San Hessami, 38, saw the unimaginable during his time working as a medical assistant in Syria. And though he tried to keep his spirits up by singing to his patients as he tended to their wounds, the war took its toll on him mentally. His close friends, pumped full of bullets, died in his arms. Detonated bombs in bunkers often sent him ducking for cover.
In April 2015, the Kurdish molecular biologist fled the war to Turkey, then Egypt. He traveled through Europe and eventually landed in Norway, where he found Dr. Jone Schanche Olsen, a 65-year-old psychiatrist specializing in treating refugees at the Transcultural Centre, part of the Stavanger University Hospital. Stavanger, about 280 miles southwest of Oslo, is a quiet coastal town. It was the country’s first “City of Refuge” for persecuted writers, with a rich history dating back to 1125 AD and the motto “Open Port.” In keeping with the city’s identity as a sanctuary, Schanche Olsen has created a welcoming enclave for asylum seekers, many of whom come from cultures that place a stigma on mental illness. They come from Afghanistan, Syria, Ethiopia, and Eritrea, and have suffered some of the worst terrors.
In January, President Trump said he didn’t want immigrants from “shithole countries” coming to the United States, but would welcome those from Norway. In a twist, it is a program in Norway that’s supporting refugees from some of the world’s most dangerous places. The Transcultural Centre has treated some 650 refugees in total, and the therapy hinges on storytelling, often in the third person, so asylum seekers can remove themselves from and confront the trauma they faced.
Though Norway has typically had some of the more welcoming policies toward immigrants in Europe, increasingly conservative policies are cooling that reception. So as asylum seekers try to start a new life in Norway, Schanche Olsen and his Transcultural Centre offer a rare bastion of hope for refugees in need of psychotherapy and a chance for a new start.
Schanche Olsen, who has a shock of Richard Branson–like blondish-white hair and wears plaid shirts with dark blazers, speaks in a hypnotic baritone. His perfect English has British inflections and a slight Norwegian crispness. Over a Skype call this past spring, he explained that he opened the Transcultural Centre in 2014 after a career treating refugees, trauma victims, and torture survivors across the world, from Cambodia to Zimbabwe. He’d had ideas for such a center for years, “but of course, the war in Syria and the refugees who came at that time consolidated the basic idea that there were needs for specific mental-health services,” he said. Refugees like Hessami find their way to Olsen’s clinic, a specialized service within a university hospital, by referral—through social workers, nurses, teachers, and asylum centers. As a result of their experience, many of the patients suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, and anxiety.