From refugee to Oslo’s deputy mayor: Kamzy’s inspiring journey

Refugees and immigrants in most countries often show grit and persistence, contributing enormously to their adopted countries

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Kamzy - THOR BRODRESKIFT/NORDISKE MEDIEDAGER/WIKIMEDIA

Like most other EU nations, Norway is home to a diverse group of immigrants.

The country can trace the arrival of immigrants to the Viking era. Oslo, the capital, is a multicultural city, with more than a third of its dwellers originating from other countries.

The city once had a reputation for being relatively peaceful. But that changed on 22 July 2011. Anders Behring Breivi, who had a serious mental health illness, killed 77 people on the island of Utøya, where youths were attending a Workers’ Youth League summer camp organised by the Norwegian Labour Party.

I vividly remember receiving the chilling news that day while working at the Malaysian embassy in Stockholm. The news sent shock waves all over Scandinavia: it was an inconceivable tragedy in a city that is home to the Nobel Peace Center, the showcase for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Just a few days after the attacks, I was on official duty in Oslo and witnessed the damage and destruction to the buildings in what was described as the worst calamity in Norway since World War Two. Two months later, when I revisited the city, normalcy had returned.

One of those attending the youth camp at Utøya was Khamshajiny Gunaratnam, who is now Oslo’s deputy mayor.

Then 23, Kamzy, as she is better known, survived the attack by swimming 500 metres across Tyrifjorden Lake. Bullets whizzed around as she swam, but she escaped uninjured. “I decided I would rather drown than be shot,” she recalled of her ordeal.

Kamzy later described her mother’s fright: “My mother told me, I didn’t run away from the shootings in Sri Lanka, only for you to be shot in Norway. Growing up in Norway, I never thought that becoming involved in politics would someday result in somebody trying to kill you.”

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Born in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, on 27 March 1988, Kamzy arrived in Norway with her refugee family when she was three. Her parents worked in the fishing industry in the north of Norway, relocating to Oslo a few years later so she and her brother could attend a Tamil school.

The young Kamzy studied social geography at the University of Oslo, getting involved in politics when at 19 she represented the Labour Party in Oslo’s City Council. But her political activism came with a price: a ban from entering Sri Lanka.

Kamzy rose to become leader of the Workers Youth League (AUF), an affiliate of the Norwegian Labour Party. She was also editor of its magazine, Praksis, as well as columnist in 2012 and 2013 for Norway’s national newspapers, Dagbladet and Dagsavisen.

Her involvement in several bipartisan organisations such as the Tamil Youth Organization, Norway and Youths Against Racism enriched her experience.

At 27, Kamzy created history when she was elected the youngest deputy mayor of Oslo. She was re-elected four years later in 2019.

Oslo’s deputy mayor appreciates the opportunities the country has given her and other members of the Sri Lankan community who have settled in Norway. Today, Norway is home to about 13,000 Sri Lankan Tamils, of whom 7,000 live in Oslo. Many arrived in Norway as refugees.

Kamzy is committed to issues that contribute to enlightened democracy, community involvement and transparency. Keen on helping more citizens take part in social debates, she spends much time seeking their views.

With like-minded politicians, Kamzy has a new vision for Norwegian politics – one that rejects the status quo and maintains that democracy is a work-in-progress as the cornerstone of good governance.

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She hopes future generations will be proud of the present generation when they look back to see that the decisions made now were in their best interests.

Kamzy believes society will only advance if there are differing stand points, critical deliberation and finally consensus on the solutions for today’s problems. To arrive on common ground, more people should take part to come up with the most viable solutions for Oslo.

Obviously proud of her heritage, Kamzy pays tribute to the resilience and diligence of the Sri Lankan Tamils in Norway. The community places much emphasis on obtaining tertiary education and securing skilled employment, she notes. Despite their difficulty in adapting their Tamil culture in a foreign country, they have integrated well alongside other communities and cultures.

Kazmy’s story is one of the many success stories of refugees and immigrants from all over the world.

I know Oslo fairly well, having visited the city several times a decade ago. During my visits, I engaged with some Sri Lankan Tamils whenever the opportunities arose and found them to be happy living in Oslo.

One particular visit was memorable. In September 2010, I had a meeting with the Oslo Chamber of Commerce. As I entered the building, I reported to the security guard on duty, a Sri Lankan Tamil.

She greeted me and started conversing with me in Norwegian. At once, I folded my hands in the traditional Indian way and engaged with her in my limited Tamil, greeting her, “Kali Vanakam.”

Immediately, the young lady rose from her chair, gave me a big smile and seemed happy to chat in Tamil. What impressed me the most was how she initially spoke to me in Norwegian, instead of Tamil or even English, which is commonly spoken in Norway. To me, it reflected a measure of her integration into Norwegian society.

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Refugees and immigrants in most countries often show grit and persistence, contributing enormously to their adopted countries. They are living examples that hard work is the key to success in any country.

Like my migrant friends in Stockholm, most of the Sri Lankan Tamils in Norway have contributed to the nation in small and meaningful ways. In stark contrast to the crooks and tax evaders of the world, they are honest and hardworking people who pay their taxes, which are essential in sustaining Norway’s welfare state. They don’t take advantage of the system by claiming social security. Any country would be proud to have them as citizens.

History is replete with examples of how refugees and immigrants have enriched the economies of their adopted countries. Successive generations can look up to the noble deeds of their forebears. The annals of any country bear testimony to their contributions, which cannot be measured in monetary terms alone.

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Benedict Lopez was director of the Malaysian Investment Development Authority in Stockholm and economics counsellor at the Malaysian embassy there in 2010-2014. He covered all five Nordic countries in the course of his work. A pragmatic optimist and now an Aliran member, he believes Malaysia can provide its people with the same benefits and privileges found in the Nordic countries - not a far-fetched dream but one that he hopes will be realised in his lifetime
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