Wednesday, 26 September

Interview with Tim Straight, Country Director of the Norwegian Refugee Council And Norwegian Honorary Consul to Armenia

What is Armenia for the Council?

Armeniais my home. I’ve lived here more than two years and have great affection for this country. Armenia for me is-what I tell most of my friends is the example that I was born in the United States, I spent the last twenty years in Norway, and both of these countries in a way are a book that’s finished.Armeniais a book that’s not yet finished. When I say ‘finished’ I don’t mean in a negative way, I just mean that they have a well-functioning government, a well-functioning society; from that point Armenia still has a lot of uncharted territory. InNorwayor in the States when the headlines of the newspaper can be someone whose plastic surgery was badly done it’s a huge crisis and if it was the biggest problem we had inArmenia, then...

This is not to say that there are no problems inNorwayor in the States or in any other Western European countries-there are problems of other different kinds. For example, there is a hamburger shop in the main street ofOslo, I always go and sit in that restaurant to have a hamburger, and it reminds me not to think thatNorwayis perfect.Armeniais not perfect; there are problems on both sides. I will explain why. In that street is where the children and young people who’ve started to take drugs and to commit crimes are, and that is because in Norwegian society in many ways the role of the mother and father in the family has been taken away by the state, and I think that is true not only in Norway, but in many rich countries. This is a real challenge for our society. At the same time it’s hard to be a teacher in school inNorway, the respect for teachers is not enough. It’s a society where the young people are searching for the meaning of life. InArmenia, it’s for the question having food on the table, so we both have problems, but of a different type. This is focusing on the negative side, but there are also many positive things about both countries as well, and that is a long story.

What is your answer to the questions, “What and where is Armenia? Who are the Armenians?” in Norway?

First of all, it’s very difficult for me to be quiet aboutArmeniawhen I am inNorway, especially when I see people who are sitting in comfortable houses, have good jobs and things, and after all try to explain to them what kinds of challengesArmeniais facing, it’s very difficult. They haven’t been inArmenia, they haven’t seen… the cultural differences are large. But still I’ve found a few points thatArmeniaandNorwayhave in common, that Norwegians understand when I am trying to explainArmenia. For example nature-mountains here and mountains in Norway and wild flowers, wild plants that you have lot of here and we have lot of there And to go walking in the mountains for two or three hours is something Norwegians like to do.

Then also about being a small country. I meanNorwaygeographically is not a small country, but in terms of population it’s a small country. There are only about two times as many people inNorwayas here.Norway, as you probably know, said “No” to the European Union, and in a wayNorwayfeels sometimes a little bit small and alone. I think that is something that Armenians can identify with. But you will never say thatNorwayfeels surrounded the wayArmeniasometimes feels surrounded.

For example, I made a presentation just a couple of weeks ago on the regional geography to the geography teachers in Yerevan and I used that analogy, and said that I checked that per capita income in Norway compared to the per capita income in Armenia, and the official average salary in Norway is about 15 to16 times more than the official average salary in Armenia-$2500 in Armenia and 15 to 16 times as much in Norway on average. So everyone here says that Norwegians are very rich. Probably we are, but again the analogy I used-if you get on a bus in Komitas, take the bus down to the Opera, sit in the Saturday caf? and order a liter of beer and a package of cigarettes, it will cost some 800 drams. InNorwayit will cost 12,400 drams, again 15 to 16 times, the same relationship.

So everything is relative, and one of my issues about many, if not most, Armenians is the feeling that life outside of Armenia, anywhere outside of Armenia, would be better than life here. I simply don’t think that it’s true. I don’t believe it. I left my own country, the States, and moved toNorwaytwenty years ago, and I know what it is to be an immigrant, to learn a new language, to learn a new culture. You will never ever feel quite completely at home in a new country. For example, after 20 years inNorwaywhen a children’s song is played on the radio, I can’t identify with the children’s songs inNorwayand I don’t feel Norwegian when I hear those children’s songs. So I cannot understand why everybody thinks that it’s better outside ofArmenia. The answers-I have no job, politicians are corrupt. I can’t possibly answer to that because I have lived in two countries most of my life where you can get a job and politicians are generally not corrupt. Even I can’t identify with the Armenian experience and mentality.

I still think for everybody it is always better in their own culture. By the way, I’ve heard that in theUnited States, in the state ofCalifornia, the per capita highest crime rate among immigrant groups-in terms of percentage, Armenians are the most criminal inCalifornia. I refuse to believe that Armenians are bad people. Armenians are not bad people, it’s just you have a lot of Armenians who left from here and they think that they are going to be rich instantly, and they meet these other cultures and have a lot of problems in adapting. So they try to do it a bit quicker, which is usually not legal.

