I still remember the first time I reflected on my family’s escape from the war between Iraq and Iran in the 80’s. The after-school teacher asked me to tell about the route and describe my memories. I could not because I was not sure what this meant.
I was new in Norway, and that people at home and in the community I was living in kept telling me that I was not Norwegian. I didn’t comprehend the language well enough and I was confused when moving between places and people.
Some years later, at the age of 9, I one day described a nightmare to my mother, some images were rich in detail, and other more blurry. She confirmed that these were true happenings from our escape, travelling from one mountaintop to another, with planes crossing over our heads. I remember hiding in the basement in my uncle’s arms. He whispered to me: This is it. If I can re-experience such terrible memories from before I turned four, I wonder how youth and children growing up in the midst of war experience life?
At no time before or after did any of the schoolteachers or assistants raise similar questions about this period in my life. Most likely because I was only four years old when arriving Norway. Even at university I was not asked about the flight, war, my identity, my values or about my sense of self in this context.
Nor was I asked how I felt about being labelled on the assumption that you are either a foreigner or becoming Norwegian, categorised into neat little ethnic boxes. There were of course talks about dictatorships and the Middle East, but only as part of history, social sciences and politics classes, never on how I personally experienced my own and my family’s history.
At the university one of the first lectures I attended was about logos and rhetorical argumentation, on how to debate and have a logical approach in analysis. Debate differs from dialogue. It does not need to be logical even, it must somehow be felt.
Dialogue is a deep inquiry and search for answers and questions.
It is a clarification of misunderstandings and can be seen as a safe space to explore human emotions for those involved. It is a tool for social bonding. The essence of dialogue hits the emotions and heart in such way that you do not just study the other, but also yourself. Turning your gaze inward, questioning your own experiences, thoughts and history. Here you also dare to ask open questions to others.
The first peace workshop I attended had deep impact on me, forcing me to revise own belief and realities. I could not sleep that night. In dialogue the mission is to get a greater understanding of self and the other, of reaching a higher level of knowledge of each other’s realities and most basically, to express our needs. If you move beyond actions based on interests and positions, what are our needs and do we have any in common? The experience of being seen, listened to, respected and interacted with on equal basis, must be a commonality in human needs.
Creating a space of dialogue
In this sense, communicating with others with refugee background from Iraq, not in a form of debate, but to create a space of dialogue together and actually listen to Arabs, Iranians and other religious minorities which had a terrible time under the war, made me realise that my experience and story was not unique.
Intellectually I already knew this, but I felt unsure about their support of respective regimes and warlords. It gave me comfort knowing I was not alone in this. Most radically it also gave me the gift of internalising other perspectives. It increased my empathy for the others, where previously the others were a source of fear. Meaning that the propaganda of enemy pictures that was so very deeply embedded in me changed little by little, building new bridges in the mindset and creating new relationships.
During dialogue people experience essential changes to their way of thinking, and when I felt this happening, I knew this is the best tool to empower people to build bridges with others. In peace negotiations between states in armed conflicts, the idea is that they buy a suitcase and give to the people. The suitcase is empty: what do we choose to fill it with? Hate and enemy pictures of the others? In this point in history we should take responsibility to encourage dialogue with each other. Dialogue is one of the strongest tools against polarisation. Experiencing dialogue was the reason why I made the decision to dedicate my life to work for peace and justice in a dialogical framework, having dialogue as guiding principle in my own life.