Please, Europe – treat the skills of refugees like me as an asset

Being an Afghan asylum seeker in Norway showed me how difficult it is for us to fulfil our potential

An arrival centre for refugees in northern Norway, November 2015.
An arrival centre for refugees in northern Norway, November 2015. Photograph: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP/Getty Images

As the flight departed from Kabul and the plane climbed, my fears started to rise as well, most notably the fear of a long, uncertain trip. My heart was heavy with the weight of leaving behind my family, friends and country. I had assumed that once I reached a safe country it would not take me more than three months before I could start working as a journalist again. Unfortunately, that wouldn’t turn out to be the case.

I arrived in Norway in early March 2015, just before the migration crisis of that year. In my very first encounter with the police I felt my identity slipping away. To the man behind the thick glass at passport control I had to say the words, “I am an asylum seeker”, then my name and my occupation. This sentence would become my identity for the following two and half years. It’s not that the words “asylum seeker” carry shame, but that people don’t seem to listen to the rest of what you have to say once you’ve uttered them.

I was sent to a large waiting room to be interviewed more thoroughly. It was almost empty, with only three other asylum seekers there. One table had some bread and jars of jam on it. Every two hours a policeman took us out for some fresh air. By the end of the day a dozen asylum seekers had arrived. We were told that we’d have to sleep on the benches that night. We were given some thin sheets. I piled three layers on top of each other and tried to sleep. My head was swirling and I ended up thinking: “When I wake up tomorrow morning no one will know my value, or my identity, and no one will recognise me by my skills, my work, or the life journey I’ve had. Some may even think I am nothing, just an asylum seeker who should be thankful for the shelter and protection provided for her.”

A month after my arrival I found myself at the Haslemoen asylum reception centre in eastern Norway. A former military base-turned-refugee centre, it was an hour from the nearest grocery shop and far, far away from home. After another month I was sent to Larvik, a town further south. The long and lonely journey of waiting, anticipating and expecting official papers began there for me. It would last a year.

What made the wait even more difficult was the depression I experienced from my lack of language skills, not knowing the cultural codes and generally feeling unwelcome. Being a journalist – someone who is supposed to be a voice for others – made the pain of having no identity or voice even worse. Soon I felt inept and isolated. First-generation refugees have few role models to look up to. As you try to deal with the system in your host country, you are expected to organise your life around earning money for your family, and often have no choice but to give up your dreams. Many start working in restaurants, bars, driving a taxi. Very few end up in white-collar jobs.

As a first step towards adjusting to my new life, I realised I should stop asking questions such as why has life been so unfair to me, and why did I have to choose the refugee option? Instead I decided I should make the best of what I had, and that all the misery may ultimately make me stronger. So I started looking for ways to regain my identity. I found out that in Europe everything is about seeking out opportunities and networking. It took me another four months and many struggles to find the right place to achieve my goal. And that place was university, where I enrolled to study once again. As an Afghan woman I am thirsty for education – during the Taliban regime of 1996-2001 women weren’t allowed to study. The problem was, I then discovered that the journalism bachelor’s degree I’d secured in post-Taliban Afghanistan was not recognised in Norway.

I knew of course that what I’d studied in Afghanistan might not be up to Norwegian standards, but I did know most of what was required, and I wanted that to be acknowledged. Surely knowledge, once acquired, is the same no matter where you go. So with the help of the amazing network of people I had around me, I decided to put the message out there. We used the power of the media to get a conversation going about higher education for refugees. Our efforts led to a project called Academic Dugnad, which helps refugees receive higher education. Today I’m studying for a master’s degree in journalism and my aim is to work in Norway. I’m aware it won’t be easy, given I’ll be working in my fourth language (I’m learning Norwegian). But this is what I dream of, and it will be worth the struggle.

I suspect that many refugees have given up on their dreams. When will those who, like me, have fled violence and war be seen as a resource, not a headache, for our host countries? I want to pass on two messages to the citizens of host countries. First, we are not here to seek better economic opportunities – rather, to have the right to live. Second, see us as an asset, not a burden, for your society. Many of us have dreams we would like to fulfil – mine was to become a journalist again. Should our refugee status be an obstacle to that?

And here’s my message to those refugees who want to pursue a professional dream: be courageous, work hard and use platforms to show your abilities. If no platforms are available, then ask for one, or create it for yourself.

Hasina Shirzad is an Afghan refugee and a university student in Norway


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