Here is my opinion piece in on refugees and innovation – you can read the Norwegian version here in Aftenposten.
Here is the English translation.
Should we isolate refugees at reception centers, or should we meet them, and give them the opportunity to work? asks Maria Amelie.
1990s, North Ossetia, Russia: It was perestroika. Inflation. Turbulent times. A man was sitting in our living room and begged for help. He was a refugee and had lost everything. Now his children were starving.
It was a familiar sight for me. Dad was one of the most successful serial entrepreneurs in Caucasus. Every day came people who wanted help. Instead of giving them money, he created new businesses and gave them jobs. After that many of the same people started their own businesses eventually.
It was not a desire for personal wealth that drove my father. He was a really bad capitalist. Yes, we had a nice house, but at times mom did have money for food because everything he earned went back to the companies and the salary of the 300-400 employees. Vacations were put on hold, and we didn`t invest in luxury houses abroad.
2002: We fled and asked for asylum in Norway.
My father sat in the office of the director of the asylum center, and begged for a job. I translated the words of the reception director. They were simple. IMPOSSIBLE. It’s almost impossible to get a work permit while waiting for an application for asylum.
Here he was. In a foreign country. His training was not worth anything. He had no network. He who always managed to provide for himself and his family, was now forced to receive a check from the Norwegian state.
He got a roof over the head and food on the table, but he could not pay back for this hospitality. He had to passively accept help and forget about work while he waited for the answer to our asylum application.
To wait was legal. To work was illegal. Contributing to society was illegal. What does it to a man?
How long we had to wait was uncertain. If we were allowed to stay or not was also uncertain. What could we do while we waited? Wait.
Today: We waited for two years. Then came the rejection.
Today I can understand a fraction of dad’s pain, shame and self-loathing. I get to pay taxes, and I do not take it for granted. I can realize myself through job and fill my life with meaningful activities and contacts.
Through working and contributing to a society I feel like a part of the society.
I also understand my dad much better today because I am passionate about entrepreneurship. Through four years of being a journalist in a technology magazine I have met Norwegian entrepreneurs who establish workplaces locally and internationally and create breakthrough technologies. Soon there will be a book of this, too.
I’m passionate about it because I understand what it costs to be an entrepreneur. It’s lost family time, there are sleepless nights, it is health that goes to hell, it is fighting to change something and not for living. It is to lose everything and still have the courage to rise again.
Wherever entrepreneurs come from, they have much in common – a healthy dose of madness and a desire to make a difference for many people. Sometimes I think: what if some Norwegian entrepreneurs had to flee from Norway and seek asylum elsewhere?
What if they got the same message as my father did – you cannot work, go and sit in the corner there and wait for an answer?
I’ve seen my father lose everything he had and everything we owned and being threatened with death. I’ve seen him travel from his family and not get in touch with them for ten years. I’ve seen him get two heart attacks. But getting the message that you are not allowed to provide for yourself – and you have to live on the help of a society you cannot be a part of, hurt him on him at a deep personal level.
The world is changing. The images of refugees are burned in my retina. I get angry and matt and sorry. At the same time, I think of how are going to accept those seeking asylum here?
Shall we pity them or look at them as resources? Should we isolate them in the asylum camps, or shall we meet them, give them the opportunity to work. So they can process war trauma, so they feel that their life means something and that they can and will start something that can help other people?
Google founder – an applicant
In 1979 the six-year-old Sergey Brin fled from the Soviet Union with his family and was granted asylum in the United States. 4. September 1998 he founded and Larry Page a small company – Google.com.
Today they have a turnover of 66 billion dollars and over 30,000 employees worldwide.
We keep hearing that the oil is almost over. That Norway is in reorganization. Good ideas are the new oil. I’m not saying that all asylum seekers are like Sergey Brin. Or maybe they are? We can only find out if we give them permission to contribute.
Foto, januar 2011, Marius Nyheim Kristoffersen.