Over the past few decades Iceland has transformed from an isolated, homogenous country of emigration to a globalised, diverse country of immigration. Until the twentieth century, the population sat below 100,000. It recently surpassed 350,000, with over ten percent of residents being foreign born.
Despite the large proportion of immigrants, there is no immigrant-led organisation. Some nationalities have formal organisations, others have informal event planning groups, and others still are proudly individualistic. But that is changing.
On March 20th, an umbrella organisation was founded to coordinate for the common needs of the increasingly diverse community. The new organisation is called VERA; ”vera” meaning “to stay” in Icelandic.
Change and Continuity
Iceland’s immigration policy was very open and informal until recently, according to Barbara Bruns Kristvinsson (shown above), project director at the Human Rights Office of Reykjavík. She did not even need a permit to move here with her Icelandic husband in 1991.
Soon after settling in Iceland, Barbara attended a course on Icelandic society at the Red Cross where she met Hope Knutson and others interested in organising the first immigrants’ association, the Society of New Icelanders, which was active in the 1990s. It educated immigrants and officials alike on the rights and needs of immigrants. Their work played a pivotal role in the creation of the city-sponsored Foreigners’ Centre in 1993.
However, they felt their perspective was privileged and limited. “Early on [we] realized that we could not, with any fairness, answer for all immigrants. Hope and I are white, educated New Yorkers, other board members were also western, white people and we were aware that our experiences were very different from other immigrants moving to Iceland,” Barbara said.
In the early 2000s, an advisory and advocacy immigrant council was discussed, but it was bogged down by details. It was not an umbrella for pre-existing associations. “Problems arose when deciding who was to be in the group and how board members or representatives should [be] nominated and elected,” Barbara recalled. “For instance, if I, as somebody with experience in immigrant issues, wanted to be on the board, would I be representing other Americans? How could I, as there is no American club and therefore nobody nominated me for that position. At this time there were a few immigrant/cultural groups that were formal, registered associations but many of the largest groups still had no formal associations. For this reason, the questions about who represented whom and what role would the council play were never properly answered and the council sort of just died out.”
Barbara thinks it may be time for an umbrella organisation, but cautioned that the realities that derailed the Immigrants’ Council are still in place. “There are still not many formal associations and they vary in how active they are,” she said. It also varies how formal groups are. Some large groups do not have an association, others have multiple. “Who gets to be a member? How will the board of the umbrella organisation be elected? If there are more groups represented than there are board members needed, how can the umbrella organisation ensure representation of all the groups? What about those with religious affiliations such as the Muslim association?”
While Barbara has seen many changes over the course of her time in Iceland, many prejudices remain deeply rooted in Icelandic society. “Being an immigrant means going through some form of culture shock and taking stock of what is important to you. You have to figure out what is an integral part of your life and who you are as a person, explore your values, and decide what to keep and what you can let go of.”
Tomasz Chrapek is one of the leading organisers of the umbrella organisation and he was the chairman of the Multicultural Council.
He got involved with planning the organisation’s launch through his work on the council, where he learned that the state was looking to have more formal and direct communication with Iceland’s immigrant community. LUF, the Youth Council of Iceland, also noticed the lack of immigrant involvement and reached out to Tomasz. LUF is an umbrella of many youth groups and serves as a model for the new umbrella.
Tomasz acknowledges Barbara’s concern that many large groups are unorganised, but he sees the new organisation as a vehicle for them to create their own registered association.
“The major point in creating this organisation is to have a grassroot project that is run solely by independent NGOs, but at the same time to be strong and unified enough to challenge decisions made by the government,” he explains.
Tomasz believes there is “a recurring sentiment within the immigrant community that the facilities provided by the government (both on local and national level) are not doing enough to address all the issues facing immigrants in Iceland. With that in mind, the umbrella organisation’s goals are many.” The organisation aims to support its member associations, represent immigrants in public life, including politics, and organise public events.
The organisers hope the fledgeling group will collaborate well with authorities and actively promote events and foster cultural understanding. One day they hope to have a centre for members to use as a work space and act as a one-stop-shop for new groups to form.
The organisers are open to help and advice. Locals who want to get involved or those overseas with advice can join the Facebook group.
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