goes the man I really am.

Will they dare to acknowledge me?

No one responds. There is silence ………

Then the world moves on restlessly

making its love,

greed, pride and money, minding its business,

Shamelessly I close my eyes, then rest my mouth

 Silence is the only language that does not need an interpreter.

Poem by Abdalla Gabriel, young refugee from Sudan created for the Mixing Room at Te Papa Museum, Wellington, New Zealand

What lies ahead for child migrants today?

26,000 unaccompanied children arrived in Europe in 2015, according to Save the Children. The EU’s criminal intelligence agency maintains that 10,000 are missing, many feared to have fallen into the hands of traffickers.

In recent weeks the fate of children in the ‘Jungle’ has come into focus particularly with plans to abolish the south section of the makeshift refugee camp in Calais. Of the 3,455 people in the “Jungle” 445 are children of whom 315 are without parents. Leading clergy, actors, writers, artists and others have signed a petition demanding that minors be given full child protection within the French system or allowed to reunite with family in Britain.

But behind these numbers lie thousands of children’s individual stories. We know the fate of two of these children. Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian boy, drowned along with his brother and mother when their boat capsized en route to Greece. His father Abdullah, the only one to survive, wanted to take his family to safety in Canada where his sister lives. The image of Aylan’s corpse washed up on a Turkish beach went viral and caused an international outrage – for a few hours, days or weeks perhaps. Missy Higgins was moved to write and perform this song about Alan Kurdi.

And just before New Year, Masud, from Afghanistan, suffocated in a lorry in his attempt to get across the Channel. He had a legitimate claim to join his sister in the UK but found the conditions in the ‘Jungle’ intolerable and took matters into his own hands. Things could have turned out differently. Last month British judges ordered 3 Syrian youths and accompanying adult be allowed to join their relatives in Britain and escape the ‘living hell’ of the Calais refugee camp.

But what of those children that do survive: that settle in the UK, across Europe or beyond? They are just starting out on life – wanting security, education, a future. What challenges will they face and perhaps overcome? What opportunities will open up, or be denied, to them?

Not all the stories of child migration on this website are as harrowing as those of children fleeing Syria, although some are. Many were not refugees and some came as British subjects from countries that were then part of the Empire. Yet perhaps their stories can shed light on those experiences that affect the child migrant not only as a young person but as an adult and throughout their life.

Children may have less choice than adults as to whether they leave or stay. Eylem expresses this well. “You were almost caught in a flow of water and just being dragged and nobody’s asking me did I want to leave Turkey?” Children may be given little notice that their lives are going to be turned upside down. “Yeah, my grand aunt, my grandmother’s sister told me that I’d be flying to England in the morning to be with my mother,” says Richard from Jamaica. “ It was like they took all my childhood away from me and sent me off to this freezer.”

Children may block out memories that are painful. “I have no recollection about being on the plane and that journey,” says Manzila. “ It was so horrendous that I completely blotted it out of my existence.”

And how will the child adapt to living with ‘strangers’ even though they might be family? For Argun stepparents could never replace his birth parents. “It’s not like mum and dad is it? When you say, ‘Step, step, step, step,’ it’s not 100%.”

Children who have experienced war are especially vulnerable. They may relive that trauma not only in the months or years after the conflict but throughout their adult life. For Maurice, who saw his grandmother die of poverty in front of him during the Biafran war, “death became routine really.”

Duncan still suffers from flashbacks from seeing a boy on a bicycle being killed yards away from him during the riots in Calcutta. “As a child you don’t have the means to deal with this stuff.”

And how do children cope in different education settings? Will they be bullied like Heather from Jamaica because of her accent. “I had a very thick Caribbean accent and I was laughed at in class so I consciously switched and changed.” Or like Nimo from Somalia who was laughed at because of her lack of English. “The students, they was kind of abusing me, like, oh my God, she’s year 11, she doesn’t speak English.” Or perhaps the teachers do not see the potential of such children. Surya balked at her school’s suggestion. ‘And they said, ‘You can do typing’. And I was like, ‘I’m not going to be a secretary. I want to write.’”

Will children today find that special someone who supports and believes in them? For Manzila it was her English teacher. For Femi, on her own at the age of 16 in Hackney, it was someone she met by chance who helped her find accommodation, an immigration lawyer and a place in education.

Will the children make friends with their own community like Said who, having experienced civil war in Somalia finds it difficult to trust people outside his immediate friends and family? Or will they be more confident like Sadeka who has developed a wide range of friends?

“Because, wherever you go, you’re not always going to find Bengali are you? And if you are not used to mixing with other people, then it’s going to be a struggle.”

Will the children who arrive today show agency and search out opportunities? Like Ruhul, who determined to realise his ambition of becoming a filmmaker, approached a Chanel 4 crew in Brick Lane. Or like Balquis who believes that if she was still in Yemen,” I wouldn’t have a future. I would have been absolutely a different person. I think I might be married at home with kids and running around going crazy.”

What relationship will they have with the country of origin? Will they be like Errol who misses rural Jamaica. “You’ve got the goats running around, you’ve got all the birds in the trees, you know, you don’t get that here.” Will they be like Ligia who says it is impossible to choose between Brazil and the UK , “that would be totally unfair” or like Jalal for whom his connection with the country of his birth is central. “Wherever you were born, that pulls you back all the time, even when you die that pulls you.” For Henry, El Salvador is just a dream that I left behind. I can always go back and dream again, but Hackney is my home.”

It seems fitting to leave with Tomasz’s heartening and hopeful words. “Kids are very resilient. You adapt to whatever situation you are in.”

I hope that the stories of children here, albeit who have migrated in different circumstances and at different times, can give us some insight into how better to support those children who arrive in our communities today.