Illegally Norwegian by Maria Amelie, translated by Guy Puzey
To the reader
My name is Maria Amelie. I am twenty-five years old, born in the Caucasus. In the summer of 1997, I fled from the Caucasus to Moscow. In the autumn of 2000, my parents and I travelled on from Moscow to Finland. In February 2002, we arrived in Norway, where I have now lived for over eight years. Altogether I have spent more than half of my life on the run.
‘What were you fleeing from?’ many people ask. I don’t have a good answer. But I know that my parents still feel afraid. I keep quiet and don’t ask any questions. I know that questions can awaken sad and painful memories, cause sleepless nights and bring hideous experiences back to life for them. One thing I know for sure is that they were honest and law-abiding people who tried as well as they could to make a contribution to society. I don’t ask any more than that. That’s why I don’t know it all. And that’s why I can’t explain something I’ve never understood. I was a child when I had to leave the Caucasus. My memories from there, childhood memories, are becoming more and more distant, and less real.
And yet the questions from people around me don’t stop. I often become desperate as I feel how much each question hurts. It seems as if what we were fleeing from means everything, as if that were the only thing that can define me. As if my parents’ past controlled my life and my future.
This book is not the story of what made us flee so far away. I’m not writing about why we’re afraid or why we can’t go back to Russia. I can’t do it!
When, in August 2009, I began to read through my diaries from when we came to Norway, I had many revelations. My life here has been strange, sad, but at the same time an adventure. Most importantly, I realised that there, among all the pages of my diaries, was my story. There was the story I knew better than any, the one that has made me who I am. This was the life for which I could take responsibility myself. It was here in my diaries, and later in my blog and all my small notes, that I found my own words, the ones I wanted to stand up for.
Illegally Norwegian is a book about why I stayed here, how I slowly but surely began to live. This is also a book about everyone who made this possible, who will on the whole be anonymised here.
Through my work on this book, I realised that in Norway I had met systems, rules and regulations that made my world into a brutal place, a place where I didn’t really exist. But in Norway I also met people, friends who helped me to feel, to understand what love for a place could be, to discover what ‘home’ was. That’s how I came to see who I was and how I could believe in myself. I found out that I was a person who had a voice on the same level as others, the right to a life.
I would therefore like to thank the Norwegian Immigration Appeals Board (UNE) and the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration (UDI) for the impossible challenges that have come my way, and I dedicate this book to my parents and to people in Norway who have helped me to live in spite of these challenges.
8th February 2002
We’ve got into our old Opel. I can feel the lump in my throat, my eyes burning, but no tears coming out. It’s not the first time I’ve left a place I love, left my friends and a growing sense of belonging. One thought pounds away in my head: I will not cry.
The old car rattles away, overloaded with everything we own. White snow blends into the white sky, and the horizon makes a barely visible line somewhere far off. No cars and no people. I sit in the car with Mum and Dad. Dad drives, with Mum in the front seat almost unconscious, and distant.
Over the course of several years on the run, we’ve travelled many thousands of miles through several countries. We’ve travelled from place to place in the Caucasus, in Moscow and in Finland. Our passports are still with the Finnish immigration authorities. After sixteen months, they gave us a deadline to return to Russia, which would be tantamount to lying down on the ground and dying. Driving illegally across the border from Finland to Norway means making the right choice in a mad situation. Mum folds out the map of Scandinavia, tracing the route to Norway with her index finger. Mum and Dad decide that we won’t drive through Sweden. There should be a limit to how many borders we cross illegally.
It’s February, and I shiver in the cold. It’s about a thousand kilometres to the Norwegian border. A song fills the car from the radio: ‘We’re one, but we’re not the same. We get to carry each other, carry each other.’ It’s U2. With my whole body, I feel that I’m never going to forget this moment, this song, and this feeling of powerlessness and indifference. But I won’t cry; whatever it takes I will not let myself cry. Not a single tear will roll down my cheeks, making moon paths along my face. Be strong!
We drive on and on and on. Mum and Dad are talking quietly in the front, I’m not listening. They’ve surely got a lump in their throats too. Beyond the car window there’s the night, a flat landscape, February, snow, fields and roads.
My head is a complete chaos of words, fragments, images, dreams: the last evening at our house, the looks. I hold the pictures from my summer camp in my lap. I look at the picture of him, the one I was so in love with from afar, and I have to smile to myself. I was care-free then.
My eyes become heavy, my eyelids begin to droop, the exhaustion of a mad day eating away at me. I disappear into the endless depths of sleep.
I wake up again around two o’ clock at night. We’re at a petrol station in Oulu, and drunk kids are standing right next to our car. I want to forget where I am. Pretend that I’m having a bad dream.
We stay the night in a motel in Oulu.
9th February 2002
We’re getting closer to the Norwegian border. The white snow still blends into the sky, and the landscape looks empty and void of life. The few houses and petrol stations we drive past look cold, sinister and lonely. The car is in a bad way, and Dad’s greatest fear is that it might give up here, in the middle of the wilds. It’s even worse to think about than the border we’ll soon be crossing illegally. Who would help us here?
