On the morning of November 6th, the entrance to Borgarleikhúsið could have easily been mistaken for a busy New York sidewalk. People from every corner of the world had assembled to converse in several languages about the common bond they share; they each call Iceland home. The coffee was hot and the spirit was communal as the assembly was warmly welcomed to the first Reykjavík Multicultural Conference organized by the city’s Mayor, Jón Gnarr.
THE FIRST MULTICULTURAL CONFERENCE
Attendance exceeded expectations with over 160 city residents of foreign origin meeting for two purposes: to elect a five-person panel to advise the city’s Human Rights Council and to discuss the how the city can better serve ‘new citizens’ living in Reykjavík. This is the first meeting of this type to take place in Reykjavík where almost 10.000 city residents are foreign born. The event’s announcement was vaguely worded, inviting foreigners to discuss Reykjavík’s “efforts to improve its services for immigrants.” Staged as a round table discussion, and divided by language, the question and answer format was well organised and very structured. The format left little time to voice concerns about fundamental issues such as discrimination, specific instances of injustice, and overall bias in our community, causing some—who had been hoping to address them—to leave at the first break.
A CALL FOR INFORMATION
The areas of discussion were education and pre-schools, culture and travel, ÍTR (the Reykjavík sports and recreation authority), social services, service offices and the web division. The questions were somewhat repetitive and the answers to each quite similar. In retrospect, the answers to most questions can be interpreted as a call for information. More information, better information, and information in a language accessible to new citizens is badly needed.
For example, questions were asked about what improvements should be made in the area of the city’s schools. It was pointed out that most communication to parents from the city’s elementary schools is in Icelandic. This means that children of immigrants receive a less positive educational experience during the transition period while their parents are learning Icelandic. Meanwhile, both the University of Iceland and the city’s play-schools have changed their policies to make all communication available in both Icelandic and English.
In other areas, the questions were designed to assess why participation rates are lower with immigrants than native Icelanders. Simply put, the information delivery structure is lacking. It is assumed that people know what ÍTR is, or that all children receive a scholarship for recreational activities, that most city museums are free, and even where their local social service office is located and what purpose it serves.
Often this information fails to reach those who do not read daily newspapers, do not participate in coffee room talks and have no Icelandic relatives. Many simply do not know the what, where, how, and why of navigating life in Reykjavík despite having lived and worked in the city for years. As conference attendee Letitia B. Johnson, M.A. student at H.Í., remarked, ”Iceland is an assumption culture, which is to say that, it is assumed everyone knows or knows someone who knows.”
THE ALWAYS-CONFUSING DIRECTORATE OF IMMIGRATION
The most common complaint heard during the discussion was overwhelmingly against Útlendingastofnun (the Directorate of Immigration). The Directorate of Immigration is a federal institution, not a city service, and was thus not on the list of discussion topics. Therefore, the complaints made against it would have been ignored if not for the fact that their practices are in many cases hindering use of the city’s services, especially social services. According to those present, the institution creates a “culture of fear,” and its guidelines are “subjective” and “unclear.” Due to these factors, foreign-born residents, especially those from outside the EU, are afraid to seek services at risk of complicating or voiding their work and residency permits.
Barbara Kristvinsson, lawyer and counsellor at the Immigrant Information Centre—and long time champion for immigrant rights—stated that some services are exempt and that foreigners should not be afraid to seek help. Barbara refers anyone who has questions about these issues to contact her office at Þjónustumiðstöð Miðborgar og Hlíða.
However, the rules about which social services are OK to use, and which services are off limits, are not stated clearly either at the social services offices, or at utl.is [the Directorate of Immigration’s website]. Documentation is required to be included in your annual application for renewal from your local social service office which states that you have not received assistance. This is confusing and many do not wish to complicate the already difficult process of reapplication for work and residency permits.
THE MULTICULTURAL COMMITTEE IS ALREADY AT WORK
One of the assembly’s main purposes was to appoint a Multicultural Committee that will assist and advise Reykjavík’s Human Rights Council regarding immigrant affairs. After tallying the votes, it was announced that the new committee would be composed of Akeem-Cujo Oppong (Ghana), Shuhui Wang (China), Toshiki Toma (Japan), Juan Camilo Román Estrada (Columbia), Angelique Kelley (United States), Raúl Sáenz (Mexico) and Katelin Marit Parsons (Canada).
These people are already at work. According to the city’s website, the newly elected panel had its first meeting on the 23rd of November. Human Rights Officer Anna Kristinsdóttir met with the committee to discuss the future goals and to present the committee with their first tasks. While the transcriptions recorded at the multicultural conference are still in the process of translation, “extracting and condensing the data gathered,” is the Multicultural Committee’s first project and current challenge.
According to the newspiece on Reykjavík.is, the committee also discussed the importance of using the information gathered in a positive way, and expressed desires that the Multicultural Conference becomes an annual event. One of the recurring topics at the conference pertained to how the city can better deliver information to its new citizens. The committee is already working on this, announcing plans to set up a Facebook page that would mediate information easily, as well as acting as discussion forum for the group. The committee welcomes suggestions and inquiries by email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Overall, it seems the conference was a success. The people who attended the meeting were mostly people who care deeply about Iceland and have a vested stock in creating an environment more welcoming to its new citizens, because this is where they live, work, love, and raise their families. This is home.