In 1996, the people of Ísafjarðarbær welcomed thirty refugees into their community with open arms. After a period of preparation, six families of mixed Serbian and Croatian marriages from former Yugoslavia arrived to take shelter in the relatively small (pop. 3,500) fishing community in the northern Westfjords, through the combined efforts of the Icelandic state, the Red Cross, and Ísafjarðarbær’s municipal government. Having endured persecution, fear, flight and agonizing uncertainty, the six families were finally home.
By the early 90s, nationalism had replaced communism as the dominant force in the Balkans. As the Yugoslav Federation commenced its slow, painful process of disintegration, centuries of animosity between Serbs and Croats reached a boiling point. Growing tension between the two Slavic ethnic groups resulted in acts of violence and persecution, with the region’s few mixed-marriage families being especially targeted.
Like so many others, the six families that eventually found themselves in Ísafjarðarbær were forced to flee their homes and abandon the lives they had built. With few options on the table, most of those who fled or were forcefully ejected from their homes found themselves in mass refugee camps, enduring a gruelling, uncertain waiting period with no solution in sight.
In response to the refugees’ plight, various aid organizations, NGOs and government bodies began actively working to relocate as many of the refugees as possible, providing shelter, counselling and the means to integrate into a new society.
The six families that would become Icelanders were airlifted from such refugee camps directly to their new hometown of Ísafjörður. With no idea of what lay ahead, it’s easy to imagine that the refugees felt anxious and disoriented as they found themselves in a strange town on the outskirts of a strange country, with no knowledge of the locals’ language and mindset. Thankfully, those feelings were not to last, due to an ambitious programme that was especially formulated to help them find comfort and confidence in their new home.
The programme devised to help the refugees integrate and adjust was the first of its kind in Iceland. Crafted with care and ambition, the programme entails state and municipal governments, the Red Cross and the local community all collaborating closely to ensure a smooth transition process and ample resources. It ultimately proved so successful that it is now the standard model for refugee integration in Iceland, and is currently being introduced and studied in various nations around the world.
The programme’s main premise was the introduction of so-called “support families”—local families that were carefully chosen out of a group of volunteers and matched up with a each of the six refugee families (all of which were relatively young, with children ranging from one to twelve years in age). After receiving training and instruction from the Red Cross, they welcomed the refugee families to their new homes, instructed to include them in their lives as if they were biologically related.
Bryndís Friðgeirsdóttir is a project manager at the Red Cross’ Westfjords division. As an active member of the organisation when the refugees arrived, she remembers the process well. “It was so easy to get volunteers here,” she recalls, smiling. Aside from the support families, other locals were eager to show their support and help in any way they could, Bryndís says, with older townspeople volunteering to serve as substitute grandparents, for instance.
As soon as the refugees’ arrival was confirmed, the Red Cross put out a call for donations, Bryndís says. Locals were quick to respond, with people in Ísafjarðarbær and the surrounding towns, such as Bolungarvík and Súðavík, pooling their resources and donating funds, clothing, furniture, and whatever else might be of use. The support families then sorted through these donations, and furnished the apartments that the municipality had provided for the soon to arrive refugee families, in an apartment building in the centre of Ísafjörður.
As part of Ísafjörður’s municipal government in the mid 90s, local doctor Þorsteinn Jóhannesson was among those who made the initial decision to invite refugees to Ísafjörður, and the planning, organisation and allotment of municipal funds that followed. He remembers the time fondly. “All of us were eager and willing to make this all go as well as possible,” he explains, “not just Ísafjarðarbær’s mayor and municipal government—every part of the community: The townspeople, the schools and local health care administrators all eagerly prepared for the refugees’ arrival, making sure they knew what to do.”
When asked whether they faced any opposition to the endeavour, Þorsteinn responds there are always bound to be a few detractors. “Of course. But, we barely noticed. It was such a small contingent, a mostly silent minority.”
For the refugees’ first year in Ísafjörður, the adults were barred from working, says Bryndís, so they might spend their time and energy on acclimatizing to their new environment. Their expenses were paid for by the municipality, as they attended Icelandic language classes in the morning and seminars on Icelandic culture in the afternoon. The refugees’ other needs were also considered and tended to, Bryndís says, the programme for instance offering consistent psychological support.