I don’t have the energy to be upset. I can’t be bothered to ask all the questions about why we’re actually doing this. I don’t have the strength to talk. I try to ask myself how I ended up here, but I feel that I’m filled with indifference. I feel everything and nothing at the same time. I try to dig down to some feelings, but in the end I just can’t give a damn about it. What else can we do, really, than make our way to a border? If we’d stayed in Finland, we would’ve been deported to Russia. I understand that we couldn’t do that, that it would’ve been the same as giving up living, being sent back to Russia to die. I’ve realised that for a long time. Mum and Dad didn’t want to talk about it, and I didn’t want to ask. It was enough to see the fear and despair in their eyes: that fear that had been there so long.
It’s night, and the only light comes from the snow. We are approaching the border post. My heart beats faster the closer we get.
We’re driving through! We’re in Norway! And just to make sure we believe it, there’s a sign: ‘Norge’.
I peep behind us to check if anyone’s following us. Can it really be that easy? We drive so many miles without meeting a single car, just the wintry darkness. We’re really in Norway!
I stare out of the window in bewilderment. The landscape has changed so quickly: now it’s shockingly beautiful. Mountains, mountains, mountains, tall mountains! Just like at home in the Caucasus! I turn around in the car restlessly, looking up and down and right and left and out the rear window. Finally I can see mountains again, mountains that have been part of my life since I was born. There was nothing like this in Moscow. Nor in Finland. Extraordinary, majestic mountains!
A few miles on, we can even see water. I think about how I’ve always dreamt of living in a place where there are both mountains and the sea…
‘And love is not the easy thing, the only baggage you can bring is all that you can’t leave behind.’ It’s one of my favourite songs, and now I finally understand what it means. Norway is ‘a place none of us has been, a place that has to be believed to be seen…’ Nobody told me that the mountains here were so beautiful. I’m suddenly sitting in the car with a feeling of having come home. It’s so odd, because I’ve really stopped wondering what it means to be home. I thought I’d forgotten what feeling ‘at home’ was actually like. I can feel the goose bumps coming on, I want to reach out my hands and touch the mountains, breathe in the fresh air and embrace it all, not to let go of this strange feeling in my body.
We’re heading for a city called Tromsø. There are about a hundred kilometres to go, and Dad’s tired. We drive a little more and stop at an old camping site. Mum and Dad check us in at the reception with the couple who run the site. They talk loudly in a language that sounds like distorted Swedish, in a dialect that makes it completely impossible to understand. I try to avoid their gaze. What if they realise we’re on the run? What if they call the police?
Frozen and tired after our long drive, we get to hire a small wooden cabin near the camping site itself. Three beds are squeezed into the room there, and it’s ice-cold. The last few days have been so exhausting, so crazy. I fall asleep. To go to sleep feels like salvation this evening, as if our problems become smaller if we just shut our eyes and pull the duvet over our heads.
I am woken up in the night at five o’ clock by the intolerable heat. We turned on all the heaters before we went to bed. I just want to go back to sleep – sleep, sleep, sleep – and forget about everything.
10th February 2002
It feels as if someone has beaten me up. But as soon as I breathe in the morning air outside the cabin and look up, I forget the discomfort of the night before. The sun is rising, and the fantastically beautiful mountains are now revealing themselves in the warm morning light. The cold doesn’t feel so biting and brutal any more. I brush away thoughts of mountains. Norway’s not going to be a country we travel to in order to start a new life. We tried that with so much optimism in Finland, and we were left broken-hearted. We’ll be moving on after a short stop in Norway.
I’m so afraid. I don’t want to be a refugee any more, I want to have a passport and a citizenship. I want to have a life! I’m not afraid of starting everything afresh, learning another language, meeting new people in a new country. That’s a piece of cake! But I am so afraid that, after Norway, we’ll have to go to Sweden, and after Sweden to the next country. That we’re going to be refused and given a deadline to leave wherever we go, that we’ll have to go from country to country and will never be allowed to stay anywhere.
We say goodbye to the couple in the reception, and two hours later we drive into Tromsø. All we have is a fading hope for a solution. The people on the streets turn and look at our car. A police car drives past, and I just want to duck down beneath the seat and hide.
Finally we find our way to the church that our support group in Finland has suggested we should approach. Dad decides to wait in the car. He doesn’t want to come in; he’s scared of all the curious looks that would be directed towards him just because he has darker skin and is very tanned. I keep quiet.
In the church, there’s something that looks like a baptism going on.
‘Maybe we should go out and wait outside?’ I say.
I feel uncertain of whether we’re allowed to be here and watch. But Mum is determined to wait here until it’s finished and talk to the priest.
