As I write this, from beautiful Trondheim on a cool autumn day, the percentage of immigrants in Norwegian society has surpassed 18%.They are a mix of refugees, labor migrants, family members reunited with their Norwegian counterparts, and our second generation, the children of everyone in the previous categories. If we focus on only people without a western background, the percent is around 10%. We are many, and our numbers are continuously growing, sometimes faster than others, as the flow often depends on the condition of politicians’ hearts. But one thing is for sure, we are not going anywhere; it is futile to think that we will disappear or relinquish our role in Norwegian society.
A good indication that we are here to stay is the recent migration literature week, an event organized by our city’s Literature House in collaboration with the University (NTNU) and Trondheim’s Municipality (Friby-City of Refuge). During the various events we met with a diverse group of writers, poets, journalists, artists, researchers and activists with immigrant backgrounds. All participants were established professionals working in this country where some of them have been living for as long as 20 years! Even though many of them are outraged by the never-ending difficulties and barriers they have faced in their work, others are proud examples of successful integration into Norwegian society.
I will not list the difficulties immigrants face while entering the Norwegian work life, but I will say that those difficulties are even greater for professionals working with literature, art, and culture as this field is conservative and traditionally a difficult one in which to integrate. I invite you to read my earlier article on this topic here. These days the challenges are growing exponentially, as our culture and that of the whole world is being permanently altered by a global pandemic. The Norwegian Writers Center reported that in September alone, the number of assignments for writers decreased by 45% as compared with September of last year. There is very little work and what is out there is unfortunately often reserved for Norwegian established professionals.
Yet there is no better time than now to take up the case, to unite forces and – through events like the migration literature week – discuss how Trondheim can become a more inclusive and egalitarian city. We can work together to tackle the challenges many of us face and break down the barriers, especially with support from those of us that have been here longer and experienced some form of success within the existing institutions.
Lack of representation
A clear thread throughout the event was the struggles with misrepresentation. Even for those that have been successful in their work, misrepresentation is a big issue. In the mainstream media for example, immigrants are only represented in around 2% of the stories, and these stories tend to be problem centered, focusing on refugees and asylum seekers, often trying to make a political statement. This is unfortunately a number that has remained constant in the last 10 years, which means that as we grow in numbers, our representation is getting worse. This is not only because the stories about us are few and poorly written, but because the decision makers, the people higher up that advise on what should be represented, are as homogeneous as they has always been.
In 2019 the Norwegian newspaper Klassekampen did research for a story on immigrant representation on the boards of directors for cultural institutions that were funded by the government. The results were staggeringly negative and inspired others to look closer at the topic of representation in Trondheim. Azra Halilovic, a mediator for one of the Migration Literature events, and her podcast co -host, took it upon themselves to investigate the boards of directors for various cultural organizations in Trondheim and found the situation to be just as depressing as in the rest of the country. Only 1 out of 105 board members had a non-western background. I should mention that none of the mainstream newspapers have managed to give a clear answer to Azra’s inquiry; including the question on numbers of employees with immigrant backgrounds.
It is obvious to Norwegians, and perhaps also western immigrants, that being represented by members of advisory boards is important, but I will dare to say that this is not so relevant for non-western immigrants. Most of us have, unfortunately, had a negative relationship with these kinds of institutions in our home countries, because they were often connected to corruption and abuses of power. Perhaps some of us have no relationship at all. All we want is for our art to be exhibited, our music to be showcased, and of course, our books to be published and read, but we are not overly familiar with how Norwegian institutions or for that matter, members of their boards can help us be included.
For most of us lay-people, representation comes down to what you see on TV, in magazines and newspapers at the store, what we read and follow on our social media feeds, and the cultural events that surround us. What happens when we don’t find anything that represents us, nothing that speaks to us and our experience as immigrants in Norway? Where do we turn to then? Do we rebel and move somewhere else where we can be represented? Do we even have that luxury? Do we isolate, depressed for not fitting in, suddenly becoming fundamentalists? Do we create our own, underground culture, creating ghettos for our own people? Or do we try to infiltrate the institutions?
