Samtökin ’78, the national queer organisation, has an open house every Thursday. Tonight people of foreign origin are encouraged to show up for some coffee and a nice chat.
“It’s an open house event, where we welcome everyone to share their perspectives on Iceland. Their perspectives on the daily life and culture of the city and country. Their experiences of visiting the country, living here or studying here for short or long periods of time. Everyone from Icelanders to residents of foreign origin and even tourists—if they happen to stumble upon our event, they’re welcome. It’s an ideal moment to meet other people with shared interests and to put all those social skills in action,” says Andres Pelaez, who along his boyfriend Sigurður “Siggi” Júlíus Guðmundsson, is hosting an open house at the headquarters of Samtökin ’78, at Suðurgata 3 in Reykjavík, tonight—where people of foreign origin are especially welcome.
Andres says that he and Siggi decided to organize the event because they feel it’s important for people to have a platform to express themselves about life in Iceland, where there is no agenda or a set topic to talk about. And they couldn’t imagine a better place to do that than within the safe zone of Samtökin ’78.
“I think it’s a great opportunity to meet new people, make a few new friends and share experiences and stories about our time in Iceland,” Andres explains and adds that after he himself experienced being an exchange student at the Iceland Academy of Arts (Listaháskóli Íslands) from 2012-2015, he saw how efficiently the students worked together when it came to sharing information on how to deal with paperwork and basic bureaucracy for residence permits, housing opportunities and even monthly events around the city.
“So me and Siggi thought it would be great to get a group of people together to interact within the social parameters of Reykjavík, in the hope that it would have the same effect. We decided to host the event during this holiday season also, because there are so many people who live on their own or have limited time to talk about their own experiences.”
But isn’t there a special group for “queer people of foreign origin” in Iceland?
“There is a foreigners group on Facebook called “S78 LGBT Foreigners in Iceland”. Also, “Hommaspjallið” [“The Gay Chat Room”] on Facebook, which is a queer men’s group and “Stelpur sem elska stelpur” [“Girls who love girls”], which is for the girls. Apart from that I know that every university in Iceland has a dedicated Facebook page for their exchange students, used by the students and international offices from each university to keep everyone updated on upcoming events. There, people can also ask for assistance and get to know each other. But it’s always better to personally meet other people and have active conversation, like tonight, even though it’s maybe a little more stressful. ”
Andres himself moved from Guatamla to Iceland in 2012. He says it would certainly have made things easier had a similar queer foreigners group existed here back then.
“I would have loved to have a chance to meet other people when I had just arrived. I think it would have made my first few months in the country a little bit easier, because as a newbie, you have to experience everything on your own. You have to find out how to get around town, find out what the DOs and DON’Ts are, and how to insert yourself into this tightly knit society. I think having a group to talk to would’ve softened the culture shock—a group where I could have talked about anything and everything from the weather to the appropriate ways of saying hello,” he says and smiles.
So just what are the most common obstacles or lack of information that you see foreigners facing here?
“I think the most common obstacle is the language barrier for official paperwork. Even though some government agencies have English websites, there is still a lack of detailed information available in other languages, considering how much the international community is growing in Iceland,” he answers, adding that, for example, when he first arrived, the exchange student group at the Iceland Academy of Arts comprised fifteen students, but today it surpasses 35. “And while universities have put a lot of time and effort in making non-Icelanders comfortable with their online platforms by asking their staff to translate things to English, there are still international courses taught just in Icelandic, regardless of the presence of international students. So there is still much to be done.”
But are there any in particular obstacles if you’re queer?
“I would say adapting to the queer scene in Iceland has its easy and difficult times. It is a medium-sized, so to speak, section of the population. So there are obstacles that you have to face when meeting people, because everyone is part of a small group of friends. You basically have to work your way into this group by meeting one of them first,” Andres tells me. “And if you come from a country or region where being queer is maybe not very well-seen or accepted it can be a bit of a challenge to accept the fact that you can suddenly be yourself at all times, at work, out and about, at home, without any prejudice—like here in Iceland. It’s a wonderful thing but it takes a bit of time to adapt to it.”
Andres points out that tonight’s open house is a part of Samtökin ’78’s weekly scheduled events. “I just hope that people get actively interested in joining more activities. Activities that require interaction with more people. Because they might have something interesting to share,” he says, adding that the event, which is accessible for wheelchair users, will start tonight at 8pm and end at 11pm.
More info on the event’s Facebook page.
This article is a guest post by Jóhanna Ýr Jónsdóttir on www.grapevine.is. It was originally written for the wonderful site GayIceland.is, Iceland’s news site on queer issues and events.
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