I start to feel unwell. I’m wearing dirty jeans among these smartly dressed people who are singing, and I can see the little baby crying amid the lavish surroundings of the church. I look at the people around me and am completely spellbound by a boy who’s singing so beautifully. But he looks very sickly and pale and has his eyes closed. I don’t know if I can bear this, I just want to get up and run out the door. Some of the people around me look like my friends from Finland, and I wonder if they’re related. Others look so strange and sinister. The cold, silent ambience of the church. Some cast suspicious glances at us. I just want to get away, back to my room in Finland.
‘Hello, we are refuges and we just need someone to talk to. Our friends in Finland said that maybe you could help somehow?’ Mum says, in English. Finally we get a chance to speak with the priest. But he only says that he can’t help us and that we must leave immediately. Mum just keeps on speaking. I can see she’s becoming desperate, and I see that she’s trying to stay composed.
The priest can’t give a shit about us, I think to myself. He tries to get away from Mum, moving quickly away from her several times, but Mum doesn’t give up. He doesn’t even want to listen to us. It’s embarrassing, and I try to pull her away from the priest. I try to tell her that it’s not worth it, just forget about him. I can’t watch this – it hurts! Mum’s eyes and words are insistent, but the priest seems so cold and unsympathetic.
He eventually shoves a piece of paper into Mum’s hand, with the telephone number of a lady who works with refugees. Perhaps there’s hope yet, but I can’t believe this number can be real.
We leave the church and drive for several hours, looking out for a camping site where we can stop for the night. Later in the evening, we’re in a camping hut. From there, we dial up the number on the piece of paper.
The phone number actually does belong to a woman, called Tone. Tone has long hair, no make-up, glasses with transparent frames, a strong and loud voice, plain clothes and great charisma. When we meet her this evening, it’s fantastic to speak with her and hear her questions, which help Mum and Dad to think clearly and sensibly. Tone listens. She cares!
Tone is hope, light at the end of the tunnel. She calls some friends and finds a place we can stay, with a friendly young man, who I find fascinating because he’s got such long eyelashes. He’s so calm and sits there talking with us for many hours. While the grown-ups discuss what to do, I dream my way back to Finland. I open my diary and read the first sentence. ‘Life tastes good!’ written in big, pink joined-up writing. It also says ‘Hi! Today is the first of January 2002, and I’m starting this diary. I hope lots will happen in this new year, and I believe that there will be something positive!’
I don’t want to read what I wrote while I was living in Finland, but I can’t help it. As I read through it, it feels like being spat upon by my own diary. ‘You’re so stupid,’ I think to myself. It’s only been a month since I wrote this. Now it’s February 2002, and I don’t even know if I have a life. I read further to see what I wrote on 21st January. That was less than three weeks ago! ‘Oh I want it to be summer! I want to get fantastically good grades! I want him (you know who) to talk to me at school! I want to get top marks in the biology test! I want to go to the summer camp, I want all the snow to disappear, I want my seventeenth birthday to come soon! I want it to be 1st February so that the youth club will finally be open again! I want to go to upper secondary in Vaasa and read books and learn about the thoughts of many great world figures! I want to lie on the beach and hear the sound of the waves and dare myself to dive from the ten-metre platform again! I want to have a fantastic Valentine’s Day! I want to have fun! I wish I had a magic wand! Oh, I love my life right now! I really hope that it won’t get worse, even if I would sometimes like to lift up the curtain of uncertainly and of the unknown just a little to peek behind it for a second, into the future!’
I close my eyes and think back to my last day in Finland.
On Friday 8th February I came back from school. Mum and Dad caught me by surprise with the news that we were going to flee. I opened my mouth, gaped at them and sat down. I did know that we would have to flee, the rejection had come and we had our deadline to leave, but that it had to happen so soon, already… I started to pack the most important things straight away. Diaries, presents from friends, CDs, clothes, birthday cards: I was going to take all these things with me, and the rest could just be thrown away. Soon we would be starting a new life. I didn’t feel any regret, no tears, no sorrow, I just smiled distantly.
Mum said that I still had a little time, so I could pop down to the youth club. ‘What a relief!’ I thought. We normally fled so quickly that I never had a chance to say goodbye to anyone. Now I could be together with my friends before we disappeared. Nobody suspected anything at all, it was a fun evening, an evening like all the others in any other life, but not in mine, I wasn’t like other sixteen-year-olds. I cast stolen glances at him, the one I’d been secretly in love with for half a year. He was holding his new girlfriend and laughing cheerfully and unworried.
I gave my best friend, Live, a heart-shaped brooch and a card, since it would soon be Valentine’s Day, or what they in Finland call Friends’ Day. She was in an exceptionally good mood and hugged me many times. I plaited her hair and got stomach-ache from laughing so much. But inside, I felt sad. Now I finally had a good friend, and then I had to leave again. I looked across at the door the whole time, and every time someone came in, I became ice-cold inside. I knew that Mum could come any moment to say ‘we’re going’. Live and I went to the bar together, which Dad had built for the youth club. Behind it were my two other close friends, Maj and Tina. When they saw me, they threw themselves around me and hugged me tight. I think they’d maybe guessed that we were going. Maj looked at me. ‘Sorry…’ she said. I hushed her, hugged her again as hard as I could, kissed her on the cheek and turned quickly. Nobody was going to see me cry. Nobody was going to suspect anything about what I was feeling.
