Published September 16, 2015
Recently, over a thousand Icelanders took to Facebook to pledge their help to those fleeing Syria, with participants vowing to provide food, money, clothes and anything else to help Syrian refugees in need. But even the most cynical person would not be surprised by those kinds of offers. What was surprising, even to optimists, was that a large number promised to take refugees into their homes.
Like AirBnB for people whose country is in ruins.
If anybody needs a long vacation, it is the people of Syria. The campaign started in late August, when Bryndís Björgvinsdóttir, an award-winning young adult novelist, created a Facebook event demanding that Icelanders grant asylum to a greater number of refugees from Syria, upon learning the government’s plans to accept only fifty, over a period of two years.
Wow! A whole fifty? You’d almost need two buses to get them from the airport.
In the post that kicked off the campaign, Bryndís offered to personally sponsor airfare for five additional refugees, and said that she knew someone who would be happy to house them—her idea being that individual efforts might help Icelanders increase the number of refugees accepted. All she asked from the government were the necessary residency and work visas. That is when offers starting pouring in from other Icelanders and, eventually, abroad. The cynical among you might think that internet promises are cheap, but there are already signs that people are following through. For instance, more than a thousand people registered as volunteers for the Icelandic branch of the Red Cross as a result of the campaign.
For a thousand people you need a pretty long bus.
This is not unique to Iceland. All over Europe, people have been offering money, food, housing and other assistance. And not just regular citizens, but also artists, businesspeople and even the Pope, who asked every Catholic parish and monastery in Europe to take in at least one family of refugees. Many politicians have responded positively to this widespread feeling of goodwill—for instance the Prime Minister of Finland, who offered up his second home for refugees.
That does sound a little bit like the premise of a television situation comedy.
No such situation, comedic or otherwise, will involve the Icelandic Prime Minister, Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson. He seemed more worried about the motivations of people offering help, than about offering any help himself. He said: “Our reaction can never be aimed at fulfilling our possible needs to see the results of our work or be thanked for it.” By that logic, the one person worse than someone who does nothing to save a drowning child, is someone who feels good about trying saving a drowning child.
Only people who feel slightly disgusted with themselves afterwards should save drowning children.
Iceland has a patchy history when it comes to refugees. The lowest point was when the government expelled Jews seeking to escape Nazi Germany. But through the years, various groups of refugees have been granted asylum in Iceland, many of them settling down. For example Hungarians in the 1950s, Vietnamese in the 1970s, and Colombians in the last decade. But it has never been a great amount of people. Numbers are only available from 1956, and since then only 549 refugees have been resettled in Iceland. That does not include those Icelanders who have had to flee their homes because of avalanches and volcanic eruptions.
You have to pretty desperate to want to live on a freezing cold, storm-beaten, volcano-riddled rock in the North Atlantic.
It is not an easy thing, starting a new life in Iceland. Several municipalities around the country, including Reykjavík, have said that they are ready to accept refugees. Around the turn of the century, there was a conscious policy to settle refugees in small towns in the countryside. Which makes sense, as it is easier to get to know people when there are fewer people around.
Also, that’s a much better premise for a situation comedy.
In the last ten years refugees have been housed in Reykjavík and nearby towns, which also makes sense since many services are easier to obtain in the city. Reykjavík could also accept much larger numbers than any other place in Iceland. Mayor Dagur B. Eggertsson has said that the city could easily take in “hundreds” of refugees.
Hundreds, eh? Not to get too bleak, but three million Syrians have fled the country in the last few years.
The people who will be resettled here will be only a tiny fraction of the total number of refugees. But when you see a river full of drowning people, you do not start to worry about how to save them all. You just start bringing as many as you can onto dry land. And how you feel about it is your business and no one should judge you, especially if they are standing by doing nothing.