Thousands of new Norwegian citizens filled up the Oslo Spektrum arena on Sunday, to be formally recognized and welcomed even though all have been living in Norway for years. They gathered for one of the many annual citizenship ceremonies held all over the country, and which have taken on a huge new scope after Parliament finally approved dual citizenship in 2019.
The allowance of dual citizenship set off a flood of applications from tens of thousands who’d already been granted permanent residence status but weren’t allowed to become Norwegian citizens unless they gave up their existing citizenship. Many weren’t willing or able to do so. If they came from outside the European Economic Area, they also had to renew residence cards every two years, and remained unable to vote in national elections.
All that changed when, after years of political debate, Members of Parliament finally joined most of the rest of the world in allowing dual citizenship. It took effect from January 1, 2020, unleashing the flood of applications that seemed to overwhelm immigration officials. New computer systems meant to streamline the process, which involves passing various tests and costs several thousand kroner, didn’t function properly until February and then came the Corona crisis, resulting in further delays.
It’s taken as long as two years to finally get through the process of testing and scheduling appointments with the immigration police, and then again to obtain a Norwegian passport. That made the citizenship ceremony in Oslo an enormous relief and festive occasion for the more than 6,000 attending. Invitations had been mailed to everyone in Oslo and its surrounding county of Viken who’d been granted citizenship by the end of February. Many were dressed up, smiling and even wearing a traditional Norwegian bunad.
Many of those hosting the occasion were also decked out in their own bunad, including Statsforvalteren (County Governor) Valgerd Svarstad Haugland. She’s a former government minister from the Christian Democrats party who’d clearly followed guidelines from the state agency IMDi, which oversees integration and diversity in Norway, when preparing her speech. It stressed how the ceremony is meant to “strengthen bonds between the new citizen and Norwegian society” and to make new citizens feel welcome.
Haugland and Oslo Mayor Marianne Borgen also thanked those attending for wanting to become Norwegian citizens. They spoke of how citizenship involves both rights and obligations, and how immigration can enrich the nation. Borgen even made a point of noting how Oslo now has a wide array of restaurants offering dishes from all over the world: That’s in sharp contrast to the situation in the late 1980s, when there were, for example, only two sushi restaurants in the Norwegian capital. Now sushi has become a popular part of the national diet.
Haugland and Borgen also invited new citizens to take part in their communities, volunteer organizations and even in local politics. They’d been advised by IMDi to speak clearly and to avoid long sentences and difficult words, so that they’d be easily understood by those who don’t have Norwegian as their native language. At Sunday’s ceremony in Oslo, however, neither Haugland nor her assistant Ingvild Aleksandersen spoke the standard bokmål version of Norwegian and used words not taught in Norwegian language classes for foreigners. They did speak clearly, though.
Citizenship ceremonies vary from region to region in Norway, but all include formal introductions of dignitaries present (in Oslo, that included many mayors of nearby municipalities from Halden in the south to Drammen and Lillestrøm in the west and northeast) and a variety of cultural performances. The Oslo ceremony featured music, young dancers from Quick Style Studio, popular performer Jonas Benyoub and Det Norske Jentekor, a girls’ choir with all members wearing various bunad and accompanying the thousands attending in singing the first and last verses of Norway’s national anthem.
All new citizens also received a gift book about Norway, small bars of Norwegian chocolate and a bottle of water. Towards the end of the program they were asked to rise and recite a short pledge of allegiance to their new (or additional) homeland, in which they also promised to support democracy and human rights, and respect the laws of the land.
There were smiles, lots of photo-taking, applause and some tears of joy. Organizers stressed how the ceremonies are intended to mark an official transition in the participants’ lives. “The transition to new citizenship will for the majority represent a major and important step, both for the individual and others around them,” writes IMDi in its guidelines.
Earlier citizenship ceremonies were much smaller events, and the venue in Oslo was always the Norwegian capital’s ornate City Hall where the Nobel Peace Prize is also awarded. New citizens could bring along several guests. Food and drink were even served afterwards, as a symbol of hospitality. That was replaced by the chocolate bars and water, and City Hall simply isn’t big enough to handle the thousands now joining the ranks of citizens in Oslo alone. Even with Oslo Spektrum as the venue, the number of guests had to be restricted.
“Because of the numbers (of new citizens), it wasn’t possible for us to arrange a traditional ceremony,” the country governor’s office wrote. “Therefore the county governor (Haugland) invited new citizens and their guests to a citizenship party.” Given all the congratulatory greetings exchanged between complete strangers in the audience, the undersigned can report that those accepting her invitation seemed to find the “party” meaningful, memorable and fun.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The writer was among all the new citizens choosing to take part in Sunday’s ceremony, 34 years after arriving in Norway from the USA. She admits to shedding a few tears of joy and relief herself.