I ran backwards and forwards, changing CDs and talking with everyone, but when I had forgotten myself for a moment and by chance walked over to the window, I saw my parents and someone from our support group. I became stiff, and everything became dark for me. When I saw them starting to move towards the club building, I thought ‘it’s all over’. Slowly but surely, I walked further and further away from the door.
These are my thoughts as I sit on the sofa here in Tromsø. I can’t take my eyes off the beautiful view of the mountains and the lights from other people’s houses, other people’s lives. It strikes me that our appreciation of beauty is always enhanced by our difficult life. It’s as if our rootlessness accentuates everything we feel, turning things up to the extreme – and making every day unique.
Every time I close my eyes, I can see Maj’s penetrating look from that last evening in Finland. It felt as if her gaze had impaled me right through the heart. As if her gaze were reality.
‘I’ve got to go now.’ I tried to say it quickly and quietly.
‘Yes,’ I answered, knowing that I was never coming back. I hugged Live and told a lie that we were going to have guests. I didn’t want to say that we were leaving Finland; I wouldn’t have been able to cope with her reaction. It was better for her not to know anything.
I sit writing inconsolable sentences in my diary and think back to the journey we went through only a few days ago. Mum was so absent in the car. She had taken a quarter of a tranquilliser pill the doctor had prescribed. The thought that we would be breaking the law and driving over the border made her feel physically ill. She had a kind of allergic reaction to the pill, and it seemed as if she wasn’t there, that she had gone into a sort of unconscious state.
Oh, Finland! Mum and Dad had been so naïve and idealistic when we came there from Russia. They believed so much in the West, where they went on about human rights. I had also hoped that our life would finally be better and easier.
When we came to Finland in 2000 to seek asylum, Mum and Dad believed in the system, in the promises of personal treatment, that all the information we presented would be checked and confirmed. But Mum and Dad had also been terrified every single day of the sixteen months we lived there, because of what little they had explained at the asylum interview with the Finnish Directorate of Immigration. And because they had given our real names. It was all so transparent, we could be traced so easily by those who were looking for us in Russia. Mum and Dad were gambling with our lives because they had to tell the truth, and because they hoped that would give us safety. But what if the immigration authorities were careless when they were checking these details with someone from our home country? What if, by mistake or by chance, they exposed us to someone who wished us harm and who also knew who my parents were? It could spread to so many people so easily, and especially to those who mustn’t know where we were. Then we wouldn’t be safe anywhere in Europe. ‘Everything is confidential,’ the Finnish authorities told my parents, but they didn’t believe it. In theory, anyone could bribe or threaten the authorities’ informants to get hold of more information, Mum and Dad thought. Nobody would care about confidentiality then, but would instead think of their own life.
Mum and Dad had held their breath throughout our sixteen months in Finland, hoping so dearly for the best, while at the same time so dishearteningly afraid. Dad woke up at five o’ clock every morning and sat in his little workshop at the asylum seekers’ reception centre. His door led straight onto the main road, and he shuddered at the thought that the past could come driving along at any time.
‘If they check everything about us and manage to keep it confidential, we’re guaranteed to be given leave to remain.’ That was what he and Mum concluded every time they discussed it.
Mum and Dad really wanted to start a new life in Finland, and they wanted to show how strong this desire was. They wanted to show their gratitude for this possibility. They wanted to adapt and to become a part of the country, learn the culture and the language, get a job and make a contribution to society.
After all, we had planned out our lives again, our whole future. Of course, we weren’t just going to sit and wait for our residence permits to fall into our laps. Dad had been offered permanent employment in a boatyard, but that meant nothing. Neither did Mum’s experience at the nursery school nor the voluntary work they’d both done in a tourist shop. Nor how quickly all three of us had learnt the Finnish language.
The local council, which was so unaccustomed to foreigners, liked Mum and Dad, and they invited them to a meeting to plan further business in our village. When Mum made a dinner with sixteen different dishes for seventy people, she was told by the bank that she would be welcome to apply for a loan to open a restaurant as soon as she received her residence permit.
I had been looking forward to upper secondary school and had already decided which subjects I would take. The other asylum seekers at the reception centre called us idiots and wondered why we thought we would get residence permits. They were being realistic, I now realise. They knew that almost nobody from Russia was given leave to remain, no matter what robust and unhappy case they had.
I was crushed when we received our first rejection. With the date we were given to leave the country, reality hit. Hadn’t they checked any of our information with our home country? And how could they throw us out when we’d become so integrated?
‘Shit,’ I thought, and wrote it in my diary. ‘Life is shit!’
We were so busy when we left Russia. I did know then that we were fleeing, that we weren’t going on holiday. We had neither the time to plan nor strength to think, so we went for Finland, the country to which it took the shortest time to get a visa. During the month we were waiting for our visa, we almost never left our flat. Mum and Dad just waited, hoping that nothing would happen to us. I watched lots of films, wrote my diary as usual and dreamt of being in a world where things were simple, where I wasn’t afraid, and where I could foresee what would happen the next day.
