Only four years ago, I was devastated by the piece of paper in my hands. It was a rejection of our application for a living permit in Georgia. I had spent the last two years trying to stay in this neighboring country after I fled my native country, Azerbaijan. At that moment, Georgian immigration services reported to us that it did not suit their interests to extend our living permit there. It meant I could not escape the long arms of the government in my homeland. They had the power to exile me from Georgia, too.
But I did not have any place to go. Even worse, my son, who was born in exile, did not have a passport. The embassy of Azerbaijan told me we had to go back to Azerbaijan to get a passport for my son, but I knew there was already a criminal investigation launched against me. The investigation included twelve other journalists as well, almost all employees of the exiled media channel Meydan.tv, where I used to work.
Our family was in a tight corner and desperately looking for a way out when I received a residency invitation letter from Levanger, Norway. The only thing I remember was that as soon as I learned about the invitation, I asked the member of the organization: “Will it be possible to take my son there without a passport?”
Only a month later, we were on a plane, thanks to the combined efforts of several organizations, namely UN, UDI, and ICORN. When we got on the Amsterdam-Trondheim plane, we met a flight attendant, who gave my son a passport cover with a drawing of a funny big-eyed plane on it. While my son was looking at his new gift, I could not stop the tears from running down my face: my son did not have a passport to put into it.
It was 2016. After just a single day of travel, we went from a quite warm Caucasian climate to a cold Norway. The first thing I remember is confusion of my contact person, Vivi Ann. She had seen me with my long, neatly trimmed hair in my profile photo on Facebook when inviting me to Levanger, Norway. Probably, she expected to see the same woman with long hair. However, I was standing in front of her with a bold shaved hairstyle because, as a result of stress, threats, and the constant danger I had experienced in the last few months, I had to shave my hair to help with my hair loss resulting from that.
The second thing I remember is impoliteness, as well as quite basic and improper recommendations from women in the refugee services in NAV. This disrespect could be seen in every detail: they explained how I should wear my baby and flung my overweight husband’s size in my face.
During the first weeks in Norway, I just wanted to sleep. I never felt safe during my two years in Georgia, where I had taken shelter in the last two years. I would stay awake till dawn and usually only slept for a few hours in the morning when I was sure my neighbors were awake. However, in the first weeks in Norway, refugee services arranged early morning appointments with us, during the hours I was used to sleeping. I was already suffering from sleep deprivation because there was no kindergarten for my three-year-old son yet, so I had to spend all day with him at home.
It took me a year to adapt to Norwegian life and to be honest, I was not really willing to dive in. I was extremely relieved by the fact that I did not understand at all what people were talking about in the streets, shops, and busses because, that way, I couldn’t fill my brain with extra information. I had come to Norway with my own job as an editor in the Azerbaijani media, serving in exile, in addition to cooperating with some other media channels from Georgia and Ukraine. As a part of my job, I was still in the middle of Azerbaijani, Caucasian, and post-soviet agendas. The internet had created a suitable environment for me to keep working as a journalist so that I could easily find respondents on social media, find data by searching online resources, and create multimedia content flawlessly. Managing all those duties required a great deal of time. Therefore, although I was in Norway physically, my time and energy were devoted only to Azerbaijan and the surrounding region.
Although working as a journalist helped me avoid depression, it also prevented me from integrating into Norwegian society as there was no time left over. So, after two years, I paused my journalism career and started to learn Norwegian. My son went to kindergarten, and it became compulsory for me to join the integration program. Indeed, I was not very happy about this obligation at first, but it continued for only a few months.
After learning Norwegian, I got opportunities to integrate into the cultural life of the city I lived in. Film presentations, book discussions, and conversations with art groups in the city art club started to draw my interest. In the meantime, I could understand what was written in the media and became familiar with current affairs in Norway. Even better, as an artist, I started to foster meaningful relationships and network with different organizations, publishers, and press representatives.
Integrating into the daily life of the country I lived in helped me avoid “dissociation”, which means living physically in one country and mentally in another. I am still interested in the current issues in my home country, however, I do not live with the agenda of Azerbaijan anymore. I closely follow issues, namely elections and the ecosystem in Norway now, and I consider this country the homeland of my children.
I feel so lucky to be invited to the city I live in now as a writer because once I arrived here, I got a chance to be introduced to the main figures in the city council, art and culture clubs, and to other artists living here. For me, it is quite easy to build new relationships. As a writer, I am accepted with more warmth than others. Also, I can spend time in the art club, and get acquainted with the journalists in our city newspaper.
