Oslo’s 27-year-old deputy mayor is a Tamil who survived the Utøya island massacre, giving her unique authority in the debate over refugees.
Oslo City Hall seems a fitting place to meet Khamshajiny Gunaratnam for the first time. This grand 20th-century building hosts the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony each year and has become a symbolic venue when it comes to celebrating big ideas for social progress.
The woman I’m here to meet, a 27-year-old politician best-known by the nickname Kamzy, was elected to the post of deputy mayor with unanimous support this October. Gunaratnam sits at the forefront of a coalition movement with a new vision for Norwegian politics – one that rejects the status quo and emphasises democracy and progress as a basis to govern.
“I don’t accept it when people say, ‘this is how we’ve always done things, and this is how we’re always going to do it,’” she says. “The only way we can move society forward is by disagreeing, discussing and coming up with new solutions to the problem we’re facing. We need as many people as possible to be involved to realise the best solutions for our city and our country.
“In 10 or even 100 years, we have to be able to look at ourselves in the mirror and tell our children and grandchildren that we took these decisions and we’re proud to have done what we’ve done,” she adds.
Gunaratnam was born in Sri Lanka and moved to Norway when she was three years old. Her family is part of the Tamil diaspora, known for their work towards keeping the fishing industry alive in the north of Norway. A few years after their arrival, the family relocated to Oslo so Gunaratnam and her brother could attend a Tamil school. “I became engaged with politics mainly because of the situation in Sri Lanka. It’s a complicated country where people are not always safe or secure,” she explains. “I realised that children there didn’t have the same rights and opportunities that I had in Oslo, and I wanted to do something about it.”
This political awakening led Gunaratnam to join the Tamil Youth Organisation in Oslo, where she first met governing mayor Raymond Johansen, also elected to his seat in October. “I didn’t know who he was yet, but he was interested in what was important to young people,” she explains. “He told me, ‘if you have ideas about how you want our society to be, you need to get involved with politics’.” Gunaratnam followed his advice, but her engagement with Norwegian politics came at a price: she soon found herself banned from entering Sri Lanka as a result of her campaigning at home.
A few years later, in 2011, when Gunaratnam was 23, she attended a Workers’ Youth League camp on the island of Utøya. During her stay, Anders Breivik attacked the island in a massacre that killed 69 people. Gunaratnam swam 500 metres across Tyrifjorden lake to survive, bullets hitting the water around her as she fled. “My mum said to me, ‘I didn’t run away from shooting in Sri Lanka for you to be shot in Norway’,” she recalls. “Growing up in Norway, I never thought that becoming involved in politics would someday result in somebody trying to kill you.”
The experience didn’t prevent her from continuing in politics. If anything, she says, it’s made her fight harder. Paired with her immigrant background, being a survivor of Utøya has given her a unique authority on the most important topics of the day, especially the current debates around refugees and freedom of movement. “I believe every country should take their responsibility,” she says. “There was a time when Norwegian people flew over the Atlantic to the US because of the situation in Norway. Today people see Norway as a great place to be, and we should feel honoured by that.”
Her solutions-oriented approach values rigorous debate and recognises the voices of ordinary people, though these standards don’t always resonate through the traditions and institutions of politics. “Too many politicians are afraid they won’t be elected or re-elected. That approach doesn’t interest me,” she explains. “I’m a deputy mayor for the whole city of Oslo – even those who didn’t vote for me. And as a young politician, it’s easier for me to confront the establishment than it would be for a person who was 50 or 60 years old.”
Given her success this year, does she see a role in national government ahead? “I honestly don’t know,” she says with a laugh. “This deputy mayor role came as a surprise. My ambition right now is to be a voice for those who still don’t, or still can’t, speak their mind. You have to bring people together and work collectively for a better society. I want to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to be part of the political process.”