While I was living in Finland, I didn’t miss Russia for a second. I didn’t think that there was life before Finland. It was really in Finland that my life began, and everything that had happened before was just a bad dream. I didn’t miss the language either. Friends and relatives meant nothing. I had finished with Russia. Now, in Norway, it hurts me more that we have left Finland than that we left Russia. Those sixteen months with a life in which I had freedom and wasn’t afraid were worth more than fifteen years in Russia.
I despise myself for having shown feelings and having become attached to Finland and to life there, because now it hurts too much. Every single second and minute, every single day, all those months in Finland, that’s all wasted now. I feel myself gritting my teeth. My temper is boiling, and I clench my fists to try and control all my feelings. Nobody! Nobody told us that the asylum system was so brutal, that nobody cared or could help us. I hate everything and I hate myself for having grown fond of Finland. What are we going to do? Why do I have to experience this, what have I done wrong?
Sitting in Tromsø, I swear to myself that, if we do seek asylum in Norway, then I won’t lift a finger to learn the language. I won’t commit myself to anything; I’ll be cold and won’t become attached to friends or people. I won’t grow fond of places or turn them into colourful memories, I won’t be moved or let myself become so vulnerable again. I know that from now on I have to be strong, never crying, never showing what I feel. And there will never be anyone who can understand.
I miss Finland. Mum is just falling apart even more.
I flick through our papers from Finland, reading over and over the definition of what it means to be a refugee. ‘A refugee is a person who owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of their nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail him/herself of the protection of that country.’ I read it, and I can’t understand why what it says here doesn’t apply to us. We are people too, after all, and we are indeed afraid and persecuted, and we deserve the right to have a life. Mum and Dad probably think I’m very naïve as I read it to them out loud. Maybe it really is childish to believe in human rights.
Based on what I know, the conversations I hear between Mum and Dad, and the terror I can see in them every day, I know that this is to do with fear.
Now, while they’re discussing the situation with Tone, I hear things that I’ve never heard before, things I’ve been shielded from. For example, that Dad slept with a gun under his pillow in the Caucasus, that someone had thrown a bomb at our house after I had been sent to Moscow, and that it had caused a large explosion, or that when they approached the police or the courts, Mum and Dad were just told that it was hopeless.
Yesterday evening, Tone came back quite late. I pretended that I was sleeping as I lay in my sleeping bag, hidden behind a bookshelf in the living room, listening to the grown-ups speaking. The outline of our situation is beginning to become clear. We can’t go back to Finland: that would mean deportation straight to Russia. If we seek asylum in Norway, our chances of getting a residence permit are almost nil. We would be sent directly to Finland because of the Dublin Convention, as we have already sought asylum in an EU country, and our passports and visas are there. After that we would be sent straight to Russia. Our chances are a little better if we report to the police under false names and with a fabricated story of how we came to Norway directly from Russia. That would also help us to gain some time. But this wouldn’t get us residency in Norway either, because they would eventually find our fingerprints in the European database. As soon as they’re identified and they find out that we came from Finland, we could be returned there just like that. Because we’ve already been in another country, we can’t apply for work permits or get legal employment in Norway either. It is a circle in which the exits are an invisible door or nothing, or at least there’s no legal exit.
I lay in my sleeping bag listening to Tone explain to my parents that if they spoke about our stay in Finland, the chances were very great that we would be sent back there, and from there on to Russia. At the same time, she said that my parents should tell absolutely everything, the whole truth, just as they had told it to her.
The more I listened, the more I realised that we were in an impossible situation. What were the chances that someone in the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration would take us seriously, when the Finnish Directorate of Immigration just gave us a rejection like other asylum seekers from Russia? And how cool would it be to tell the truth and then be put on the first flight towards death in Russia? What was the point of the truth if nobody listened anyway, if it could kill us?
Staying illegally was also discussed, staying without reporting to the police or seeking asylum. But how can you live illegally in a country with an unfamiliar culture, without a network, in fear for your own life twenty-four hours a day, how can you even dare to go out of your house then?
‘No. We’ll try to take the legal route first, try all we can. We can’t sink so low as to live here as illegal immigrants,’ said Mum. And Dad agreed.
Mum sat in silence for a moment. Then she began to speak slowly in a surprisingly calm voice.
‘What if we go to Russia and leave our daughter to seek asylum in Norway?’
I became completely stiff, motionless. I almost couldn’t believe what I was hearing. They all started to discuss it. Mum thought that it would be best to leave immediately, while I was asleep. Then she became hysterical and started to speak in a stifled voice. ‘If this is the only solution that can make life better and make her happier, then we’ve got to do it now, straight away, just get in the car and drive.’ I was lying in my sleeping bag a few feet away with my eyes open. ‘How can they just vanish from my life now,’ I thought despondently. ‘How can they go through with it?’
