The Icelandic government’s hasty and unfortunate move to deport four refugees seeking asylum two weeks ago came as a shock to both the refugees and the Icelanders working on their behalf. In mid-October, 19-year old Nour Al-din Alazzawi, whose story the Grapevine profiled this summer, was arrested in his home after a 14-month period of limbo and given 15 minutes to pack his belongings. The next morning, police escorted him onto a plane and accompanied him on his flight to Athens, Greece. Hearing word of the deportation, Wali Safi, an Afghani-refugee with a girlfriend and stepchildren here in Iceland, went into immediate hiding. Until the Ministry of Justice re-opens his case and grants him asylum, Wali writes, “I must remain in hiding.”
For activists and sympathizers here in Reykjavík, the event was a call to arms—a reminder of the severity of the refugee situation. The Hljómalind Collective, born out of the now defunct Kaffi Hljómalind—where Nour worked from July 2009 until the cafe’s recent closing—banded together with the stated goal of assisting Nour during his stay in Athens and bringing him back to Reykjavík for good. Helena Stefánsdóttir, one of the original owners of Kaffi Hljómalind and a founding member of the collective, was in a state of disbelief when she heard of the deportation. “He was one of the best people we ever had at Hljómalind,” she said.
Stefánsdóttir set up a bank account where people could donate money that very night. By the next morning, the collective had gathered 100.000 ISK to send to Nour. By the time Helena came home from wiring the money, another 70.000 ISK had been raised. The four original owners subsequently met with the Minister of Justice and asked for assistance. The minister agreed, and has since been guiding the collective through the immigration process in order to bring Nour back.
Although Nour recently received permission from the Icelandic government to stay in Iceland while his immigration and work papers are processed, the Norwegian Embassy in Greece (Iceland has no Greek embassy) advised Nour that he might still need a visa to return, adding another layer of uncertainty. Nour is currently still awaiting the arrival of his Iraqi passport in Athens.
“The chances are pretty high that [Nour] will be coming back very soon,” Stefánsdóttir says, claiming it is a matter of days, not weeks or months.
Meanwhile, a separate collective has been working on keeping the refugee issue in the spotlight. Initially a branch of the international organization No Borders, the nameless collective is composed of roughly 100 activists updating each other and running www.this.is/refugees, a website dedicated to tracking refugee conditions within Iceland. Along with raising funds, the collective also aims to raise awareness through demonstrations, marches and benefit concerts, including one planned for the 14th of November at Grand Rokk.
Living conditions at the refugee hostel in Keflavík are trying, they say, with asylum-seekers often rubbing shoulders with young travellers on vacation. Even though the refugees are free to leave, their meagre stipends leave them isolated for all practical purposes. Uncertainty about their asylum status only compounds their insecurity. Members of the collective try to alleviate the situation by visiting the refugees, cooking meals, spending time with them and creating personal connections.
Nour’s case is not unique, but it is important. The publicity “raises the problem to a personal level,” Stefánsdóttir said, while holding a packet of immigration papers meant for the Ministry of Justice. Instead of approaching each case individually, “we put refugees, criminals and gangsters under one hat.”