Today, I would like to three stories based on and event and two conversations with friends and strangers last week, with my reflections. The stories reminded of my home country Norway, and of Pakistan, where I now live, with universal lessons, too.

On 17 January 2016, the Norwegian King Harald and Queen Sonja celebrated their 25th anniversary on the thrown, as it is called. They and their whole family, the monarchs from the neighbouring countries and other leaders and guests, joined in at the skiing competition on the yard in front of the royal Palace in Oslo. It was a cold, yet sunny day. The company walked down Oslo’s elegant Karl Johan’s Street to the ceremony held in the University of Oslo’s main assembly hall, the aula, where Edvard Munch’s painting ‘The Sun’ is the focal piece. Prime Minister Erna Solberg welcomed the guests.

The Crown Prince with his daughter of 12 read a poem together as a gift to the King and Queen. (They are next in line to ascend to the thrown in due course if that slightly outdated, yet effective symbolic institution of unity remains.)

The poem, To be in Life (‘Å væra i livet’, in New Norwegian), written by Haldis Moren Vesaas, was about the small things, and doing the right things, which in the end are the most important things in life. It was about having built one’s house so that it was good for all, for those who live there and for strangers who pass by, to be invited in so they can enrich one’s home. It was about living in the midst of turbulence and calm; it was about being open-minded and at the same time having grown roots, and having ties with people and things. It was about caring for others without ever giving up. And it was about the certainty of knowing that when it is all over, we know that we did what was right and what we could, that we had received more than we had given.

Yes, a beautiful poem, which I have now made into prose since I wanted you to know the content and message, which is so important in our time: we must see every person as important, valuable and equal – that also includes forced and voluntary migrants, rich and poor, pagan or believer, strong or weak, simple or clever, black or white, and so on – noting, too, that Monday 18 January was Martin Luther King Day.

The second story I want to tell is related to the above story, but it is specifically about migrants and refugees, one of the unresolved, tragic issues in our time, put on the international map more clearly since the one-two million Syrian, North-African and other refugees entered Europe in 2015 – and the continent was somehow taken by surprise. There are more than 60 million refugees in the world, about three-quarters of them from Muslim countries, given refuge in other Muslim countries, or other developing countries. The European countries have assisted refugee crises through UNHCR and other UN and non-governmental organizations. Relatively modest numbers have reached Europe, and earlier it was fairly well controlled and managed. Now, that has changed, and the refugees came on top of ordinary migrants and foreign workers – yes, because European countries also need people to come since their indigenous populations are ageing.

Now then, the relatively high number of migrants to Europe (forced and voluntary) has raised several issues for the hosts, including; security issues (and fear for growing extremism and radicalism); religious and cultural issues; practical and substantive integration issues.
As for integration, the argument is now that refugees must integrate faster and deeper, learn the language in the new land and understand the mainstream culture/s of the hosts, and so on. Good and well. Although I believe in multiculturalism and diversity, still adjustment and integration is important. But that doesn’t mean that the newcomers should change their ways in all fields, certainly not religion and many cultural ways. But in everyday life, it is the new land’s rules that go, not the newcomers. Yet, the newcomers have the right to keep their own culture/s, but they should also know what is mainstream and common in the new land.

A friend reminded me recently that we rarely say that people in the European countries can learn from the newcomers; we seem to take for granted that it is always the other way around. In practical terms, it may even be important that newcomers, when far away from home, are given courses about their homeland, so they can talk about it with other friends, and so that they will be able to keep the knowledge and understanding of their own roots. It would be sad if most is forgotten, especially if they return home after some years or decades. But it may also be important in order to dare to learn new things, feeling that even if new things are learnt, one still keeps one’s own identity.

It is tragic if the newcomers don’t feel that they are appreciated and valuable in the new land they arrive in. My friend reminded me if this last week, and I have reflected on it since. Not that it was really new to me. Yet, sometimes, I and others need to be reminded of the most obvious. I hope the leaders in Europe understand this key aspect, and many other obvious aspects, so that the refugees can be treated with greater dignity.

I have come to Pakistan from Norway, and I am often asked for opinions and advice. Sometimes, I can offer some ideas, other times I cannot. But it is polite and intelligent of the hosts to ask if visitors and people from afar can share from their experience. Refugees, with advanced or little education do also have much to share.

The third story I would like to tell you about has to do with religion and belief, not Islam specifically, but any religion. The young man I met last Sunday is an engineer working for a multinational company, doing well and having reflected on many issues. We were having mid-morning breakfast in a chic café in Islamabad as he was waiting for his delayed plane to go back to Karachi.

After having visited many issues, we also came to religion. He said that he thought that man needs God, but he wondered if God really needs man, referring to all the injustice and evil that happens in the world. In spite of being more than twice his age, and having pondered on his questions many times, I could not offer any answer. I could only say that religion is a matter of belief; it is not science or mathematics. But then I also said that when evil happens, that is not God’s will. But why it still happens, we don’t know. For example, we must never say that natural disasters happen as a punishment. That I don’t believe.

I said to my young friend that he asked deeper and more tricky questions than I usually do, and that perhaps we should let certain issues just rest – old-fashioned and unscientific as that may seem. Sometimes, serious, young theologians study so hard and ask so many soul-searching questions that they may lose their faith, well, hopefully, only for periods of time. I told my young friend that I don’t ask as difficult questions of myself, as he asked of himself. But I told him that I asked many other questions. I suggested that many of the Biblical dogma and stories did not in our time have to be taken entirely literally, and doctrines are man-made, and many other things are based on traditions made by human beings. I would say that God’s message should not be understood as the sum of the many details; it should be understood in its broader totality. Faith is like the ocean, not each wave or calm water.

I was glad to talk to my reflective young Pakistani. I was grateful to listen to my friend about refugees. And I was glad to listen to the Norwegian royals, indeed the poem read by the crown prince and his young daughter. They all taught me something basic about what it is to be a human being in our time – and about trying to be a become. No one has reached the final destination and has the final truth; we are all ‘en route’; we all continue to search. It is only if we give up doing so that we seize being the human beings God made us to be.