Dad interrupted her and said that it would be better if he left alone, if he sacrificed his life so that we could lead a normal life. I was petrified, really scared to death.
Now I couldn’t pretend that I was sleeping any more. I crept out of my sleeping bag, ran over to them and begged them to come to their senses. ‘You’re crazy, both of you! How can you even say something like that?’ I must have seemed at least as hysterical as they were, but I couldn’t cry. In Mum’s eyes I could see desperation, hopelessness. I saw that she was tired of this hellish life.
Mum told me harshly to go back to bed, and Dad tried to convince me that they weren’t going to leave me. I just became even more scared and I refused. I didn’t believe them. In the state they were in then, I knew that if I closed my eyes, they could disappear out of my life. I decided not to sleep, and not to cry either, because it didn’t seem that tears would help much.
This morning I was still scared that they would disappear. It terrified me to see how far Mum and Dad were prepared to go – for me. They would sacrifice themselves so that I would be safe. If someone had asked Mum to drink poison so that I could have a normal life, then she would’ve done it without a second’s thought. I know that Mum has been so strong all her life, and I admire her for it. But now I’m frightened that she may go mad.
Over the course of the day, Mum and Dad have decided that we will give ourselves up to the police, all of us, then we’ll start to save up to go to Canada or to find other solutions. But we can’t take the chance of telling the police the truth about how we came to Norway. What if we’re sent to Finland straight away, which is almost one hundred per cent certain? We’re risking our lives, literally our lives.
Mum and Dad disagree with each other. While they thought I was listening to music on my headphones, Dad said to Mum: ‘She might die’. He looked in my direction. ‘If we tell the truth to the police when we give ourselves up, it’ll be straight back to Russia, and we’ll all die.’ Mum hid her face in her hands and shook her head, like mentally disturbed people do in films.
Our landlord encouraged Mum and Dad to prepare themselves for the police’s questioning, then he would make us dinner. To our great surprise, he managed it! Neither Mum nor Dad can understand how Norwegian men can be so good in the home, managing to look after their children, make food and keep the flat in good order.
At the police station we’ll be given a short interview. Mum and Dad have to invent a story that we’ve come here on a lorry from Murmansk a few hours ago, and that we don’t have any passports or papers because we were smuggled in. If their stories don’t square with each other, it might arouse suspicion. We’ll have to get rid of our things and our car, and go through all our pockets because the police will search through all our baggage. Even the smallest detail, a receipt or Finnish money, could expose us.
I feel empty and indifferent, I’m only a body in dirty jeans and a thick woollen jumper with a diary, and my thoughts fly around my head like meteors. I have no faith in the world or in justice any more, I can’t smile, laugh or cry, I don’t want to try to understand what’s going on around me.
I think about where we’ll be in a month’s or a year’s time. I’m used to living without knowing what the next day will bring. Once more I think about my classmates in Finland. Some of them were planning to travel to other countries in Europe to study. I’m not even jealous; going to the police and carrying on my life as an asylum seeker is my way, and that’s just the way things are. Even if I really don’t want to do it. I just want to glue myself fast to this chair.
But I know that I must keep on writing the details of our journey in my diary. It’s strange to describe everything so concretely. Until now, my diary’s been about the boys I liked. But now I know that a new era of my life has begun. I know that one day I will flick through the pages and read about this trip again and again. I know that one day I will come back to these notes and find a meaning in it all. Because there’s got to be a meaning in it all. There has to be. Or else…
This evening, the whole family’s come up with new first names and a new surname.
I want to be Maria.
Becoming an asylum seeker
16th February 2002, Tromsø
‘Hello. We are refugees and we are asking for asylum.’
I say these words calmly in English to the policeman behind the desk at the station in Tromsø. It’s early on Friday morning.
Mum feels unwell and has to sit down quickly on the sofa in the reception. She’s having trouble breathing, and one of her arms is completely paralysed.
Dad gives his statement while I wait together with Mum in the reception. Good God, why can’t things be easier? I just want to scream at the whole world. There are just problems, problems, problems all the time, and you can never breathe easy and just carry on with your existence. It’s scary that Dad’s got to lie about Finland and tell them that we came straight from Russia to Norway. I sit on the sofa in reception, thinking that we’re making a massive mistake, that we’re being drawn into a vicious circle with no way out. But it’s too late to turn back anyway.
After two hours at the police station, a policeman drives us to the same camping site where we stayed after our unsuccessful meeting with the priest. It’s an absurd coincidence.
18th February 2002
I’ve been staring at the TV all day. I can feel the hate throughout my body, in all my fingertips. I’m dreading the whole asylum-seeking process.
We don’t dare move outside of our cabin. Mum and Dad are very anxious. All it would take would be for an employee to see us, recognise us and tell the police that we were here a week ago. Then our story and timeline would lose all their credibility and we’d risk prison or deportation. We don’t have enough food, and it’s cold. To do the shopping or to do anything at all, we would of course have to go out. Luckily, Dad is a little more active than Mum or me. Yesterday he went out after it had become completely dark, he went to someone he met last week, and came back with some bread and tinned food.