You said that the nature in Norway and in Armenia is the same. Where would you choose to spend your spare time?

Unfortunately, I am a city person and it takes a lot to get me out of the city, but if I want to get away for a weekend I go to Gyumri or to Sevan. Last summer I went once to Sevan. For me, where am I is not as important as who I’m with. I’m not very good at spending time alone. I like to be together with my friends, to have a good laugh, to have good stories, etc. A good friend of mine had a baby yesterday, so with our friends we are arguing about her name, etc.

How many Armenian refugees are there in Norway?

There are very few Armenians at all inNorway. As far as I know, approximately 200 Armenians are permanently living and have residence, and about 50 or less Armenians are seeking asylum.

Is that connected with the strict laws in Norway, or there are other reasons?

Generally, if you asked an Armenian where he wants to go, the first place is theUnited States, the second isGermanyand the third isFrance. During these three years I’ve been here, very few people wanted to apply for a working permit inNorway. Besides, there seems to be a rumor going around here that you can get a job inNorwaycutting fish. This rumor has been going around for fifteen years and it’s not true. If they knew anything about cutting fish in a small village up at theArctic Circle, they would never try.

What is the main framework of Norwegian Refugee Council activities?

To be short, NRC has been active since 1995. We have worked in rehabilitating schools, in human rights education; we have worked in water systems for cities and villages, and we have worked in building houses for refugees. We have stopped working on water systems because the headquarters told us to. I decided to stop rehabilitating schools because I felt that CRS and UNDP are doing a better job than we could do. At the same time, only UNHCR and NRC are building houses for refugees, so I feel that the need is larger in refugee housing areas. Human Rights Education is now a separate organization, a local NGO.

So today we build anywhere from 100 to 250 houses a year for refugee families. But recently we started also looking at the situation for internally displaced people, and have done a survey in 200 villages along the borders to find out how many left, how many came back, just the situation in these bordering villages. So next year we are planning to build about 100 refugee houses for refugees and repair about 100 houses for internally displaced people.

Why does the Norwegian government pay so much attention to countries like Armenia?

First of all, it is a mixture of reasons.Norwayis the country in the world that gives the largest portion of GDP to humanitarian projects. That is the result of a general positive attitude towards humanitarian help.Norway, being a small country, likes to act like a big country by giving the most percentage, which is fine. In this particular region we have programs inGeorgia, inAzerbaijan, and inArmenia. The programs are generally the same size in the three countries. It’s a big compliment toNorway. I mean inAzerbaijanthey have oil, a big Norwegian oil company. There is an aspect of wanting to do something humanitarian in the country where we are investing in business. ButNorwaydoesn’t want to be only on one side of the conflict. There is no single Norwegian business inArmeniaunfortunately, but still our government supportsArmeniaa little bit more thanAzerbaijan.Norwayalso is very active on plotting peace in conflict areas-I mean we brokered the unsuccessful Israel-Palestinian peace deal called the Oslo Accord; theGuatemalapeace agreement was also brokered byNorway.Norwaydoes not have any intentions of competing with theMinskgroup here. But we still like to push a little bit for peace, and if there would be a peace agreement I am sure thatNorwaywould actively support it, not only politically but also financially.

Why did Norway say “No” to the European Union?

Again, a small country, we are afraid of being swallowed. During the EU campaign inNorway, there were people saying, “We don’t want the capital ofNorwaybeBonnorBrussels.” There was only 51 and 49 percent that it was “No”. Now it goes back and forth; I think now the “Yes” vote has a small advantage. SoNorwaysaid “No”, and some Norwegians said that we can keep our oil and our fish to ourselves, but on the other hand, some people get frustrated when votes taken in the EU somehow affectNorway, butNorwayhas no voice there. I am pro-we cannot change an organization by not participating in it. So it’s a topic for discussion.

Is there an independent press in Armenia?