Still, cultural differences made me feel very lonely. Unlike the region I was born and raised in, the quite reserved personality of the Norwegian people and their habit of not being acquainted with their neighbors would have been very surprising in our culture, and it makes me feel like a stranger here. One day, by good fortune, I met another immigrant author, Varazdat Grigorian, who came from our neighboring country, Armenia. Locals call this life-loving, positive man Vili. Armenia and my home country, Azerbaijan, have been at war for more than thirty years because of a contested territory called Nagorno-Karabakh. I am also a refugee from that region and spent five years of my childhood in a tented refugee camp. Meeting Vili for the first time, I felt strange, and probably, he shared the same feelings. We were two Caucasians, two journalists, two immigrants, and two “enemies”. If we both had stayed in our home countries, our first meeting would have probably been under completely different circumstances, and we would have had a much poorer relationship.
Being away from our home countries took possible difficulties away. We became two Caucasians, missing Caucasus together and fulfilling our longing for a home together. The hospitable, cheerful, blithe, and communicative personality of Vili warmed my heart in the middle of a harsh Norwegian winter.
Yet integrating into Norwegian society is not easy for other refugees. I can see a huge gap, a major invisible barrier between refugees and Norwegians.I experienced such warm feelings a second time during my first meeting with Roger, the chief editor of our city newspaper. His sense of humour and spirit reminded me of my colleagues that I missed, and I again said to myself: journalists are special nations.
Our home is in the city centre. I am in love with the green three-story historical building, considered the face of Levanger. Our home has three big windows opening to the city centre. On weekend nights, life is much more lively in this regional city. Streets are full of noise, of music. Fast running cars and the laughter of youth are sometimes heard till dusk. Although my neighbors usually complain about it, I like this noise “disturbance” because it reminds me of the cities I lived in once, before being exiled. It is the noise of the lively atmosphere and crazy nightlife in those cities from back home, although as a mother of two young children, I am not able to join in these nights out in Norway.
What I get from these nights is the opportunity to observe the brightening life in the streets, watch drinking, cuddling, laughing and kissing young people, and feel happy for them. There is a bar in front of my window, where a few groups of young people gather on weekend nights, usually Norwegian and international youth separately. They never mix with each other. I have never seen them connecting to each other.
In these four years, I do not think I have ever seen any racist manners here. However, I see another danger almost equal to racism – total carelessness. Unfortunately, cultural differences are not the main reason for that: youth to elders, locals to strangers, achievers to non-achievers – nearly all different parts of society remain careless towards each other, and I have to admit that this is not only a Norwegian issue but also exist across the entire modern, globalized world.
Immigration gave me one more thing that I had never had before – a bit of free time. I devoted this time to the thing that I had wanted to do for five years but could not – I wrote two novels. Just like I do in my journalistic work, I kept balance as an author, too. I published the first novel in my home country because it has local content, but the second one drew attention from one of the publishing houses in Norway, and it is being translated into Norwegian now.
One of the novels is about my childhood and youth as a refugee, our living conditions in the tented refugee camp, and moral degradation that resulted from the misery we experienced in those years. Similarly, war and becoming a refugee is an underlying theme in the “woman stories” I wrote. How does the war reflect on women? Who is the main victim in war, and why do women suffer most as a result of war? The main message in all of my war stories is the same: war means immorality!
I deeply believe I will have a big audience to give my message to, yet I am aware that I can never become a Norwegian author as I cannot write in this language. I have reconciled with this fact and consider myself as “Azerbaijani author based in Norway.” I am inspired by the stories of authors with different ethnicities and languages. I feel certain I will continue my career as an author in Norway.
For those who live away from their home countries, especially those, like me, who do not have a chance to go back, for those who live in exile, as a matter of fact, one of the main duties is to analyse their situation rationally and set their strategy without neglecting reality. Finding logical answers to several questions such as who Norwegian readers are, what they are interested in, and what foreign authors can present to them as individuals from a different nation, society and culture, would all be important for their further career.
For this reason, I am busy learning about the interests of Norwegian readers and working principles with Norwegian publishers.
P.S. My son put his new Norwegian passport into that passport cover with the plane drawing. Indeed, it is a refugee passport for now, but I do not cry anymore when seeing that. The cover fixes onto his passport, and when you look at it, a refugee passport is not noticeable in that cover.
Gunel Movlud was born in 1981 in Azerbaijan. As a pursued Azeri journalist, translator, and poet, she has been living in Norway as an ICORN writer since 2016, where she has won the “Words on Borders” poetry prize in 2017. In 2019, she was published in Aschehoug anthology of refugee poets, To kiss a desert. To kiss a wall. Gunel is a women’s rights activist and writes against violence, oppression, and injustice.