Extremism is a problem in many of our cities in Norway: Thor Haakon Edquistll, Mayor of Halden
Halden is both a town and a municipality Østfold county, Norway. This border town is located at the mouth of the Tista River which just happens to be the southernmost border crossing between Norway and Sweden.The mayor of Halden, Thor Haakon Edquistll in an exclusive interview with The Oslo Times International News Network spoke about Halden, its rich culture, economic sectors and their efforts in mitigating extremism.
While talking to the Editor-in-Chief of the Oslo Times, Hatef Mokhtar, he also stated that a lot extremism is a problem faced by many cities in Norway.
Can you tell me a little about yourself?
I am 60-years-old, and I have been mayor for nearly three-and-half years. I also hope to win the elections this autumn. I started with my political career three and half years ago.
Before this I served in the military for five years, and I was in the customs department for 10 years. However, for the past 20 years I have been working in the forwarding agency. I have my own company. So I not only know how to run a city like Halden but I also know how to run a company. And, owning my own company has been a benefit for me now, as it has taught me how to run a city like Halden too.
Mayor, Thor Haakon Edquistll , can you tell us a little about your political career and what has been you most significant achievement in your tenure as the mayor of Halden?
I started my political career as the mayor of Halden. And, the most significant achievement has been overcoming the economic challenges we face. So, a slight boost in the economy in 2014 has been an achievement. As, my work has paid off and I have managed to lift the economy in Halden the past three years.
So, what’s your first priority? Your company or the Commune?
Its two jobs but the experience I have garnered from running my own company has been beneficial, especially when you are a mayor, because every mayor should know how to generate income for a city like Halden. As the money doesn’t come from reserves in a commune, you have to earn it.
Is this your own company or does it belong to the Government?
Well the company I have been with for the last 20 years, has several owners but it has the potential of becoming a big company.
Can you tell us about how Halden got its name?
Halden was the first name. It comes from the down hills and fortress that surround the city.
Previously known as Fredrikshald , Halden’s brave past is often recalled and is held with pride, as a mayor of a municipality which is steeped in culture and history, how do you think the history of Halden affects the lifestyle of its denizens, over the years how has the lifestyle here changed?
The Danish king Fredrik had changed Halden’s the name to Fredrikshald in 1665. It was later changed back to its original name, in 1928. Something I would like to mention here is that the citizens of Halden are very proud of their past.
What is the population of Halden?
We have a population of over 30,000 people, I would say around 30,300 to be more precise, and as a city we have turned 350-years-old.And, if you recall, Halden is the only town that has been mentioned in the national anthem.
Do you have an immigrant population here in Halden?
Yes, we do. And I think they have very little problems, living here.
You told me that you used to work in the Customs department, and it is believed that there is a lot of smuggling happening in the border here, is this true?
No, I don’t think that is a big issue here.
Halden is also known as the environmental town of IT, apart from the IT sector which other sectors play an important role in Halden’s economy today?
Over the years we have managed to change the city from a single industry oriented economy into an IT-city with lots of companies operating here. We still have big industrial companies like Norske Skog, Nexans og Kabi Pharmacia, and we have a university with 4000 students. All these play a very important role in our economy. We will keep on developing the IT industry.
Apart from ‘Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s’ reactor project which significant scientific projects are you running in Halden?
All the three companies mentioned above, are doing scientific projects. In addition to this we hold last year’s NCE status in Halden, Norwegian center of expertise, with smart cities and modern use of electrical power as its specialty.
What about the Tourism Sector?
Halden is a very beautiful old city with the biggest fortress in Norway “protecting” the city. We can look across the Iddefjord to Sweden. The town is strategically placed in the middle of Oslo and Gothbenburg.
Norway starts in Halden, the city of fjord and fortress. The municipality covers an area of 642 km2, and we have lots of forests, rivers and lakes. So we have a lot of ski tracks in winter. We also have a lot of tracks in the woods for people wanting to run or cycle as well as provisions for kayaking or canoeing. And, the fortress lures approximately 300,000 tourists to Halden each year.
After its establishment in 2010 Halden’s high security prison has attracted a lot of attention because of its architectural design, in fact even movies have been made on it. Could you tell us a little about what makes this high-security prison different from other high security prisons across the world?