Not a fully a free one. I don’t know the details, but you have to be clever to have a free newspaper. I have heard enough cases of journalists being threatened through telephone calls, and I heard a case just yesterday. It’s a serious problem. I try to follow, but it’s difficult to know when it’s free and not free. I get 80-90 e-mails a day and I pick out the important ones and I send them to a long list of people, various people, to foreign ministers, partners abroad, including my counterparts inBakuandTbilisi. I do it partially not only to keep them informed about what is being presented in the Armenian press, but also to see if they react to what’s being written, because I am blind I’m sure, after two-and-a-half years in this country. I don’t react to something-I am used to it. A lot of articles that I get-of course some are ridiculous. I discuss those that are fantastic. I got an impression very early about factories being built in Stepanavan, in Vanadzor and in Gyumri, and I learned very quickly that many times it’s a wish, but not a fact. Maybe you heard that the national television ofArmeniabroadcast that the Norwegian ambassador had been expelled from Azerbaijan-absolutely not true and very easy to check. Anybody could call me-they don’t bother to check. This creates a general atmosphere of distrust to what’s being reported.

I know that you’re also concerned about illegal buildings and recently you sent a letter to the mayor’s office. What was it about?

There is building at the corner of Nalbandian and Tumanian that has interested me. A couple friends of mine are opening a restaurant in the corner section. The neighbor upstairs has done some construction, and that was criticized by the mayor’s office because he didn’t have the needed papers to do that. This is a very nice old building, and the facade was completely original and beautiful. The neighbor upstairs wants to build two more stories. Original it is a two-story building and he wants to build two more, like kind of a cancer. And then the business next to this took up the nice old windows and doors that were original and put a huge, ugly piece of glass and broke up the whole facade. So I sent a letter to the mayor, told them my honest opinion, which is still my opinion, that the original façade should be kept-the original shapes of the windows and doors-basically they must keep the shape.

Inside, of course, a private businessman should be allowed to modernize his business and do his business. If I as a person don’t like the interior, I won’t go into the shop, but if they start messing up the façade, that affects everybody, everybody who walks down the street. We have to respect the original architecture of this city. I received a letter back from the mayor saying, “Thank you very much for your interest, we have made the decision that the original facade should be put back in place.” Then this week they put white tiles on the front of this business next door. This beautiful old building with this big ugly window and they still are working on it. Supposedly they have received the orders not to continue the work and return it to its original appearance, but they put white tiles in front of that building. It looks miserable.

It is interesting to think that in the back of the building, on the side, they intend to rebuild the façade, and they are the ones that got the bulldozer for the illegal columns that the neighbor upstairs started building for his two extra stories. I agree with the bulldozing, from the point of view of that he didn’t have the papers, and I do agree with that bulldozing.

To say something positive about some architectural things of this city-the old numbers of the building all over the city have been taken down and everybody thinks that they are playing with us. Behind the ministry of finance there are two or three old buildings with old facades that they have rebuilt and put a modern site in the back side of the building. It looks wonderful. It is very nice. A lot of thanks to the mayor for that. I am interested in architecture.

How is it to work with the Armenian government? Is it easy?

In general it’s OK. We have had a lot of discussion in our disagreements-any partnership includes things like that. But we do have one problem in our project in Sylikian recently. So let me preface and let’s start with Gyumri. In Gyumri the government was very enthusiastic about cooperation with us because we’re going to help develop Gyumri by building houses. In the Gyumri project they gave us the land plot and we paid for the houses. The government paid for the gas connection, electricity, drinking, sewage systems and asphalt. It is a significant investment from the government side and we are very happy about that.

So when we started our project in Sylikian in Yerevan-66 houses, the biggest project that we have ever done-we had an agreement with the government that they would provide the main sewage line, which is a much smaller amount of money. We would pay for electrical connection, which is basically the main thing, and drinking water connection and for the internal service system. But the elections came, new ministries came into place and the government has just said, “We can’t finance the sewage line”. I am very unhappy about it and I think that the government has broken the agreement in that connection. We have 66 houses in Sylikian that would be finished in about ten days, but because the government has changed its mind there, we will not be able to use the water, because if the water goes into these sewage pipes during the winter, the whole system will be destroyed because of the freezes.

I was actually wrong when I thought that the good cooperation in Gyumri would be continued in other places. It didn’t happen. We built these houses for the refugees from Shahumyan. The prime minister ofNorwayis coming toArmeniain May of next year. I hate to think if the prime minister comes and sees that we built 66 houses, and they cannot be used because of toilets or drinking water or just use of water.

We have a meeting on Tuesday to explain it to them-we can only assume that the government will sort this out. I wholly expect them to sort it out. The embassy ofMoscowand the foreign ministry of Norway are very interested in developing of this project, though it is a small project.

Who is in charge in the government concerning this project?

President Kocharyan wrote a letter to the regional administration; the regional administration sent a letter to the mayor’s office inYerevan, to the department for migration of refugees, to the department of finance and development.

What has followed since then?

A lot of silence.

Edik Baghdasaryan, Anush Danielyan

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