Tomorrow we’re going to be sent to Oslo. I’ll have to give my fingerprints there. That first happened in Finland almost a year and a half ago. Why do I have to go through that again? I know that Mum thought it was unbearable to give them our fingerprints: she saw it like a fall, a symbolic fall. I feel like a criminal.
Mum and Dad are having an awful time. I can see that. So I won’t say anything about how I feel. What’s the point of complaining? They already feel too much responsibility for me. It would just be childish to whine. I’ll have to grit my teeth and just put up with it.
19th February 2002
Now we’re in Lysaker, at a transit reception centre. We came here late this evening. A tall, broad-shouldered man led us to the room where we’re going to stay. We went in behind a tall gate; I could see a large yard at the back and some wide steps. There were several people standing on the steps, just hanging around and shouting at each other. The seconds we spent going up those steps were horrible. I could feel it physically: curious, rude and obtrusive, disgusting looks. They were like a pack of hyenas just waiting for the guard to leave so that they could attack us. Hyenas, that was how I saw them, white teeth gleaming at us in the dark and screaming at ‘the new ones’. The air was heavy and suffocating. I felt that I had ended up in a dark city district surrounded by criminals, a place in London or New York where lawlessness ruled. I became aware that I wasn’t prepared for what would meet us in Norway. I walked as close to Mum and Dad as possible. ‘Can’t this stop soon?’ I thought. ‘Please, please!’
This morning we took a flight to Oslo. I thought it was both embarrassing and funny to fly without passports and with the police in tow. They spoke with the staff at the airport, gave them some documents and said that we would be met in Oslo. I tried to avoid the curious glances of the people who were heading south to Oslo on the same flight. What were they thinking about us? Did they think we had done something wrong, since the police were accompanying us?
I have no idea what’s going to happen to us tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, the day after that, or the next day after that. The future is really completely blank, and all this writing in my diary isn’t giving me any answers anyway. I am really quite calm. I think life is a piece of shit, but fantastic at the same time. I can’t take being angry any more. Haven’t got the strength left. I’m hoping for the best. But I can see that Mum has entered a deep depression.
From the airport, we were driven to the Red Cross in Oslo in a minivan together with many other asylum seekers. I got to sit in the front of the car, next to the driver, and I looked out the window at the streets of Oslo in the sunshine. Oslo looked pretty and quite small compared to other capitals. I imagined how nice it would be to go to school in the centre of this city. People were walking about everywhere in the sunshine, Norwegians, so self-confident of everything in their lives. I wanted so much to be there, on the other side. ‘What do they know about us?’ I thought to myself. Loads of people coming to their country, refugees coming here every day.
At the Red Cross we waited for six hours to get registered. I was tired and hungry and just dreamt of lying down in a bed and sleeping. The waiting room was filled with asylum seekers of all shapes and colours: from Iraq, Iran, Bosnia, Russia and Africa. I didn’t want to look at any of them. Mum sat in a chair, completely absent, exhausted and practically unconscious, with her legs up on her suitcase. Dad was constantly stressed and thought we had been forgotten in the queue. Again, I thought that I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I shouldn’t have been here, this isn’t my life. Instead of all this, I should’ve been running around to training sessions and having hobbies, sitting with friends at cafés, talking about the boys that I liked. I shouldn’t have been sitting here, waiting for something that didn’t feel right, for a chance that wouldn’t be anything more than yet another waste of time.
Finally it was our turn. An employee took pictures of us for our temporary asylum ID. Mum looked like she had been drugged, her eyes were listless and distant, the corners of her mouth were drooping far down, her hair was tousled and grey. Neither Dad nor I looked much better. I was pale, with a very puffy face and a completely empty gaze. They took our fingerprints. The system was better here than in Finland. Everything was scanned straight into the computer instead of using ink and paper. I just had to let the friendly man press every single one of my fingers against an electronic screen and try not to pass comment on this new technology. I said nothing and pretended that I had never had my fingerprints taken before.
The whole time, I sat thinking about how it had felt having my fingerprints taken for the first time in Finland. The policemen there were so disparaging to us. First they interrogated the three of us for so long that I saw tears in Dad’s eyes for the first time. They stopped when Mum began to sob hysterically because she couldn’t take any more. Eventually, when one of the policemen was going to take my prints, I just laughed. He looked at me strangely. I just smiled some more. ‘Good God,’ I thought, ‘is this really my life, is this really me?’ I asked him if he also took the fingerprints of small children, which I instantly regretted when he looked at me as if I were retarded. ‘Yes, of course,’ he said. ‘They’re asylum seekers too, of course,’ he added. I scrubbed my hands for a long time afterwards to get rid of the ink.
When we had finally finished at the Red Cross, an employee came with three large bags for us. He smiled and said that here was everything we needed to start with. I peeked into the bag and liked the contents. It was considerate of them to give us new bedclothes, shoes and tracksuits, and some plates and pans.
