Photo by Julie Nguyen
May Wigen Breivik, a strong 91-year-old who emigrated from Norway in 1948, demonstrates how she knits her fancy Norwegian mittens, her favorite hobby. She shares her craft skills and sells her mittens at her local church. She also teaches cooking at Roosevelt High School.
In 1948, May Breivik worked five days a week at a travel agency in Stavanger, Norway. As she booked customers’ trips to the United States, she never imagined that she would soon be one of those passengers sailing to a new life in America.
Per Haugstad Breivik was in Norway to buy his ticket and met May before he sailed home to visit his family in the United States. They met for coffee and got to know each other during his subsequent visits. In time, he wanted May to go back home with him. She refused.
Finally, when Per was visiting Iceland, he wrote May a letter proposing that she marry him and join him on his wheat farm in North Dakota. She agreed and began a nine-day voyage on the Stavangerfjord to meet her future husband.
The journey would take Breivik first to North Dakota and later Minnesota, where 91-year-old Breivik has lived since the 1950s.
Minnesota has been a magnet
In 1850, many of the foreigners who migrated to Minnesota were from Norway, Sweden, Ireland and Germany. These people came to Minnesota to farm the vast amounts of arable land, said Haven Hawley, program director at the Immigration History Research Center.
By 1910, more than 60 percent of the immigrants who came to Minnesota were from Norway, Sweden and Germany.
In 1950, about the time Breivik arrived, many immigrants came from the devastation left by World War II in Europe.
In the 1970s and 1980s, a wave of Hmong and Vietnamese immigrants came from Southeast Asia after the Vietnam War. The majority of immigrants came from Africa, Mexico and Eastern Europe.
By 2007, nearly 38 percent of foreign-born Minnesotans were Asian, 25 percent were Latino, 14 percent were European, 4 percent were Canadian and 19 percent were African. Many of today’s immigrants come from countries like Somalia and Liberia that have been torn apart by war.
Today’s America is very different
Through her job at the travel agency, Breivik knew English and some other languages. Learning languages was always easy for her and by the time she arrived, she could even think in English – a skill that helped her adapt easily to the United States.
Also, Breivik’s husband had become a citizen and had lived in the United States for several years before they got married, easing the transition further. Minnesota already housed tens of thousands of Norwegian immigrants and had created a relatively stable place to live.
Today’s immigrants often face much more complicated challenges. Out of 860,000 students in Minnesota, 94,212 of them speak a native language other than English. When English is a second or third language, learning takes longer.
Unlike Breivik, many Somali and Latino immigrants arrive without knowing English or having formal education. And they live in communities that often view them with suspicion.
Immigrants are coming to the United States to flee countries besieged by war and poverty. Often the jobs they find here don’t pay a lot.
Barbara Ronningen, a demographer in the Minnesota State Demographic Center, said that among all Minnesotans, about 10 percent are likely to be poor; but if you are foreign-born, that number jumps to about 18 percent.
For Breivik, however, the boat ride from Norway to America was a vacation. Then 30, Breivik spent the trip having drinks with the new friends she had made, dancing to the fabulous orchestra and eating wonderful meals.
“I danced my way across the Atlantic,” Breivik recalled with a smile.
Breivik’s boat arrived in New York and docked near the Statue of Liberty. The next morning, Breivik stood on the bow of the ship, looking down and saw Per on the dock waiting for her with a brand new Oldsmobile, ready to start their life together.
They drove from New York to the St. Paul courthouse and on Sept. 1st they got married with the secretary as their witness. They were married until Per’s death 30 years ago.
However, even after living in the United States for 61 years, Breivik still misses things from her homeland.
“I miss the ocean,” she said. “I miss the fish. We had fish every night for dinner except for Sundays.”
Breivik lives with one of her daughters in Minneapolis in her cozy two-bedroom house. “I still feel like and outsider,” she said, with a hint of sadness. “I’m different.”