“… when we consciously make space for the stories of displaced communities within our own, we make space for a shared cultural understanding that enriches us and connects us, disturbing the systems of division that alienate and dehumanize.”
In the Mission Statement for Pen international Make Space campaign.
The Make Space campaign stems from a clear challenge culture managers and exiled artists alike face on a daily basis. The systems of division mentioned above are more common than we’d like to admit as the inclusion of foreign people and beliefs disturbs the safe and known status quo. Changing practices which are buried in traditions is an enormous, never ending task for people working in this field. As coordinators of cultural programs working with integration, we are constantly looking for opportunities where, not only refugee writers and artists, but the whole of the immigrant community can share their work and stories. Constantly looking to make space.
Many factors can make this difficult, most under the umbrella of cultural differences, but it is in fact language which complicates collaboration at its root, bringing with it a number of psychological and practical challenges I will touch upon in this article. ICORN* helps resettle writers and artists to many cities in Norway, most of which currently live in the country, trying desperately to make a living as writers. As expected, the ones able to succeed at this are, to a greater extent those that have managed to learn the language (or speak good English). Cultural differences are usually bridged when we are able to speak the same language, hostile environments soften as understanding spreads and consequently the psychological and practical challenges lessen.
Some of us take language for granted, especially those of us who speak English. We are privileged to be able to communicate and understand about 1 fourth of the world’s population, but what about the other 3 fourths? In this age of globalization, if we speak English, then we are probably reading similar things, following and listening to similar artists, watching similar stuff, in short, our culture is blending and slowly becoming quite similar. People who do not speak English are therefore limited to their own language and environment, or to translators who dub, subtitle, rewrite media and interpret the outside world for them. These people are the writers and artists in society, they reflect their surrounding circumstances and express themselves respectively. They are some of the most vulnerable members of society and therefore more likely to be censured and shun for their opinions. These are the people ICORN helps, the ones that are running away from violence, censure, imprisonment and sometimes death.
Language is our tool to express how we relate to the outside world, and it’s the most valuable tool for a writer. Imagine what would happen if you lose not only the ability to express yourself in a language that the community around you understands, but the environment suddenly becomes new and unknown? The context changes, the audience changes, everything you have been inspired by, outraged by, praised by and of course, threatened and hated for … no longer exists. Exiled writers face this every day and are forced to learn a new language, often from scratch in order to interpret everything around them and regain their purpose as artists. The biggest dilemma of an exiled writer is leaving a country where they were censured and arriving in one where they can’t speak the language.
It is safe to say that no established writer wishes to move to a completely new environment and start from scratch on their life long work. It is also safe to say that Norway is a country which very few people, not to say none at all, think of moving to for a fresh new start. Some of us can romanticize and enjoy the idea of a new life in the desolate north, but building a network and a name for yourself in a new country is a long and strenuous process few choose willingly.
None the less, getting the possibility to do so, has an enormous effect on those lucky few that get to come here. Getting asylum in a safe democratic country is literally saving people’s lives, and arriving to this new country is nothing but the beginning of an adventure most feel enormously grateful for. This is especially true of those traveling together with their families, for whom the idea of a new life sounds much more appealing when children are involved. As well as for those that are relatively young and might still have a career to form. But the older you are, the more set you are on your ways, the more settled you are into your surroundings, and by result the hardest it is to move.
But you do, you have no choice, perhaps you move for your children, you do it for your partner, who is much more scared than you yourself are, or you do it because your friends and colleagues push you to, you want to live, they make you believe that if you survive you will be able to help those left behind, to advocate for the universal human right to freedom of expression, you become their chance at a better more just society. It is with this responsibility many refugee writers and activists arrive, only to be, more often than not, greeted with indifference. When the high of the honeymoon phase wears out, those first months filled with the excitement of a new place fades, and you realize just how far away from home you are, how little the local people know about where you come from, and in some extreme cases, how little they really care… hopelessness kicks in.
Your language is gone, the only people who can understand you are those from your same country, or those that speak a similar language, and unfortunately among them you are likely to become a dissident once again. Which takes me to the challenge of having to remain anonymous in the city of refuge because of security issues linked to the diaspora. Fear of suspicion and violence has been known to follow some writers and artists abroad and even though the authorities are exponentially more trustworthy in persecuting those that perpetuate violence, many don’t want to take the risk. When the only people who can understand your native language, do not understand or believe in your message, it is easy to loose motivation. This can be a situation that further divides the community, more often than not adding to the psychological stress all bare.
