When the Pakistan-Norway Association (PANA) this year organized a few gatherings in Islamabad to observe Christmas and the New Year, the initiators were Pakistani-Norwegians. Shiblee Kamal, a senior oil engineer in the large Norwegian company Statoil, the backbone of the Norwegian prosperous economy, was visiting his elderly parents in Pakistan. He does that every year during the mid-winter school holidays in Norway. His wife and children come, of course, and they enjoy a few weeks with relatives and friends in Pakistan.

Helene Stenrud, an ethnic Norwegian married to a Pakistani-Norwegian and a mother of five beautiful girls, was glad to get a flavour of the Norwegian Christmas spirit. She lives in Pakistan with the three younger daughters, while the two eldest pursue college and university studies in Norway, where education is free and the quality excellent. The eldest does hotel management studies at the young University of Stavanger on the mild and wealthy south-west coast of the country. Helene’s husband remarked that he had to stay in Norway to make money, which he and his family could spend in Pakistan, noting also that Pakistan has become more expensive recently, but much cheaper after all than Norway - especially if the money is outside and the consumption done in Pakistan.

Both families are members of two cultures. They want there children to feel at home in both lands, and feel close to grandparents, relatives and friends in the sending country of emigrants. The parents may feel more at home in the country where they grew up. Yet, over the years, they too become patriotic on behalf of their second homeland. And the children are certainly more at home in the new land, but they are also spending time in Pakistan to learn cultural and religious values from here. It is easier to make a living in a rich country like Norway, and the possibilities are so many for the young generation. Therefore, they are not likely to return to Pakistan for good. Well, some may do so, but most will remain overseas.

“In Scandinavia, the young generation’s ambitions and hard work decide their future”, one Pakistani-Norwegian participant at the end-of-year PANA gathering remarked.  “Norway is a land of opportunities regardless of creed or cradle. No wonder that the young teenagers and adults find a country like Norway a dreamland – and not just looking like a Christmas-card with snow and ice for several months”, one remarked. “Girls and boys have equal opportunities. They all receive study financing from the government for their higher education, but only a part of it is scholarships while the rest is a loan which must be paid back later. It is not a big risk since unemployment is just a few percent so the graduates are in practice guaranteed a good job upon completion of their education”, the Pakistani-Norwegian parent explained.

“I wish I had similar opportunities”, Attiq, a Pakistani working on his Ph.D. at an Islamabad university said. “I also wish to go abroad and do part of my studies in another country. I would not mind going to Norway, in spite of the cold winters they have there, and the fact that only some university courses are offered in English”, he added.

Often, we tend to think that living in another, being international, is exciting all the time. However, the Pakistani-Norwegians and the Norwegians at the PANA gatherings proved the opposite. They were all just ordinary, without any air or flair about them. Pakistani youth are also international nowadays, cheerful and friendly, perhaps more friendly than those who have grown up abroad. And the visitors, they are perhaps more ordinary than the Pakistanis. The Pakistanis at such gatherings may belong to a higher class while the visitors may just be ordinary middle-class. Besides, in a country like Norway, the culture requires that everyone is down to earth and not snobbish. Pakistan has clearer class differences than Norway.  When the young Pakistani-Norwegians come to Pakistan for a shorter or longer time, most of them are good ambassadors for their new land’s equity philosophy. True, it can be confusing to cousins and friends in Pakistan, who may see them as much richer than they are. They may also think that all foreign is better and, for example, that the freedom for youth is greater, for good and for bad. I am sure that there are many discussions about these issues when cousins meet, and perhaps they also look for future partners in marriage.

Norwegians are very much aware of the importance of social inclusiveness and equality, a foundation stone of the country’s welfare state. Pakistanis on their hand may accept large inequalities in society as natural. Yet, few can compete with Pakistan’s hospitality and friendliness. The culture of sharing in everyday situations in the family and other settings is always impressive and noticed by visitors, including relatives from Norway. Foreign relatives and visitors cannot compare with the excellent ways of quite formal socializing that we have in many situations in Pakistan. People show respect for and interest in the visitors. Often, we notice that the more individualistic Westerners have quite a bit to learn from Pakistan in spite of the foreigners generally having much more equality in their countries at large, regulated by their governments. In Pakistan, it is still the families that set the standards and rules. This is good, too, when Pakistanis move abroad and integrate into the Western countries, with a strong state and great observance of equality.

In Norway, Pakistanis generally do very well. Girls in particular do very well at school and university. They also know that education is the key to success and independence. Mothers, too, know this, even if they themselves have been housewives all their lives in Norway. Yet, they want their daughters to have a different life, with a job outside the home, too. However, it is still a fact that more Pakistani than ethnic Norwegian women stop working when they have small children. Although the Norwegian society want women to be employed, perhaps it is also important for the immigrant families that women stay at home and keep the family well-organized? Perhaps, too, other Norwegian families can learn from the immigrant’s family values? Yes, I think so, and I would suggest that in the future, it will be more common for all Norwegians to spend more time on home-making, especially when children are young.

I was very grateful to see Pakistani-Norwegians mingle with local Pakistanis and foreigners in Islamabad at the PANA gatherings for another reason, too, notably that we are all international in many ways and at the same time local. Pakistanis who live at home are keen to understand the spirit of Christmas, and Pakistani-Norwegians living abroad are also glad to bring the new cultural element with them. Yet, they would still remain Muslim. I wish that ethnic Norwegians could show more interest for Muslim and other religious feasts when there are large immigrant communities in their country. Over time, I hope that will happen. 

At the PANA Christmas and New Year gatherings in Islamabad this year, we were lucky to have substantive speeches by specialists on multicultural issues. Muzaffar Mumtaz discussed the universality of the Christmas message, searching for its true message. Dr. Ayisha Mustafa, an American-Pakistani, discussed what Islam says about Christmas, and the heritage and traditions our religions are built on.

If we have more knowledge and understanding for other religions, it will create greater understanding, respect and tolerance within and between religions. We should not give up and change values; we should learn to be open and yet feel comfortable in our own religion and traditions. In other words, we should be like the international and multicultural Pakistanis I have written about in this article. Sometimes, we may think that people from different countries and sub-groups within countries are very different, only to discover that we are actually more alike than different, and many more things unite than divide. We should encourage activities that make differences smaller. I am grateful to Shiblee Kamal and all the other participants who made my holiday season so pleasant and educational this year. They promoted so well international and local harmony. As we pray for this spirit to remain throughout the country and world in 2013 and beyond, I wish my readers a Happy New Year.

The writer is a senior Norwegian social scientist with experience from research, diplomacy and development aid.    Email: atlehetland@yahoo.com