Al Jazeera Close Up

Norway’s Afghan Sons | Close Up

A Norwegian mother makes a home for traumatised Afghan boys who arrive alone, seeking safety.

Javed fidgeted in his seat, perhaps because of the shards of shrapnel lodged in his body, as he listened to Pashto translation of the court proceedings.

After three years of living in Norway, the 19-year-old spoke Norwegian well enough, but the legal jargon between his lawyer and the public prosecutor was more accessible in his mother tongue.

It was the summer of 2019 and besides me, there was only one other person observing, a retired Norwegian school teacher, and she was upset.

Gro Dregelid had been Javed’s guardian for one and a half years in Stord, a Norwegian town of 18,000 people, and she was sure a great wrong had been done to him.

“I developed a special care for Javed because his situation was so gruesome. I was convinced that the court was mistaken in denying his asylum the first time, so we reapplied, ” Gro told me.

Before arriving in Norway, Javed narrowly escaped death when Taliban fighters shot him several times in his home in Laghman, Afghanistan. The 15-year-old teenager fled, hiking the treacherous Balkan route alone, and sought sanctuary in the northernmost country in Europe.

The Norwegian state provided Javed with a residence permit, surgeries to treat the wounds on his frail body, and access to education.

But years after Javed had integrated into his new home, the same state denied him asylum, deeming that it was “safe to return” to Afghanistan. This came despite the staggering levels of violence in Afghanistan that has made it the “world’s deadliest place for children”.

Gro agreed to narrate the camera-shy boy’s story from that day on, and over the last two years, she has relayed the developments in Javed’s life following the asylum rejection.

In telling his story, she also invited me into the lives of her many “Afghan sons” who she met as children, remaining their “mama” as they became young men.

Since 2019, I have been visiting Gro in her home in Stord, where she makes dinners for a dozen teenagers at a time. I joined her when she visited Spain, where Javed has reapplied for asylum and where Nasrat, another son, will start university. I accompanied her to a wake in Paris that she arranged for Aman, a son who died while trying to reapply for asylum in France. Last Christmas, I met her resettled boys – Amjad, Hamed and Enayat – as they were taking their high school exams.

Gro remains closely connected to some 30 boys she has taken in. She has helped hundreds others in navigating the complex asylum systems of European countries, particularly Norway. She calls Afghanistan to tell the mothers of her closest boys that their sons are well and safe.

Gro sees these boys as not only her kin but also as “Norway’s Afghan Sons” who the country should have protected.

Last November, I finally met Javed’s mother in Afghanistan and was able to film a video call between her and Gro, two women who had become family without ever meeting in person.

The story came full circle.


A film by: Preethi Nallu

Producer: Ala Alhussan

Editor: Ala Alhussan

Assistant Editor: Rania Samir Itani

Executive Producer: Andrew Phillips

With thanks to Ståle Wig

This film was supported by the Migration Media Award by Thomson Foundation