Grassroots movement with institutional support
We can call Trondheim at this moment a grassroots movement with institutional support. Of course, there is much more that can be done, and will be done, but at this moment we can celebrate the collaboration between immigrants who have successfully integrated with institutions while holding onto their roots. What we are trying to do is influence decisions from the inside out, this is especially true for those of us that have access to funding. Immigrants working within the municipality, advocating for other immigrants, as well as immigrants working in the university and other cultural organizations, are the key players in our success. Even though official representation is still low, we are working more and more strategically for the development of our institutions and our society at large. We support other immigrants through our cultural events because we believe in the power of representation.
I have worked for the municipality of Trondheim as the coordinator for Friby-city of refuge for 7 years now. I have been working with and for immigrants and refugees and have studied and researched migration issues all of my adult life. I am a migrant myself, dedicated to advocacy and social justice. As I observed, the struggles that refugee artists and writers face in Trondheim accumulate every time a new writer arrived. Our work grew complicated as we felt more and more like second class inhabitants, constantly asking to be taken seriously. We were inspired by Harstad Kommune, as they became the first Friby for musicians, where various institutions work together to ensure every artist is successful in their integration into the city’s cultural life and can continue their work.
During this time, Gulabuddin Sukhanwar, became an “aspirant” for the Literature House. He was an asylum seeker for many years before he received refugee status in Trondheim and was immediately connected to the Friby writers. He leads the literature for inclusion program, where he has developed the organization in a positive way, giving room for the often unheard immigrant voices to speak. Sukhanwar is a part of the grassroots movement, lending much needed institutional support to participants of, for example, the migration literature week and more. Our collaboration with him has been indispensable in building this movement, and we know that this is just the beginning as we struggle to reach an audience. We often question who we are doing this for when only our closest friends and family show up to our events, but we hope this is a step toward becoming more confident in the skills and resources we have to offer. There is no doubt we have to support each other. It is in our numbers we can find strength to make change.It took a couple of years of convincing Trondheim officials that this was the right way to go, that we needed accountability from other institutions, not just the ones working with refugees. It had to be a politically recognized decision, Trondheim needed an advisory board for its work with exiled writers and last year it was finally established to represent and advocate for the now 6 Friby writers living here. The board has members from the culture department, the city libraries, and the Norwegian writers center, as well as a representative from the writers themselves. This group of people has a shared responsibility to find solutions, to build connections and include the writers in the different cultural arenas they represent. (It is still early to harvest fruits, but we already see some benefits these last couple of months as we received our 6th writer.)
The next step is not yet decided, but I believe this article will contribute to the movement. Institutions are becoming aware of the benefits of having immigrant employees. We are showing how even if we can’t speak perfect Norwegian or understand fully the way advisory boards, or boards of directors work, we need to be given the chance to participate and represent. Azra’s work has opened the eyes of organizations that choose to take on the challenge and change the status quo. Newspapers like Nidaros are showing interest in not only the Friby writers but other immigrants that have valuable points of view to share. We are developing this idea and trying to replicate one of the examples from migration literature week. Nordlig Regnbue in Levanger is a spread published on Saturdays local newspaper, with stories written by newly resettled refugees and immigrant writers. Vardazat Gregryan started this project 20 years ago when he was still an asylum seeker from Armenia. This initiative has done wonders for Levanger, a city also in the Friby network.
We need more stories like these. In a world that seems to be heading towards more misrepresentation and polarization, we need to be aware of the dangerous effects this can have. Not only is unemployment and isolation of large groups a result, but extreme polarization of society can have catastrophic consequences, we have just to turn to other nations of immigrants who at this moment are in deep crisis, to get a glimpse of how bad it can get. Grassroot movements and institutions need to join forces to create an inclusive society that gives space for representation of all populations, all groups in society, even if it is as a preventive measure. I believe Trondheim is being proactive on this matter, joining forces to strengthen representation, to support each other and lift each other up, I am proud to be a part of this.
Adria Scharmen was born and raised in northern Mexico to binational community and public health activist parents. She has lived and studied in the USA, Spain, China, and in Costa Rica, where she received her MA in Peace and Conflict Studies from the UN mandated University for Peace. She has worked throughout these years in the field of advocacy, capacity and community building as well as career and life guidance to migrants and refugees. For the last 7 years, Adria has worked as an advisor and project coordinator for newly resettled refugees in Trondheim.