“Ikke problem!” (“No problem!”)

An American works with asylum seekers in Norway—and expands her own horizons

drammen refugees

Photo courtesy of Beth Kollé
For one summer in 1987, Seattle native Beth Kollé worked with asylum seekers from all over Europe at Danvik Folkehøgskole in Drammen.

Beth Kollé

In 1987, a huge influx of refugees came to Norway’s shores. It was a tenfold increase in applications for asylum from the year before, and the system was overloaded. The government, never very quick in approving or rejecting applications, was now taking 15 to 18 months to hand down a welcome, or a farewell. 

The folkehøgskoler (folk high schools, similar to junior colleges) were enlisted to help, as was any agency available in all areas of Norway. Lodging, meals, education, medical assistance, and clothing all needed to be addressed for each person coming into the country. Everyone was scrambling that summer!

I had traveled to Norway to spend a summer working in a remote part of Vestlandet (the west coast of Norway), but the arrangements there fell apart before I left my friend’s home in Drammen, near Oslo. Faced with the choice of returning home to Seattle early or finding another job, I jumped at the chance to work for three months with asylum seekers at Drammen’s Danvik Folkehøgskole.

Preparations begin

After a quick interview with the director of the school, probably to determine if I spoke enough Norwegian to be useful, I was hired and lodged in a dorm room. A group of seven or eight of the teachers met every morning to prepare the curriculum and the schedule for introducing the refugees to the school, and to Norwegian ways of doing things. The meetings themselves were a huge challenge for me because there were several people who had dialects difficult for me to understand. I tried to sit near Ann, an American-born dual citizen who had lived in Norway for 10 years, and she kindly murmured translations whenever I got lost.

When the refugees arrived, the groups were split into classes, mostly by nationality. From their second day at Danvik, we started teaching them the basics of Norwegian. “Jeg heter Beth” soon became “Jeg heter Lisbet” because Beth was unpronounceable for many of the refugees, and most of them thought I was referring to the bathroom! But even Lisbet was difficult for some, and I became quite used to answering to whatever name people gave me.

The first group to arrive was small, consisting of three generations of a Pakistani family, from granddad down to young teens, all of whom spoke only Urdu. The mother, in her beautiful traditional Pakistani garb, looked so forlorn and frightened that I just opened my arms to her without thinking and she came to me, weeping, and put her head on my shoulder. She was sad and confused, and so was I, so we wept together for a moment. A week later I was sorry to learn they were transferred from Danvik to another school, and I hoped things would go well for them.

Soon we got a flood of refugees all at once, all needing rest, food, clothing and some kind of daily schedule. We walked everyone down the hill in manageable bunches to the shopping streets of Drammen and bought them each a pair of jeans or a skirt, belt, and shirt, and shoes if they needed them. I brought a Farsi couple to the doctor, as it appeared the wife had some kind of infection. Between us, the kind doctor and I managed to figure out what her symptoms were, and she received prompt treatment. She always called me Isobel, which I found out later is a diminutive of Elizabeth.

Finding common ground

I had three classes daily. Five Tamil refugees, all young men fleeing genocide in their native Sri Lanka, had their own class, because their English was superb. I couldn’t imagine the horrors they had seen at such a young age. They were truly interested in learning the language and how things are done in Norway. At the end of each class, I’d ask them what they’d like to learn the next day, and then spend the evening in my room getting up to speed on that subject. They were eager to understand Norway’s way of telling time, which is somewhat bizarre (5:40 is “ti over halv fem,” or “ten past half-six); the money system; the train schedule; and where to find spicy food (at that time, next to impossible!).

Four Poles, who called me by their beautiful version of Elizabeth, Yelushvyeta, comprised my second class because they spoke French. We conducted our classes in a kind of “Franglais” as I struggled to remember college French. One young man had “learned” English from watching The Flintstones and could do an impressive “Yabba dabba do!” with an adorable Polish accent. We all bonded by laughing at Russian jokes, which the Poles love to tell each other. These are similar to the Polish jokes that were popular many years ago in the United States, so despite my halting French, they would double over laughing and say, “We tell these jokes, only about Russians!”