I think the prisoners have a better chance at rehabilitation here, and after they are released they find it easier to refrain from criminal activities. The prison mimics the outside world which prepares convicts for a life outside the prison. This prison is considered to be the most humane prison on the planet and inmates here also have an
opportunity to learn new life skills and pick a new hobby like basketball or record their own music.We aim at completely rehabilitating the inmates,
and we work on preparing them for a life outside of the prison walls.
Halden, over the past years has become notorious for conflicts between individual politicians and political parties, could you tell us why a lot of the politicians and political parties here seem to disagree with each other ?
This is a long story. The main reason this is happening is because of some few strong figures in a leading political party.
What kind of challenges and difficulties have you faced as the Mayor of Halden?
We have faced economic challenges in Halden. This is the main reason why, we won to the election in 2011.
Can you tell me about the lifestyle of the people here?
Yes, well firstly the rate of unemployment in Halden is low only about 3.7 percent of the population is unemployed. We are very proud of our city, we have a lot of sports activities and we celebrate a lot of cultural festivities. The people of Halden are basically known for their rich culture, and their keen interest in sports.
Do you think the growth far right extremism, and other forms of political and religious extremism in Sweden, could affect Halden?
No, it has not affected us because of Sweden, but because this is a problem in many of our cities in Norway. We have also received information about people here going to Syria. One of them is a native from Halden and the other was an immigrant from Iraq.
So, what steps has your local government taken to prevent denizens of Halden from harboring extremist or radical ideologies?
Well, have we have joined a group established by the government, that consists of 35 other towns across Norway, in an effort to join hands against extremism. We have also had meetings with the leaders in the local mosque and the Muslim organization here on how to work effectively on mitigating extremist ideologies. The schools in Halden and police are also actively involved in the cause. And, the reason schools are involved is because, to we need to start at schools, and kindergartens, when children are very small to prevent them from growing up feeling like they do not belong. Also nurturing young children and keeping a close eye on them will help us identify the signs, of children harboring extremist thoughts and tendencies.
Coming to a totally different topic now, do you have newspapers in Halden?
Yes we do, we have one daily newspaper here.
How many people do you have working under the Municipality?
We have 2,200 people employed under this Commune. They are working at public offices like schools, health facilities and all of them are employed by the Halden Commune.
My next question, is a question we ask all our interviewees, what does human rights mean to you?
It means a lot to me, because it revolves around our fundamental freedoms like the right to express ourselves freely. It is also an important aspect of our lives because it ensures that everyone is treated equally.
In fact Halden gives a prize to a citizen of Halden for their efforts and this year we gave the prize to a Somali woman. She has been in Halden for seven years and she was chosen as the citizen of the year, last year.
We a have global readership that stretches across the world, and there are so many journalists and human right activists who behind bars in countries like Iraq, Syria, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Russia and in African countries, what message would you like to give to those totalitarian and dictatorial regimes?
I think every citizen has the right to live in a democratic society, they have the right to say what they want to say, and believe what they want to and to pray to whichever god they want to pray to. It really hurts me when I see what is happening around the world, because such things would not have happened in a democracy.
It is the lack of democracy in these societies that are causing the problem.
So, what could be the solution?
There is no solution to these problems and they can’t be solved unless common sense and democracy prevail.
What are your views on the political scenario in Norway?
I think Norway, Sweden and Denmark are the best democracies in the world, because we believe everyone is equal and have the same rights.
There have been women stating that despite saying that we practice equality, when it comes to employment we are not equal, what do you have to say about this?
If you look at company rules, you will find that everyone is equal. But, there are still some differences between men and women in Norway. However, I think the differences are their because both men and women have diverse interests, like most women are interested in working in the health sector while most men prefer working in the financial sector. So, there are natural differences between men and women.
Out of the 2,200 people employed by the Commune, do you have more men or women employees working for the Commune?
Most of them are women in my view, because we have very large number of people employed under the health care sector, and most people working in this sector are women.
Which political party do you belong to?
I belong to the ruling party. But I do not agree with everything my party decides upon. I for instance don’t want Norway to become a part of the EU, because I believe decisions need to be made inside the country not outside ,but Anna Solberg I know, wants Norway to join the EU.
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