With Dutch immigrants running tourist camps in mountain valleys and Somalian refugees playing football in Telemark, it comes as no surprise that families from Estonia and Poland are settling down on the windswept island of Herøy, while Palestinians are carving out new lives in Tromsø. Many Norwegian communities far from Oslo see these new settlers as their hope for the future of regions otherwise threatened by depopulation.
Newspaper Aftenposten reported over the weekend that fully 118 municipalities in Norway would have registered population declines last year if it weren’t for the immigrants moving in. Just as Norwegian and other European immigrants helped populate desolate areas of the US Midwest and prairie in the 1800s, asylum seekers and immigrants are playing an important role in Norway’s “district politics” of today.
Around 17,000 refugees have settled in Norway in the past three years, record numbers of them outside the capital that’s traditionally been a magnet for more immigrants. Yazan Abu Selah, a student whose family arrived in Norway as Palestinian refugees, is becoming well-integrated in Tromsø, recently taking on the role of restaurant chef and publicly describing a complicated menu in fluent Norwegian as part of his studies. Like many others, reported newspaper Aftenposten recently, he expects to remain in northern Norway, where municipal authorities are keen keep him.
Norway was celebrating the somewhat arbitrary decision that its total, official, nationwide population hit 5 million on Monday. While the population growth is tied to longer life expectancy and a high fertility rate, much of it is fueled by both immigration with Norwegian cities growing the fastest of all. Migration of Norwegians from outlying districts to the cities also has been going on for decades if not centuries, despite a long history of “district politics” involving government funding aimed at keeping rural areas populated.
Now many outlying communities have found that new arrivals from other countries can help offset the domestic migration and breathe new life into areas otherwise on the decline. It’s important to keep them populated, for strategic reasons, and immigrants are proving useful.
Finding a home on Herøy
Last year, 22 children were born on the island called Herøy, near the Arctic Circle on Norway’s scenic Helgelands Coast. The 22 births may not sound like many, but it’s more than four times the number born on the island just a few years ago. Fully 10 of the newborns have immigrant parents, from Latvia and Lithuania, for example. For the first time ever, the local day care center faces a shortage of spaces.
“I’m delighted to have your children and it’s extremely important that they learn Norwegian,” the center’s manager Line Roan told parents at a recent meeting covered by Aftenposten. “But you need to apply early, we only have seven spots left.”
That’s because Herøy now has residents from 28 different nations. They’ve come because there were jobs available. They’re staying after being aided by language classes, help in tackling Norwegian bureaucracy and help finding housing.
The nearby Marine Harvest seafood processing facility, facing a labour shortage, has welcomed immigrants as much as the day care centers and township administrators keen to attract families with small children. The more people, the broader the tax base, they figure.
From Poland to ‘polar’
Artur Sikora, a 32-year-old from Poland, is among those responding to the call. Educated as a ships engineer, he told Aftenposten he’s now happy working for Marine Harvest as is his wife, Sylwia Komajda-Sikora, age 27. She has a master’s degree in music and art but is also working at Marine Harvest and the couple, who have a three-year-old son, bought a small white house on Herøy just before Christmas.
“If anyone had told me that we’d be owning our own house, with our own land, I never would have believed it,” Komajda-Sikora told Aftenposten. They enjoy the dramatic landscape and weather near what’s called the polarsirkel, appreciate having their own home, full-time jobs and, not least, steady income. With the house big enough for a piano, she may take up teaching music lessons again.
Paul Taidla, a 29-year-old carpenter from Estonia, arrived in 2009 to help a friend who’d found work building a garage. Then the garage owner’s neighbour needed carpentry help, then Taidla helped build a house. Now he has set up his own company and has three employees. Several family family members have moved to Herøy as well.
“I’m working hard, but I have all I want here – schools for the kids, day care, we can leave the house without locking doors,” Taidla told Aftenposten. “We have made friends, got a boat, even built our own sauna on the boat pier.”
He said that if his family continues to enjoy living on Herøy, they’ll stay. So will Komajda-Sikora.
“I think it’s sad that many Norwegians don’t want to live here,” she said. “I love the calm life of this small place – we have clean air, pure water, fantastic nature. But perhaps you need to have experienced a harder life, like we did, before you can see how good it is here.”
Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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