– A part of me has not returned home yet. I feel an emptiness. The contrast between the situation in Greece and home life is big. Here everyone is fixated with presents. The consumerism and spending habits have infiltrated our society, he says thoughtfully.
I asked how the transition from the Moria camp at Lesvos to Norway has impacted him and was prepared for this exact answer. All the voluntary drops will recognise the feeling, and Arne Martin came home to a particularly challenging time. The joy of advent in Norway reinforces the contrast to the overcrowded camp on Lesvos.
At the time of writing, approximately 18,000 people are living in and around the camp of Moria, a former prison designed for 3,000 people. I ask Arne Martin to describe the situation in December 2019.
– It was crazy to see Moria camp now, compared to when I was there in 2016. There are tents everywhere, crammed together. Previously it was comprised of tents in a secluded area, whereas now there are tents everywhere. It was sunny and beautiful weather when I was at Lesvos, but when it rains, the conditions are so much, much worse. Sometimes heavy rain falls and there is mud everywhere between the tents. There are lots of children. There are piles of rubbish everywhere, and extremely poor hygienic conditions. There is a bathroom for a hundred people and you have to stand in line for hours if you want to take a shower.
– One can be impressed that people here are creative, given their circumstances. I saw several simple hair salons, for example. It is not just apathy; the refugees are trying to create something. However, I especially remember the little boy sitting in front of a campfire, to stay alive, with olive tree branches, whilst he was drying clothes. There was no life in his eyes; he did not want to talk. There are many traumatized children in the camp, which houses around 5,000 children under 18, and it is said that 1000 of them are unaccompanied minors. There are many indicators suggesting that Norwegian politicians do not have a realistic picture of the situation, which is vastly different from how Arne Martin views the situation. The media has in recent weeks begun to convey a little more about the situation of refugees in Greece. Still, Norwegian politicians refuse to accept refugees from Moria and other camps.
He responds strongly to the lack of action from Norwegian politicians, and as a Christian, especially over one party.
-It is completely unchristian when the Christian democratic party (KrF) refuses unaccompanied minors to come to Norway. I cannot understand that our country does not accept 100 unaccompanied minors from Moria!
Does this upset you?
-Yes, I think it is cold-hearted and a lack of understanding our history! I am embarrassed to be Norwegian. When you say that picking up children who are alone in refugee camps in Norway poses a danger that more people will come here, it is absolutely horrifying. How can a four-year-old, who is all alone in Moria be a danger to the Norwegian welfare? How is bringing him to Norway a threat to the ‘prosperity’ of the West?
Arne Martin Thingnes’ walk is called a march of solidarity. The march can be seen as a backlash to the policy being pursued, and an effort to awaken public opinion against the attitudes underlying this policy.
– What is happening now is the opposite of solidarity, it is selfishness, he states. Our welfare state is built on the idea of solidarity. When you look at the attitudes on the far right and hear the arguments that we cannot reduce our wealth to help refugees, it contradicts what Norway is all about; our core values as a nation and what we have built up in the post-war period, says Arne Martin enthusiastically.
Three pairs of shoes
Arne Martin has had plenty of time to think. He left Arendal in August and has travelled South across Europe, through Denmark, Germany, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Serbia, North-Macedonia, and Greece. Arne Martin arrived in Lesvos in Greece in early December. He has walked a total of 2,700 kilometres and “worn out” three pairs of shoes on his journey. He has walked with a backpack, often lightly dressed in shorts, but also with windproof and waterproof clothes in stormy weather. He has walked on peaceful paths and busy roads. He has met kindness, hospitality, and compassion
-The idea of the solidarity march came on a long road trip to New Zealand last Christmas. He and his wife visited their son who lives there. On the long road trip on the north island, Arne Martin thought about how he would spend the first year of his retirement.
– What I wanted was to focus on the unjustness of the situation. That the refugees are in these camps and Europe is paying itself free of responsibility. The idea that all countries in Europe would welcome refugees and do their part would be a very affordable task. I wanted to focus on that and try to change attitudes. It is ordinary people in Europe who choose their politicians. I could have travelled and worked as a volunteer in a camp, such as in 2016, but thought I could try to do something more to inform the general public.
– It is ordinary people who vote for politicians, whom are difficult to influence. One has to think long term. In Hungary, there were local elections in Budapest, and the opposition won. It was not the immigration enemies, but the counter-forces, who won the local elections. It is a step in the right direction. It matters when more people change the terrible selfishness and protectionism prevailing in Europe.
Arne Martin Thingnes has travelled far before. He has made several pilgrimages.