The psychological stress of fleeing under the extreme conditions of exile can cause a disjunction of body and mind. It’s like the physical body has left and it’s safe in a warm apartment in snowy Norway, but the mind is still paranoid in the crowded streets of Bangladesh, screaming in protests in Iran, running across bombarded fields in Syria, or worse still, in the cold darkness of a prison cell in Ethiopia or any of the previous named countries for that matter. The psychological challenges faced by people in exile are unfathomable to those who have never experienced war, totalitarian regimes or religious extremism. Lucky enough Norway has a health system which can help, the question often is, are people willing to accept the help? Unfortunately, the stigma connected to mental health is such that many refuse to talk about it or meet with professionals who can help.
I believe this dichotomy generally stems from a lack of agency within the exiled community. Norway has a very organized resettlement system which in order to receive economic support puts everyone through a set introduction program. Many of the decisions in this obligatory program are made for them, giving them little control in the process of becoming self sufficient and “integrated” under the excuse that they don’t know better. The unfamiliar health system is no exception, putting this out of their control as well. Just imagine being in a situation where your health is failing, you feel depressed, anxious, stressed, completely out of contact with yourself, in some extreme cases psychotic, and you are not able to communicate or understand the system around you? Would you trust a foreigner to help you? Especially if it’s forced on you? Think of the stress this kind of situation can cause?
We are all familiar with stress, but it represents itself in our bodies in many different ways. Often constricting the clarity in our thoughts and especially our flexibility. When stressed, the body reacts abruptly, maybe even violently, but most likely it will react irrationally. Patience is not a symptom of stress, quite the contrary. When stressed we are in flight or fight mode, we don’t contemplate, we don’t try to understand, we lose perspective and simply react. The challenges we face every day become unbearable and the fact that we have little control over how to deal with them makes them even bigger. I believe that the need for culturally sensitive psychosocial support is paramount for people who have experienced forced migration. Often can this be connected to small practical tasks which increase self-esteem and give a sense of empowerment, but to achieve this, agency and a connection of mind and body has to be regained.
Finally I would like to mention some of the practical challenges faced by exiled writers, all closely connected to what I have previously touched upon. Finding a job, becoming self-sufficient and providing for your family is a basic human need. Unfortunately writers and artists are vulnerable to a limited and sometimes hostile work market as well as an unfamiliar culture of project-based funding which can seem complicated. Writers and artists are in addition skeptical to other kinds of jobs, considering a change in field as a drop in status. There are very few exiled writers who are willing to work in the service sector for example, where we find most available jobs at the moment. This results in may writers living under precarious situations, dependent on the welfare system.
Norway is a welfare state, which means all legal inhabitants’ basic human needs are met. If a person is not able to find a job, they can receive assistance for housing and basic subsistence. We can argue that even though this might not be ideal, people will always get the help they need… after a lot of paperwork and some good old bureaucratic processing. This process is one of the biggest practical challenges immigrants face, as any bureaucratic process, it requires a good level of literacy, not to mention humility. There is something sadly demeaning about wanting to work and not being able to, or worse still, being forced to work in what you consider to be a lower status job. This situation is known to affect a person’s self-esteem and consequently their mental health.
In recent times the immigration laws have changed and become much stricter when it comes to permanent residency and citizenship. In order to qualify for these praised documents, immigrants have to have an income which exceeds a certain amount of money per year. Those who do not have a stable, well paid job are not able to qualify for this and are forced to apply for temporary residency every year until they are able to meet the requirements. This unfortunate situation is a challenge which creates a lot of stress for people, feeding the vicious cycle of instability.
As you can see all aspects of the challenges encountered by exiled writers intersect. There is always the danger of situations getting worse, especially when we get caught in the cycle of negativity, but challenges can also motivate, inspire and create change. Once they intersect with the positivity of a mind that is present and open to learning, challenges have the potential of becoming opportunities. As cliche as this might sound, we have all seen it before, people that raise up against all odds and survive adversity no matter the challenges. Exiled writers and artists are survivors, the displaced community in Norway (and all over the world) is as well, and survivors are known for resilience. Resilience flourishes when we make space, make space to learn, to share, to be present, can you make space?
*(ICORN) the International Cities of Refuge Network gives protection to persecuted writers in cities of refuge around the world for a period of two years. Norway is the only country in the network which offers refugee status to guest writers, allowing them to stay permanently. Adria Scharmen is a coordinator for this program in the Norwegian city of Trondheim.