As emigrants, we have different ways of creating ‘home’
For my refugee patients, the strangeness of Norway dissipates when reunited with family
‘Dublin is a home I once owned, but someone has bought it and redecorated and I, thinking I know my way about, keep banging my knees.’
The building I work in is in the centre of Oslo, a short walk from the Royal Palace. It was built in the 1930s, an optimistic time for the young Norwegian state. In the hall that fills its ground floor, a vast mural covers an entire wall.
In the right hand corner, rendered in the angular modernist style of the time, are the blue snow covered peaks of the Norwegian mountains, a giant waterfall gushing furiously. As your gaze continues over the surface, you see the waterfall’s energy being captured by the turbines of a hydroelectric station, manned by square jawed workmen wielding spanners and screwdrivers, tending to the machinery.
Your eye is drawn along the electricity lines that emanate from the plant, through the countryside and in to the cities, distributing electricity to lovingly depicted domestic scenes: a woman ironing linen, a child reading by a yellow bulbed light, an old man in an armchair listening to the wireless.
The work is a celebration of Norway’s success in wrestling the wild and monumental into the domestic and known. The untamed landscape is transmogrified into a “hyggelig” home. This Scandinavian concept of “hygge” has received a lot of coverage in the English language media lately. It has no direct translation in English but the German “heimlich” “of the home”, or “homeliness” approaches its meaning.
In 1919 Freud addressed the concept of “das heimlich” , and its opposite, “das unheimlich” which, etymologically is “the unhomely” but which he defined as the “uncanny”. He described the uncanny as a feeling of not knowing one´s way about, the absence of the unconscious appreciation of where the objects and people of your life lie, of moving around in the dark in someone else’s home.
I work as a doctor in a small office above the hall containing the mural. There I run a clinic for newly arrived refugees, the majority of whom come from Syria. I listen to the stories of their journeys to Norway. They tell of fleeing their homes under cover of darkness, paying off soldiers to allow them cross the border into Turkey. Then the wait to find a smuggler who will put them on an overcrowded boat to risk the crossing to Greece. Setting off on the long walk north, following the train tacks through Macedonia, Serbia, Austria, the air becoming colder as they travel further and further from home, through Germany, along the coast of Sweden until they cross the border into Norway.
I ask them if they met any violence along the way, or if in the chaos of their homeland they experienced any trauma the memory of which disturbs their sleep. They often shake their heads.
But after I recently attended a lecture, by the psychiatrist Sharham Shayganis, himself a refugee from Iran 30 years ago, in which he described the refugee experience in terms of Freud´s concept of the uncanny, I’ve learnt it is even more important to ask them another question: how has their experience since arriving in Norway affected them?
Many speak of the stress and depression experienced in the asylum centres here, the difficulty of reconciling the dream that sent them on their journey, and the reality they come upon.
I previously worked in an asylum centre in North Dublin, and the conditions in Norway for refugees are markedly better. But it is not the conditions in the centres that affect them so much as the uncanniness of their new environment. Many of these asylum centres are in the far North, inside the arctic circle. These men and women from the warmth and light of Syria, describe the disassociation they experience living surrounded by glacial mountains, icy fields, the endless forests of frozen pines.
My experience as a volitional and privileged immigrant is far removed from that of my patients. I am lucky in that I regularly return to Dublin, but the longer I stay away the more a sense of uncanniness has begun to infuse the city for me, an experience common to most returning emigrants. Everything is both familiar and unfamiliar, both heimlich and unheimlich.
Dublin is a home I once owned, but someone has bought it and redecorated and I, thinking I know my way about, keep banging my knees.
The counterbalance to this feeling is the unforced natural relationship my children have to both countries. They are at ease in both places and both languages and create and embody home wherever they go.
For the refugees I see, once they have been granted asylum, the goal of reuniting their family becomes paramount. In Norway they have only six months to apply to have their family reunited or they lose the opportunity. It is a time of high stress, working against the clock to find their family members, have them present to an embassy in their homeland, to get all the necessary paper work in order.
But for those who manage to be reunited with their families, they immediately bring the consolations of home to this strange northern land. The feelings of uncanniness can dissipate.
It’s February and outside the window, a fresh fall of snow is softening the corners of the world. The Christmas decorations have been long put away in the attic, but a nativity scene my children arranged on a bookshelf remains, with figures made from cardboard and felt. There is a reason that narrative has a an enduring power, even in an agnostic household such as ours: a couple far from home, on a starlit winter’s night, moving house to house and being refused a bed though she is heavily pregnant, who, exhausted, eventually find a roof under which to rest.
The power lies in the notion that even a darkened stable, through the advent of a child and the completion of a family, can become a home.