– The solidarity march has a bit of the same vibe, because I went for a cause. I have a Christian view of life. Charity and my sense of value have helped me do this, says Arne Martin, adding that he visited many churches along the way, and when he sees an open church he enters.
Nice people everywhere
Arne Martin completed the march and came to Greece before schedule. There he spent his time volunteering in three places on the mainland, in the camp Nea Kevala, a soup kitchen in Thessaloniki, and camp Kavala.
– The good encounters with people have been the most valuable to me, personally. I have not had any negative experiences. The worst thing was that I was bitten by a dog, he laughs. He explained to those he met what the march was about and met mostly only benevolence and nothing worse than someone having a counter-argument about refugee policy.
He was particularly surprised by the friendliness and hospitality of the people in Serbia.
-It was the country I was most sceptical of beforehand, because of the post-war attitudes there. However, the march has given me a different perspective, as Serbia turned out to be the best country I went to. I no longer think it is the worst country in terms of political attitudes, I think that is Hungary, where it is statutory that it is punishable to help refugees, he adds.
The Norwegian flag in his backpack triggered reactions in Serbia.
-I had a so many good meetings with people. Some of the strongest were those who followed me for several days. They made contact when they saw my flag. It was Stefan who came back several times with food. He also came back with his wife Aleksandra, who he wanted me to meet. They had relatives in Trondheim! It was simply touching.
He says that he was invited to families’ homes, had homemade meals, and some people drank beer with him, because they were so fond of Norway. It was the older people at 70, who were having coffee at the cafe when I came walking by, and the bus driver who stopped the bus and talked to me, and other people in the square who gave me fruit, that really stood out to him.
You have also spent many hours and days alone on the road. What have you been thinking about?
– It was nice to walk, and there is plenty of time for reflection. In Norway and Denmark, there was some media attention on the matter, but in the countries after Germany, there nearly no mentions of the refugee situation at all. Sometimes negative thoughts occuppied his mind, that the focus on the matter was getting low and “here I am just walking…”
If I were to do this again, I think I would have been even more focused on having meetings along the way because in some countries there was a bit of a void, he adds.
-Otherwise, I thought a lot about how the body works and was concerned with basic things.
I also watched what the media conveyed. I read about events in Greece that made the march of solidarity more important and meaningful. The focus on refugees in the media has increased. Initially, it was concerns about the summer heat; gradually the focus shifted to numbers of refugees, with an increase of almost 50% more people in Moria from when I started walking.
Has anything changed in you since the march?
-The view of the Serbian people, and that I have gained more faith in ordinary people in Europe. I met so much positivity when I told what I am doing. From Serbia and southward, the march became more meaningful; I felt that it had a purpose, once again.
The arrival at Lesvos and the reception there is still stuck in his mind.
– The most definite feeling was when I arrived Mytilini with the ferry in the early morning, the bow gate opens, and you get to see the amazing sunrise. Then I shed a little tear, after going so far. It was reminiscent of the same overwhelming feeling as when I arrived at Santiago de Compostella, he says. He was met by musical clowns, who followed him on the road to Moria camp, where they spread joy and hope with dance and music. In the evening, it was a great event.
– It was an amazing day! Many people came, and I saw the joy of the kids in the camp. In addition, the Greeks, with whom I spoke, thanked me for emphasiing the unfairness to which they are exposed.
Like many other volunteers, Arne Martin also feels the need to communicate, and to drive public information on conditions for refugees in Greece. He will put together a presentation to show and tell those who wish to learn. Besides, the media must continue to report, he says.
-I saw a sign along the way in Norway, which is how I think you must convince people to perceive the situation: “What if it was your child?” One must change this alienation and distancing that prevails today. One must highlight single stories, such as the NRK (Norwegian public broadcasting company) reportage with the two Afghan children in Moria who speak fluent Norwegian. They have lived in Norway for many years and were well-integrated. The toughest experience I had in Moria was when these two children read a poem I wrote, in Norwegian and in English. It is very strong, and so unfair. These kids enjoy skiing, and they miss it. The Norwegian authorities believed it was safe to send this family back to Kabul. But, they have fled once again, because it was unsafe for them to stay in Kabul. So now, they are back in Moria. One must put emphasis on these kinds of stories, to connect with people, and make them realise that these people are regular people, like you and me. The media has tremendous power, so it is important that they are there and report to the general public, he emphasises.
Is there anything that can give us some hope?
– When you see pictures from the camps you get a sense of lost people. However, after meeting children and seeing the joy of the children, I think it gives us some hope. I believe that with love and warmth, there is hope. But something must be done soon! The children are the most important. They are the most vulnerable. The most heart-breaking is seeing those who are all alone in Moria.