Since the original Humans of New York site was started in 2010, ‘Humans of…’ has become a global phenomenon. Short stories of people on the street put a human face on the myriad people who make a city tick.
Humans of Oslo, founded by Iffit Qureshi in 2012, is one of the fastest-growing ones.
Originally from Glasgow, Scotland, where she was born and raised in a Pakistani family, Qureshi learned about racism and being “the other” early on.
“I was bullied at school because of my skin color,” Qureshi says. “I remember what it was like when my mother was abused on the street because she dressed differently.”
Moved to Oslo at age 19
The decision to move to Oslo at age 19 released Qureshi from being the main breadwinner in her family and gave her an opportunity to focus on herself and her future – but it also brought home the uncomfortable fact that racism is everywhere, even in the most advanced of societies.
“I was able to get an education, while working to both support myself and send money home to my parents. But when 9/11 struck in 2001, there was so much focus on ethnic minorities that I started to dig deeper and ask the big question: Are we [Muslims] really that bad?” says Qureshi.Already part of the anti-racism movement in Norway, Qureshi began writing for national newspapers and became a powerful voice in the debate on racism in society.
“It was important for me to be able to express myself, and while I was provocative at times, adding my thoughts to the hot-button issues of the day helped me find my voice and direction,” she says.
Utoya was a turning point
The attacks on Oslo and Utoya on July 22, 2011, were a turning point for Qureshi, who arrived in the center of Oslo 10 minutes after the explosion. As the mother of a 16-year-old son, she feared for his safety and began looking for answers as to why this was happening in the city and the country she had grown to love.
“I couldn’t write for an entire year,” she says. “Newspapers kept asking me to comment, but there was nothing I could say to comfort anyone. I felt like I had already said what needed to be said: homegrown terrorists, internal threats, and national extremism were as much a threat to society as outside forces. So I kept quiet, followed the case, and began changing my way of thinking.”
Qureshi wanted to do something to open people’s eyes to the idea that diversity is not a bad thing – not dangerous or threatening – but instead something to be embraced. A full year after the attacks a friend showed her ‘Humans of New York’ and she soon decided this was the platform she’d been looking for.
“That was a different way of getting people’s stories out there, through images and their own words,” Qureshi explains. “I could just be the conduit, and with the media so polarized, this was a new way of adding to the debate.”
No mentioning of external drivers
Feeling that people tend to be put into boxes and labeled, Qureshi decided to avoid mentioning ethnicity, religion, political color, or sexual preference.
“So many of us, myself included, walk down the street and make snap judgments about the people we see, separating them into categories,” Qureshi says. “Not mentioning external drivers allows people to reveal – or not reveal – whatever they want, and you end up seeing the person instead of an ideology.
“Oslo has a reputation of being rude and cold. Humans of Oslo has helped people see that the city is actually filled with warm, interesting people, and is much more diverse than they realized.”
Even Oslo natives are surprised at what is revealed by their fellow city dwellers. There have already been seven Humans of Oslo exhibitions in Norway.
“People tell me the page makes them see Oslo in a whole new light,” Qureshi says. “People have said, ‘You suddenly make me love my city. It makes me proud to be from Oslo.’ ”
Many of her readers spend hours reading about their fellow humans at night, when they can’t sleep, and emotions run high at nighttime.
“They tell me that after reading and looking at the images they have faith in humanity again,” she says.
Qureshi feels Humans of Oslo is an important voice for the city, and she’s committed to keeping it going.
“I feel I have an enormous amount of responsibility to my adopted city, particularly after the events of July 22. Oslo is a small city in Northern Europe, and the interesting thing is that people realize that there’s so much more diversity here than they ever knew. Right next door.”
‘No one ever asks to take my picture’
“You want my picture. How nice. I’m 88 years old you know and no one ever asks to take my picture. You know, I’ve become older, but inside I’m the same. I try to remain optimistic. The basic rule is this: Life is what you make it. My first husband was horrible to me, so I divorced him. I was 46 years old and I had decided that I would never remarry, but my second husband worked hard to persuade me and also to make me trust him. He was so loving. Unfortunately he died 39 years ago, and I decided never to remarry again.But that doesn’t mean that I wasn’t given offers. Lots of men asked me.”