In our room here at Lysaker there are some beds and, behind a frayed curtain, a large window looking onto the yard. We’ve unpacked the duvets and bedclothes from the bags we were given by the Red Cross. We’ve already been to the kitchen to make some tea. Mum saw that all the men were staring at me. ‘Look how much male attention you get here,’ she said, like a little joke amid all the seriousness. But then she realised that I shouldn’t go alone to the toilet, to the kitchen or outside to get fresh air.
When we were going to bed, a woman came running out into the corridor from the neighbouring room. She was shouting that someone had stolen her purse and mobile while she was out of her room for five minutes. There was a young child in her room, but that had clearly not stopped the thief. So now Mum and Dad are even more nervous. We agreed to lock the door every time we go out, and preferably one of us should always stay in the room. The same woman explained that, just before we arrived, there had been a fight between two different gangs from the reception centre.
21st February 2002
There are a great many men here and a few women with children. I think the women and the children mainly sit in their rooms, not daring to go out. People are tense, almost nobody smiles, and people glare at each other, being careful the whole time of what they say and do so as not to get into trouble.
We’ve been at Lysaker for three days, and today I’m overjoyed that we’re leaving. People are being robbed the whole time here. The centre is dirty and dark. The doors to the toilets and to the dirty showers are broken and can’t be locked, so you’ve always got to go in pairs with one to keep an eye out. A number of the bulbs have blown, and they don’t replace them. The toilet’s been blocked several times. The showers are communal for men and women and it looks as if they’ve never been washed, there’s filth absolutely everywhere, and the shower curtains are old and worn.
Yesterday, Mum bumped into a naked man who hadn’t even tried to lock the door or close the shower curtain. Half-naked men walk along the corridor. Tawdry women wearing fairly transparent bathrobes. People turn to look at me the whole time, and I’m getting so angry with those looks that I’m not far off hitting them. I’m a normal girl, why should I be looked upon as a sex object by horny men licking their lips? There are some girls my age here, but I can’t see that I have anything in common with them. I think they seem so incredibly cheap, throwing their long hair backwards and forwards, laughing out loud and wearing tight-fitting clothes that scream of a lack of sexual satisfaction. The three days we’ve been here, I’ve thanked God every evening that Mum and Dad didn’t let me go through this alone. I would’ve gone mad.
Now Mum, Dad and I are waiting for our medical. All the asylum seekers walk in an endless column from a cold, bright room to another room where various doctors sit to give us our check-ups. We’re even tested for tuberculosis and HIV.
I wait for Mum and Dad to finish their check-ups, sitting on the step with my diary. Soon a bus will be coming to drive us all back to Lysaker. I look at the people around me, and I hate them all so intensely. I try to guess which of them are ‘genuine’ and which are ‘career’ refugees. Do refugees by profession really exist? The rumours I heard at the reception centre in Finland, and now in Lysaker, confirm that they do. I detest these refugees by profession. They travel through Europe, seeking asylum everywhere, getting rejected and then travelling on. They get to see new places and meet new people, and each time they come up with a new name. When they’re asked if they have passports or any ID, they just shrug and say ‘no’ with innocent eyes. They surely make up new stories for every new country. Since it takes some time to find their fingerprints in the databases, they can stay for a while at a reception centre, be given money and a roof over their heads, and plan their next trip. Some of them definitely come here to steal or to work on the black market and send money to relatives back home, to give birth to children and get medical assistance.
Those who are here are from Iraq, Kurdistan, Turkey, Algeria, Somalia, Russia, Libya, Uganda, Eritrea, Albania, Bosnia, Iran – maybe even from more countries. I’m convinced that many of them are refugees by profession. Some surely have good reasons to be allowed to stay, but I actually think we are the ones with the best arguments to get a residence permit. I hate it that we’ve ended up in the same boat as these people who are just here to steal and save money to send home to their relatives, or who are going to get married to get residency. You can’t trust any of them who say that they’re fleeing from problems in their home countries. They’re definitely shameless adventurers. Their stories make me sick. I heard some of them comparing experiences and saying that in Denmark they lived in a completely awful centre far away from any kind of civilisation, and that the starting pack you were given in Norway with pans, tracksuit and nice bedclothes was the best they had seen.
I’m terrified of becoming a career asylum seeker. Maybe you get used to this nomadic existence? Will I turn into one of them? I’m already starting to notice my own indifference. I don’t want to go mad, and that’s why it’s better to keep my feelings distant, just repress everything and be cold and cynical. I realise that our stay in Finland led to a new understanding of reality, the closest an asylum seeker can get to a normal and stable life. But what was the point? Now I’m just missing it! What if career refugees had also started thinking like that and lost their desire to be a part of society, being forced to travel from one place to another, to live just a temporary existence? As an asylum seeker, you don’t really live anyway, you’re not a person. You wait, feeling like a parasite and a criminal, unwanted in the country where you’re asking for help. I hate the thought that my life could get even worse, that I could sink even lower. I already hate being Maria the asylum seeker.