The third and largest class was a hodgepodge of 25 students of all ages from 8 to 65. They came from Bosnia, Egypt, Colombia, Kurdish Turkey, and Iran. When I took stock of the languages spoken in this classroom, the list included: Algerian Arabic, Macedonian, Turkish, Bosnian, Egyptian Arabic, Spanish, Kurdish, and Farsi. 

In this class we had no common language. I would speak Norwegian, make hand signs, or draw pictures on the board—whatever it took. I found that French mixed with a bit of Mexican Spanish worked—sort of—with the Colombians, and my limited German worked with one of the Bosnian men who would translate for the rest of the Bosnians. The two Kurdish cousins spoke only Kurdish, so we established a tiny vocabulary that gave answers to most of their sign-language questions: “problem” or “ikke problem”—“problem” or “no problem!”

A language for everybody

After a couple weeks, I asked the director if I could teach folk dancing in the gym to anyone who was interested. A sizable group came, with lots of teens, a couple little kids, and a few adults. Since many of them were Muslim, I didn’t think couples dances would be appropriate, so I taught Norwegian sangdanser, song dances that are sung and danced in a ring. “Per Spelmann,” “Eg rodde meg ut,” “Vesle Kari vår.” They loved them all!

There was a spinet piano against one wall of the gym, so during a break I played some pretty Nordic folksongs I knew. Then a shy teenage girl came up and sang her country’s national anthem. I picked out an accompaniment to her sweet singing, and soon all the Bosnians were singing with joy and sadness mingled. We sang all the national anthems represented there. That day was a turning point for many of my students, as they began to loosen up a bit and talk to each other.

This job was probably the most intellectually challenging one I have ever had. I would return each afternoon to my room and lie on the bed, tears of exhaustion, not sadness, rolling down my face. I was unaccustomed to switching languages so much, trying so hard to understand and be understood, inventing sign language on the fly, all while dealing with the emotions of displaced people. Some brought prejudices from home, especially regarding the role of women. As their teacher, I felt they were always challenging me, by shaking my hand so hard I yelped in pain, by pinching me from behind, by refusing to clean their rooms (“problem”). But others were very kind and interested in everything (“ikke problem”)—so it was quite a mix.

Enduring complexities

During the final week of teaching, before the groups were to be sent out to more permanent living situations, the teachers’ meetings turned more and more to the issue of what criteria should be used to determine if a refugee should be accepted as an asylum-seeker. Not that the decision was up to us, but we had noticed that our refugees tended to fall into one of two categories: seekers of asylum from danger and wanderers. 

In speaking with the refugees, it became clear that there was an informal migration route in Europe and Scandinavia, and many of the wanderers were on it. The route led from West Germany to Denmark to Sweden, and then Norway. In each place the newcomers were given a place to stay, food, clothing, and education, even a weekly stipend for spending money. In each country, the government would spend between 12 and 18 months processing the applications before handing down a verdict: your application is rejected and you need to move on (“problem”), or your application is accepted and here is your visa (“ikke problem”).

We all noticed over time, during the many daily classes we held and our shopping trips to the town, that some people were not at all interested in getting established in Norway. From their behavior, they were really there to have a free ride on the government’s back. Some of the young men even bragged about it. They had homes back in their native lands, some of them told us, but they had discovered they could spend several years living for nothing, traveling from one country to another. Many spent their free time taking the train to Oslo to meet girls, or in the case of the Tamils, find a deli and buy hot peppers!

At the end of the summer, all the teachers gathered to say goodbye to “our” refugees, and we wished them well, whatever their situation may have been. I, too, had to leave, but I was leaving the country I considered my second home to return to my first home in Seattle. 

In this summer job, a very different one from the job I thought I was going to be doing, I stretched my communication skills to the maximum. I learned so much about people from countries very different from the United States and Norway. And from my interactions with the Norwegian teachers, I increased my fluency in Norwegian, and that made me happy. “Ikke problem!”

Visit Beth Kollé’s website at www.bethkolle.com.

This article originally appeared in the October 18, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American.

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The Norwegian American

The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.