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Escaping ISIS: A Syrian refugee on a new life in Norway

“I cannot believe that I have successfully made it out of that terribly extremist community”

Text: Sophie Scotter

Despite the fact that Norway is not a full EU member state, it is just as much embroiled in the current refugee crisis as the Mediterranean border states regularly splattered across the front pages of the tabloids. Although access to the country has been effectively confined to the Arctic Russian border, Norway has seen an increasing number of migrants utilising this route as a cheaper way of entering western Europe (10 times cheaper, to be exact). Refugees are predominantly young men – albeit from a variety of backgrounds – whilst women, children and older generations have thus far tended to remain in Syria.

However, even on the back on the planet’s most romantic day of the year, little love has been spared by border authorities, who have turned away thousands of refugees attempting to cross the border on bicycles – the only means of transport permitted. Instead, police have been rounding up abandoned bikes and demanding that asylum seekers return to Russia. British newspaper ‘The Independent’ says deliberation by Russian and Norwegian authorities has resulted in refugees yo-yoing between the two countries in sub-zero temperatures, provoking outcry from human rights activists and the church. Other migrants have endured a repeating pattern of arrest, detainment and release, as the Norwegian government continues to re-evaluate its approach. In another part of Scandinavia, Danish officials have come under fire for their controversial decision to remove all but sentimental valuables from new arrivals.

Sputnik International claims the Russian-bordering county of Finnmark witnessed a ten-fold increase in refugees in just a single year (2015), with asylums bursting at the seams in the towns of Kirkenes and Vadsø. Whilst spending the winter period at home in the latter, a close friend found herself befriending several of the Syrian refugees living in the local asylum. As a means of seeing beyond the headlines, I spent some time talking to one such asylum seeker, Mikhael Hamwi. Here is his story:


Where in Syria are you from?

I am from Latakia, Syria.


What were you doing for work before you left the country?

I was a third-year-student in the English Literature Department and an English private tutor.


What condition is your hometown in? Is it safe?

To be honest, my city has not witnessed much armed fighting. Only the surrounding villages were/are occupied by the Free Army/IS, so my home is temporarily safe. Still, basic needs are missing. Electricity and water are only available for four to six hours maximum per day.


Why did you decide to leave Syria? When did you leave?

I had actually decided to leave Syria to continue studying, as this was something I had wanted since high school. However, when the crisis started we were living in a village called Kinsabba. At the end of 2011, some Free Army militants attacked the surrounding villages and were on their way to ours. Miraculously, we managed to leave the house and escape to Latakia. We were later informed that our house had become an IS courthouse. The main reasons for my leaving are as follows: First, I’m doubtful that this horrible war will come to an end any time soon. If I had stayed, it’s probable that I would have had to participate is this bloody thing, for there were rumours and reports that every man was expected to join the army, even if he was without brothers. Either this, or be considered a person against either of the conflicting parties. Secondly, my family and I were afraid. People were being kidnapped for money and there were several people from our village who were taken. I also had other more personal reasons for leaving. I left Syria on 28th of June, 2015.


Which did you consider the biggest threat, President Assad or Islamic State?

Definitely ISIS. I believe they are more dangerous than anything in the world.

Michael when he first came to Greece
Michael when he first came to Greece

Have your family come with you? Who have you left behind? Have they been affected?

I came alone to Norway having left my family, including my parents and my sister, in Syria. Thankfully they have not been affected physically thus far.


Why Norway?

Firstly, I both read and heard that Norway is one of the countries most concerned with human rights, equality, and such. Secondly, there were few asylum-seekers when I arrived, so I thought my asylum-seeking process would be faster than in other countries.


How did you make it from Syria to Norway? Was it a difficult trip? What did you see on the way?

I came to Norway through Turkey, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary, Austria, Germany, Denmark, and Sweden – a long way! It was a difficult trip because we had to be wary of bandits as well as the police, at all times. In Serbia, for example, we came across an Afghani group who wanted to take our money. We also had to sleep in the woods or on pavements in the cities.


What happened when you reached the Norwegian border?

I was asleep during the trip through Sweden to Norway, but I was told that nothing much happened when we crossed the Norwegian border.


How are you finding Norwegian life? What do you like most about Norway / dislike most?

The Norwegian culture is so good. The people are great. They are cool, open-minded and loving people, though they are a little bit afraid of us. However, after a while I got to know some local people and we became friends – such as your friend and myself. What I like the most is that the people are generous and warm-hearted, whilst I also like their honesty and the fact that they speak English. This makes everything easier! On the other hand, everything here takes a long time – like processing our residence papers.

Have you faced any overwhelming kindness / help / prejudice / hostility from Norwegians?

In general, I have experienced an overwhelming kindness from Norwegians since I arrived; from people in the streets, to the workers in the refugee centre, to the people who came to talk with us and brought us food – especially young girls and guys.


Do you plan to stay on Norway or are there other countries you would like to move on to?

At the moment, I think I’d like to stay in Norway for at least for the next six years. Then I may go to England.


What is your opinion regarding the decision by several EU member states to perform airstrikes on Islamic State strongholds?

I’m in agreement with the EUs decision, as long as its priority is to fight the real threat to the world – Islamic State – and not to engage its forces and its men in a war fought simply to overthrow a particular regime and thereby kill innocent people.


Would you like to go back to Syria in the future?

I do not imagine going back to Syria or the Arab world at all. I cannot believe that I have successfully made it out of that terribly extremist community.


How are you adjusting to life in a refugee asylum? How do you keep busy?

At the moment my life is very boring, I have nothing to do. I live in a small apartment with nine roommates and try to keep myself busy by going to the shops and the library, watching many TV series, reading lots, and visiting my new friends.


Some refugees have left the asylum in fear of being sent back to Syria – what do you think about their decision to do so?

I believe these people have left the asylum because of this controversial decision by the government, even though some of those concerned have lived and worked in Russia for many years, and have a home there. However, a large number of refugees have simply passed through Russia, and have nothing/no-one there to be sent to. Therefore, I think leaving the asylum is completely reasonable, since no-one wants to return to Syria where their situation might be very bad.


In order to distribute immigrants more evenly, the EU has recently called for refugees to seek asylum in the first ‘safe’ EU country that they enter – what do you think about this?

For the last question I really do not know where I stand, though I think it is important for countries to maintain their population in accordance with their resources. However, in this case they are preventing people from freely choosing where they want to live, which is their right.

*since this interview, Mikhael has been granted Norwegian citizenship and is considering continuing his university education at UiT.