Meanwhile, the children were enrolled in the local school, fairly effortlessly picking up the local language and culture. They were also made to take regular lessons in their mother tongue, with an experienced school teacher, Dragana Zastavnikovic, included in the group specifically so she could oversee that part of their education. Bryndís says that maintaining children’s connection to their native tongue and culture is a very important consideration—and that failing to do so can have grave consequenses, as has been consistently demonstrated in recent decades.
“I don’t know what would have happened to us”
Denis Grbic was eleven years old when he arrived in Ísafjörður with his parents. “It was different than we expected when we arrived,” Denis reminisces. “It’s obviously a small town, and we had never been in a place like that before. But coming there still felt peaceful and nice after everything we had been through. It was great, really.”
After that first year in Ísafjörður, the families moved out of the apartment building, with some purchasing homes in town while others rented apartments in Ísafjörður and elsewhere.
Once they had acclimatised, the refugees eventually started seeking employment and opportunities outside of Ísafjörður. Some families stayed in the area for a year or so before moving on to places like Reykjavík, Akureyri, and Hafnarfjörður—where job opportunities were more ample and varied—while others remained in Ísafjörður for longer periods (although all of them have left by now, almost twenty years later).
“The idea was never that they would remain in Ísafjörður forever,” Bryndís explains. “The refugees we hosted came from big cities, and it seemed evident from the outset that they would eventually want expand their horizons and move on to somewhere bigger eventually.”
Denis and his parents relocated to Keflavík four years after their arrival, eventually settling in Reykjavík—a fairly common trajectory for small-town Icelanders. Denis still lives there, working as a chef at Hótel Saga to support his own family.
“If it wasn’t for them, I don’t know what would have happened to us,” Denis responds when asked how he feels about the programme in retrospect. “It helped us get on our feet, to establish ourselves and find employment. Ever since, we’ve kept working, and living.”
Small Town Advantage
“When they first came, they formed a close group,” Bryndís says, “but after a single year, they had become siply a regular part of the town. In a community the size of Ísafjörður’s, everyone basically knows each other, and this of course results in newcomers being met with curiosity and care.”
“I believe this endeavour proved as successful as it did not the least because of the scant size of our community,” Bryndís continues. “It stands to reason that integrating in a small town environment, where people are close and take an active interest in one another, would prove easy and comfortable.”
Þorsteinn shares the sentiment: “I think it went well because we are a very small society here in the Westfjords, and that enabled us to keep a close eye on the proceedings.”
Small-town life also makes getting things done a lot easier, with even the bureaucracy more accessible and personal than elsewhere. This is also true for an organisation like the Red Cross, says Bryndís. “Due to its compact nature, the people at Ísafjörður’s Red Cross chapter were able to amend the refugee programme as they saw fit, and meet any need that arose. For example, if one of the famililies had many children, we were easily able to provide them with two friend families, to make for a more even match.”
When asked whether she agrees that the programme was a success, Bryndís smiles and gives a strong affirmative. “Very much so. It’s important to remember that we are all human and that we should care for one another, because we never know when we will need assistance ourselves. We long since stopped thinking of them as refugees. They are Icelanders, plain and simple. Even those who moved out of the country: they are Icelanders living abroad. They are us, and we are them.”
If you’re interested in more information on Iceland’s current refugee situation, check out these articles:
Ísafjarðarbær Mayor: “We Will Gladly Welcome Refugees To Our Community”
“Last week, the municipal government of Ísafjarðarbær (where I serve as mayor) made a declaration on behalf of the community it serves. We declared that we, the people of Ísafjarðarbær, are ready and willing to welcome refugees to our town and host them to the best of our abilities. It is our civic duty, and it is a show of social responsibility.”
“We Have To Do This Together”: Mayor Dagur B. On Acceepting “Hundreds” Of Refugees
“The government and the ministerial committee on refugees are currently deciding on the number of refugees that will come to Reykjavík and Iceland’s various municipalities.”
Hundreds Assemble At Parliament Calling On Gov’t To Welcome Refugees
“Hundreds turned out in front of parliament yesterday to demand the government take action now and welcome more Syrian refugees to Iceland.”