When Iceland receives new refugees, the Red Cross plays a crucial and central role. Working alongside the various municipalities and government ministries, their mission starts a long time in advance as they train new volunteers to aid the refugees’ arrival, along with furnishing their new homes, stocking their fridges, helping assess individual needs, and coordinating a support network upon their arrival.
To get a better idea of the process, and what steps arriving refugees go through, from their first steps on Icelandic soil to long-term integration, we spoke to the Red Cross’s point person—the project manager for resettled refugees, Hrafnhildur Kvaran.
Refugees are met at Keflavík Airport by a government representative, a social worker from the receiving municipality, and a Red Cross representative, before being taken to the housing that’s been made available, where they meet the volunteer families who’ll aid the integration process.
“It’s an amazing moment when people come into their new home,” says Hrafnhildur, “and the volunteers there have prepared a hot meal for them. I heard from one woman who came from Afghanistan, who said when she came into her house, there were fresh flowers there. She just couldn’t believe it, that someone had bought fresh flowers. She still remembered that.”
Refugees are, if at all possible, moved straight to their new housing. When accommodation is not quite ready, a small amount of refugees have been placed temporarily in hotel rooms, although the Red Cross tries to avoid this.
“We like to have houses ready,” says Hrafnhildur, “to give a sense of relief and security. If we’re talking about receiving larger numbers, we might have to think of other solutions, but when we’re receiving small groups, every family goes into their own house. That’s the preferred scenario for their arrival.”
When refugees arrive at their new home, the kitchen has been pre-stocked with enough food for two days. The next day, they have a meeting with a social worker and a Red Cross representative, to assess their needs and kick-start some important practical processes.
“That meeting is when they get information on the social services, and the role of their volunteers,” says Hrafnhildur. “People don’t have a kennitala [national identity number], which makes everything in Iceland difficult. In the first weeks, they therefore receive some money to live on from social services, in cash. The volunteers then take them to the grocery stores, and help find whatever else they need. Volunteers go through a preparatory course on things like how to communicate, and psycho-social support; the importance of being there for people. After the course, volunteers are told when the group arrives, and we start to make a plan about who will visit each family, and when. You know, we don’t want to suffocate people with help, but we do want to let them know when they arrive that someone is always there and willing. For each family we try to have two or three volunteer families available—it depends on the size of the family, and how much help they need and want.”
The state in which refugees arrive varies greatly, depending on their circumstances, but most are set on integrating themselves into Iceland quickly.
“One of the first questions many refugees ask is: ‘When can I start to learn Icelandic, and when can I go to work?’ says Hrafnhildur. “People are, of course, settling in, and can be disoriented at first—but they want to establish a routine, and to get to work, as soon as possible. We use translators as often as we can, but volunteers in their daily routines don’t translators—so there’s communication without words, in many cases. When we’re pairing the families, we look into the language skills of the volunteers—for example, if there’s an Arabic-speaking volunteer, they act as an ice-breaker. But that’s not always possible. One problem in our project is language, actually. For example, when we receive some groups—there are really not that many people who speak Persian in Iceland. But we did receive a previous group of Syrian refugees in January, and there were lessons learned on this—cultural lessons, from talking to Syrians.”
What Happens Next?
Once refugees have been received and have begun to settle in their new home, the Red Cross continues to support them going forward, all the while planning for future instances. Hrafnhildur walked us through some of the next steps, the on-going Red Cross efforts, and how interested people can best get involved:
Do refugees often envision going to their country of origin as soon as possible?
“It varies. People are invited to come here, and they could say no—but many are in a situation where they have to say yes, for their own safety. Some have families in other European countries. They do everything they can to integrate here, but of course, family bonds are stronger than anything. So maybe after a few years, once they have gained citizenship, then they’ll travel to Germany, or wherever their family regroups.”
Do refugees visit one another, or stay together to form a community?
“This is tricky question. Some people from Syria really don’t want to have anything to do with other Syrians. They’re afraid. They want to meet non-Arabic speakers and people not from Syria. They want to start again. For others, it’s much better to be able to contact people who have similar experience and backgrounds. We do have the capability to place people around Iceland—we have experience of receiving refugees in Akureyri, Ísafjörður, Blönduós—we have branches all over with experience of receiving refugees.”
Does the Red Cross always maintain a list of willing volunteer families, for when a crisis comes? Or respond to a specific crisis by seeking new volunteers when something comes up?
“Both. What’s happening now is amazing—we have never seen anything like this before. We sometimes use newspaper advertisements to seek volunteers, but when some Syrian refugees arrived in January, we didn’t have to. People come in to see us, and they know about it, they were willing to train—and to wait, for months. We maintain a list of volunteers to contact when new groups come—and right now, we are training new volunteer families.”
How can people best get involved if they want to?
“Those asking themselves ‘What can I do?’ can register with the Red Cross at www.raudikrossinn.is and enter into the training process until a group arrives. Or, they can donate money to UNICEF and the Red Cross to help us fund these projects. People also often call us and ask if they can give clothes or furniture—we collect material donations and things like that year-round.”