3 April 2013

Eritreans Debate Integration in Chilly Oslo

Photo: Jacapo
A street in Asmara, Eritrea (file photo).

Oslo — Fleeing a long and bloody war thousands of Eritreans have taken refuge abroad - some of them in Norway, the coldest and northernmost corner of Europe. Today two generations of Eritreans live in the Scandinavian country.

An aroma of generously spiced food hits the nostrils immediately upon opening the door to Dahlak restaurant in Oslo.

The rich smell reflects centuries of cultural intercourse around the Red Sea - a mixture that has given Eritrean cuisine its distinct features.

Restaurant owner Saba Asres brought the taste of Eritrea to Oslo, both to make a living for herself and to gather together Eritrean immigrants.

"The food its very important for Eritrean people," she says. "The most important that we share the food together and we eat with our hands. If we have one bread and I share with others and I feel good."

But Eritreans don't just come to Dahlak restaurant to share the traditional yeasted bread, injera.

For Eritrean newcomers the restaurant has become something of an institution. It's seen as a gateway to inclusion in the Norwegian society.

Saba has lost count of the many job applications she has helped to write in Norwegian for her Eritrean compatriots.

Customer Adiam Mengis is a 31-year-old teacher in an ethnically diverse working-class neighborhood. She paints a bright picture of the future of the Eritrean community in Norway.

"I haven't really come over any repeating problems with Eritrean children," she explains. "They seem to assimilate very well. And I see them growing up and getting educated and getting jobs".

Adiam's reflections seem to match official statistics.

The numbers point to high levels of employment and education and less to the crime and social problems that plague some other immigrant groups in Norway.

Snow and a winter chill surrounds a Christian Orthodox church in Oslo on a Sunday morning but inside are colourful religious symbols and singing.

Meron Gehbremikael admits he doesn't go to church every Sunday. But he says religion is still an important part of life, spiritually and socially.

Meron is in many ways a typical Norwegian-born Eritrean. He does well at school and plays football and next year he may even be seen guarding Norway's royal palace, as he plans to join the royal guard.

But he feels there can also be negative aspects to integration.

His Eritrean roots could easily wither, he fears, if he does not actively cultivate them.

"I'm going to travel to Eritrea next year with my family and go to this big festival called Sawa, where Eritreans abroad and native Eritreans meet in Asmara and in Sawa where we learn about the culture," ge says. "And I feel like you know that's gonna help me understanding the culture better and seing the country once again."

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