The first time I saw Sunita she was begging on the street below my office. Like many others she had a little paper cup and a picture of a baby, waiting for a few kroners to fall in. But unlike those I see around my office in central Oslo, she was young. She had beautiful green eyes and long black hair, and a straight forward look. It was the beginning of Fall and she looked young and proud. Every day I walked by her on my way to the office. I did not always give her coins, but I always smiled and said hello. I read in many articles that one of the hardest parts of living in the streets is to be invisible to people. Those passing by pretend you don’t exist. Everyone is allowed to their dignity, and that costs nothing but a smile and a word (like “hello”) from each of us.
One day I asked her where she was from, how old she was. She spoke a broken English, and told me she was 23 years old. Had two kids already, came from Romania. I took a closer look at her. How much misery do you have to be in to be begging on the streets at such a young age? In a faraway country like Norway? At her age I was studying, looking at the exciting life ahead of me. Going to parties, travelling. But she is born there, and the only thing she looks at is the cement wall of a sports shop.
As months went by Winter started, and I could see her curl up in a ball with more and more clothes on. One afternoon after work I offered her a drink and food. “Take whatever you want” I told her. We were at a crossing, there was a Kiwi, a Narvesen, and a Deli De Luca. She went to Narvesen and stopped at the glass door. “I want a sausage in a bread please”, she said showing me the sausage stand. “Are you sure? You don’t want something a bit more nourishing than that?”. Nope, that and a Coca Cola. Stupidly I thought she dreamt of healthy quinoa and fresh pressed carrot and ginger juice. Is it only rich people who can afford to be on a healthy diet?
She did not want to come in the Narvesen (kind of a 7/11), she said she did not feel comfortable. So she ate her sausage sitting outside. She told me where she felt cold. I tried to explain to her what I had learnt from my few years in Norway: how to layer clothes not to get too cold, have wool as a first layer and always leave some air between your socks and your shoes to let your feet get warmer. Maybe I had woollen clothes at home that I could give her.
As we entered the Winter months, her face and her body were more and more covered in clothes. I was cold just by walking the 800 meters that separate my office from the metro station. How can she handle sitting there all day long? This morning as I passed by I was thinking of all my own problems. And I saw her. This time the light and pride I had seen in her eyes the first time I saw her some months ago had disappeared. She was on a survival mode. I had to go to work, but I promised I would invite her for coffee later that day when I got out, I gave her a bit of money. That day I worked, then had lunch, then worked some more. Had a meeting, and another. Worked some more, had a coffee. During all those hours she was in the cold, sitting there trying to keep warm. When I came back later in the day she saw me and stood up, and this time she did not stop at the glass door of the shop. She ran into the corner of the Deli de Luca which was the furthest away from the door and from the cold. She took a warm coffee with milk and could hardly say a full sentence.
“This country is very cold in the winter, why did you not choose a warmer country? Like France, or Spain?”. Like Aznavour sang in one of his famous songs: Misery is easier under the sun. “You are from France, you know how much Roma people are hated there. Many problems with the police. Here up North life is so hard that less come here to beg”. She had tears in her eyes. “But this is too difficult”. Well there go my own problems. Whatever shitty day I had that day could not compare with sitting in -10 degrees for 8 hours and sleeping in a church without being able to shower. She makes between 30 and 100 NOK per day. Then she has to eat, sleep, and send the rest to her family. She tells me Norwegians are nice people, but that no one ever invited her into their home. I hesitate and tell her I can invite her into my home. “Can I take a warm shower there?” she asked. Yes, you can.
Will this change her life and get her out of poverty? Certainly not. Will it make Romania a better place? Norway a less cold country? Not either. But when we say “There is nothing we can do about it”, it is not true. When people don’t see any other choice than sitting by -10 degrees on the floor outside, what does it cost you to let them in? They are human beings too, and although you are not solving their problems they might enjoy a good night sleep and a warm meal. Closing the door of the bathroom and cleaning their clothes. Looking at her own beautiful green eyes in the mirror and brushing her long dark hair, and feeling like she does not need to curl up in a ball again. I will not save anyone by opening my door but if I can give a young 23 year old girl a day where she can watch tv under a warm duvet and not think about her problems, it won’t be that bad. If I had been born on the wrong side of the world and had to be the poorest of the poor in this world, I think I would appreciate.
I still meet Sunita, and although I cannot help her everyday, I try to give her some moments of hope. I turn on my phone for her to talk to her kids and see them on camera. And smile at her, whatever busy day I have. If you want to help people living in the streets, whether they are Roma or not, without having to open your home, you can give a meal or two to Kirkens Bymisjon who opens the doors to a church to people sleeping in the streets by negative temperatures. So that they don’t die outside. Or The Salvation Army, or even Fattighuset (The House of the Poor). You can also give your time and become a volunteer. You can also smile and say hello, that is still free!