I woke up at 5:30 am this morning. I rolled out of bed, almost simultaneously pulling off my candy cane stripped pajamas. I pulled on some black jeans lying over a chair and stopped for a beat considering which shirt would be appropriate. I was going to volunteer at the Red Cross at an overnight housing center for male immigrants and homeless men. I pulled up the approval email and read over the rules. I needed to wear neutral colors and cover my chest and arms.
I found some old t-shirt and pulled a jean button up over it. I walked to the kitchen where I grabbed two Baby Bell cheeses. It would be enough to hold me over for a couple of hours.
I took the elevator downstairs and entered the still dark plaza of Kringsjå. I walked towards the train thinking about how with the time change the day before, I could see the sunrise and not have to wake up so early in the morning.
At 6:20 am, I arrived at Majorstuen and followed my phone’s GPS in circles for a few minutes until I orientated myself and began walking in the correct direction. I found the address just across the street. I wasn’t sure where to find the entrance at the intersection. From the corner of the street, I saw a church in front of me and walked further around the side of the building. I tugged at two door handles, but they didn’t budge. I looked at the names on doorbuzzers but none of them read Røde Kors. As I looked walked back up the street, I saw a glass window that showed into the basement of the church. I went to the entrance where I met Khalid, the volunteer who would get me started.
He had been here since 9 pm the previous night and had not slept. Khalid pulled the laptop from his lap and introduced himself. I read over the information and filled out the form. I grabbed a vest when the second volunteer of the morning arrived. I learned she was from Boston. She took her Masters in Norway and never returned.
As we stood in the churches foyer, we asked questions about the those who were sleeping in the beds below. Most were Romanian immigrants who came to Norway to work or were homeless. Most spoke Romanian or a little English. Red Cross offers shelter in the church for a symbolic 15 kroner a night, which is about $1.60. Each person interested in one of the 51 beds comes to the church at 9 pm and reserves a space. They pay and can have the reservation for 5 days, paying 15 kroner for each night they stay there. If there are extra beds for the evening, they are given away on a lottery system.
Each person gets an IKEA bag with a duvet, a sheet, a small hand towel, and a cot that sits 18 inches off the ground. I arrived for the morning volunteer shift so I saw the process for the handing in of this large, blue bag instead of the distribution of it.
My primary role today was to pick up the cots and stack them in the storage room. Each cot had a small, square blanket that was excluded from the IKEA bag, and used by each member. After the other volunteer, Fey, and myself understood what we had to do, we got started.
At 6:30 am, Khalid woke up the sleepers by turning on the lights in the large room of the church where I would have expected to see pews. The men woke up a few at a time. They pulled on their clothes, washed up in the restroom, and folded up their blankets stuffing them back into the IKEA bags.
When I could start my job, I descended the stairs where I saw trollies with numbered sections for the IKEA bags. To the left was a large door where I saw dozens of white cots, surly with sleeping bodies beneath. As I walked past the threshold of the door, I was assaulted with such a strong odor. I imagined many of the men hadn’t had showers in days or it could have been the accumulation of their bundles.
I began picking up the cots one by one and taking them to the back room. I folded the blanket that was on each cot, which I assumed acted as extra cushion or sanitation. I maneuvered through the cots of men still sleeping to the storage room in the back. Beds were lined wall to wall.
It took an hour to get everything folded and stacked up. I would occasionally walk to the numbered trollies to make sure each bag was in the right order and it was then that I could see some of the men prepping themselves in the bathroom. As I stacked more cots, I observed some of the men. Some men were joyous and shouted good morning for all to hear. One man was well dressed and had good quality duffel bags that reminded me of a professor for some reason. Another man was ethnically white and had backpacking gear. It’s as if he knew about this resource and used this instead of staying in a hostel, then again, I don’t know his story.
One by one the room was cleared. When everyone was gone, I gathered my things and walked to the Tbane.
I wanted to become a volunteer because I have become increasingly interested in immigration and the narratives behind the bodies. Some people come here as refugees, escaping danger in their own country. Others come for seasonal work or rejoining their families.
Based on conversations with a few Norwegians, there seems to be a general, while not unanimous, attitude towards immigrants. Norway is the land of let’s work together so we can all benefit. Immigrants should be doing their part to support the benefits they also enjoy. Part of them doing their end of the work is apparently learning the language, because it is very challenging to get a job here if you don’t know the language. I have several qualms with those Norwegians who are angry at immigrants for not learning the language or not learning it fast enough. Yes there are resources to help them learn, but we don’t know their stories and there are numerous emotional, social, and cultural reasons it can be challenging for them to learn.
Although I couldn’t talk to any of the inhabitants of this church beyond good morning, I did see the diversity of their appearances. I want to know their stories and the why and how they found themselves sleeping on a cot in a church in Norway. I continue to think that by listening with empathy, we can better understand others’ experiences, be less prejudiced or discriminatory, and shape policies to better address their needs.
Make an account, sign up for shifts – it’s that easy. This place is for the men’s shelter. There are other resources for women, children, and reception centers (where you can hang out and talk with them) that I am still searching for.