We speak to Syrians in Norway who have moved 4,000 kilometres from their homes to start new lives
Deep inside the Arctic, this Syrian student is forging a new life
Each dark morning, 22-year-old Salah Arafat from northern Syria dresses himself in warm clothes, leaves his tiny bedsit and trudges out into the ice and snow.
He takes a bus across the quaint city of Tromso, 360 kilometres inside the Arctic Circle, to the Kongsbakken high school, where he often spends up to 12 hours a day. Some days, Arafat engages in idle chat with his fellow students; others, he hardly speaks to anyone, but finds himself listening: to teachers, the bus radio, the conversations of others – all things that have helped him become fluent in Norwegian in his two years in the frozen north.
He says he speaks to his family, 4,000km away in Syria “a couple of times a month”, and sometimes encounters other Syrians on Tromso’s quiet streets. Mostly, though, his days see him with his head buried in textbooks, studying maths, chemistry and physics – all in Norwegian – holding tightly to a dream of carving out a new life for himself.
When his plans to study at Damascus University fell through and ISIL advanced on his hometown, Rmelan, in north-west Syria, Arafat left for Turkey, then Bulgaria. “There was a group of us together when we crossed the border [into Bulgaria], but when the police came, we all scattered. I was alone in the forest for a couple of nights,” he says. “It was terrifying.” The police soon caught him, and he was returned to Turkey. Unperturbed, he crossed the Aegean Sea on a boat to Greece, and continued north, reaching Norway on a ferry from Kiel in Germany to Oslo.
One of the most northerly cities in the world, Tromso, where the sun fails to pass above the horizon for much of winter, is not the first place many refugees expected to find themselves beginning a new life. But come they have; at least 300 Syrians have moved here or been settled by the state since 2015, adding to Tromso’s several-thousand-strong immigrant community. Many have been attracted to Norway by its high standard of living, and in the last three years, authorities processed almost 40,000 asylum applications, the majority by Syrians, which represents a sizeable number for a country of 5.2 million people.
At a latitude farther north than almost all of Alaska, Tromso’s 70,000 inhabitants enjoy pristine fjord systems and mountain hikes that contribute a quality of life that makes Norway one of the wealthiest, happiest countries in the world. The elements, however, are also an inescapable facet of everyday life. Blizzards blow in from the Norwegian Sea at little notice. Popular outdoor activities such as kayaking, cross-country skiing and hiking are alien pastimes to many new immigrants. Arafat and dozens of others find refuge at Tromso’s library, a popular meeting point where he has been able to hone his computer skills. He also reads up on current events in the Kurdish regions of Syria. On Saturdays, he works at a restaurant. He is paid about €1,000 (Dh4,341) a month from the state to help with rent and food, but in a town where a dozen eggs cost €7 and a commuter bus ticket is €5, it doesn’t go far.
Despite or perhaps because of the perceived cultural differences, Norwegian authorities have made integrating immigrants a priority, at a cost of more than €1.7 billion. All the while, residency requirements have tightened. Immigrants applying for permanent residency have to be able to financially support themselves and have to not have claimed social security benefits during the previous 12 months, and pass an oral language exam in Norwegian in addition to completing a 50-hour citizenship course.
These recent restrictions have seen 5,500 mostly Syrian migrants returned to Russia, deemed a “safe country” by Oslo, and a fence built along the border, regardless of the fact that the number of asylum applications are expected to fall to a 20-year low this year. Despite the difficulties, Khalil Wannous from Homs says he is one of the lucky ones. The 28-year-old lawyer was part of columns of refugees crossing from Russia into Norway on bicycles in the past two years. Life in Tromso has meant starting over. “No matter how well I learn the law, no matter how well I can speak the language, a Norwegian customer is going to go to a Norwegian lawyer before me,” he says.
Finding work is something that many Syrians find troubling. “If it’s difficult for inexperienced Norwegian lawyers to find work, it’s twice as hard for me,” Wannous says.
For Arafat, learning Norwegian to the level that has allowed him study at a mainstream school ranks as one of his biggest achievements. “There is a long path ahead for sure,” he says, “but I think it will be worth it in the end.” With that, he bundles up and walks out of the library towards a bus stop. He waits 10 minutes in freezing darkness before a bus whisks him home.