SPARKS TURN TO FLAMES: A Conversation With Bryndís Björgvinsdóttir

SPARKS TURN TO FLAMES: A Conversation With Bryndís Björgvinsdóttir

Haukur S. Magnússon
Photos by
Axel Sigurðarson

Published September 18, 2015

Or: Fucking Around Can Make A Lot Of Difference, And It’s Important To Always Keep Trying And Not Give Up And Avoid Getting Cynical Or Losing Hope, Because Eventually An Unexpected Crack Might Open Up And You Might Then Slip Through That Crack And Maybe You Can Grab The Opportunity And Create Room For Change And Bring About An Improvement And Shape The World For The Better

Bryndís Björgvinsdóttir is very concerned that we don’t position her on our cover as some sort refugee queen or saviour figure. She doesn’t actually want to be on our cover, or any magazine cover for that matter. This much is clear. Unless, maybe, if she were promoting a novel. But she’s not, not at the moment (she will be, later: Bryndís Björgvinsdóttir is an acclaimed author, her third novel will be released this November. Incidentally, her second novel, ‘The Fly That Ended The War’ is about “How little flies can come together and change everything,” as she describes it).

Bryndís Björgvinsdóttir is visibly exhausted.

Bryndís Björgvinsdóttir does not want to be on our cover, but she also does not want to say no to our offer of appearing on our cover. Bryndís Björgvinsdóttir feels an obligation to be on our cover, because being on our cover might help further the cause she is currently fighting for, that she currently dedicates every ounce of her considerable energy to, the cause she cares about so much that she has foregone eating and sleeping and any semblance of a normal life or regular schedule for the however many days it’s been since it all started (we try to figure it out and we can’t, because they have become a faded blur).

We try to count, though: A month ago, three weeks ago, a couple of weeks ago, ten days ago—at least ten days ago—Bryndís was not exhausted. She ran no risk of being unjustly propped up as a refugee queen or saviour figure on any magazine cover. Her waking hours were not spent juggling representatives from every major media outlet in the known universe, and many minor media outlets.

It was an OK time. Dead bodies calmly drifted through the Mediterranean. Autumn was coming. She was gearing up for the coming semester at the Iceland Academy of the Arts, where she is an adjunct. Entire families were regularly decimated, braving an impossible situation in order to escape an even worse one, and failing, as one does. She wondered whether she should take in a movie. A young girl was never seen again. Sunday came around, as it does. So it goes.

News happen, and they are reported. Iceland’s Minister of Welfare, a pleasant woman in her mid-forties (her name is Eygló Harðardóttir), attempts to respond to criticism her government has received, since Icelanders learned that their nation’s intended contribution to alleviating the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis was to entail this: granting shelter 50 refugees (a mere 50 refugees), over the course of two years (two very long years). A drop in an ocean that’s already difficult to navigate because of all the dead bodies floating around. Many Icelanders, still shaken by the disturbing images the crisis has wrought, have tried to make it known that they consider such efforts a meagre tokenism, beneath even them, who have historically been hesitant to accept outsiders to their ranks, not the least refugees.

(We are well aware that we have long lagged far behind every neighbouring country of ours in fulfilling our moral and stated obligation to the specific kind of crisis relief that would maybe bring strangers into our front yard. We ought to be used to it by now, but we are still ashamed and embarrassed to learn of this plan.)

Out of frustration and a sense of helplessness, a simple idea is born, because why not. Then, as it burgeons, we are reminded that change is possible, and the world is always ours to shape.

Eygló takes the stage and says something like (this is the gist): “I urge Icelanders to speak up if they are unhappy with this plan, and inform us of what they would rather see happen.”

Bryndís, not exhausted, not on any magazine cover, is interested in the affairs of refugees. She has been known to make an effort, to attempt to make a difference. She has tried to aid refugees in need, volunteering with organizations, making donations and using her free time to visit and converse with refugees-in-limbo who have maybe been placed on suicide-watch, because of frustration from the exorbitant waiting periods that forever remain a feature of Iceland’s maybe-intentionally hobbled system for dealing with asylum applications.

She is interested, and she is a little frustrated, because: doesn’t it seem like a human’s obligation to act or react somehow when faced with a situation such as this? Isn’t there some primal instinct that commands a human to offer a helping hand, when many other humans are dying senseless, easily avoidable deaths in some ocean or on some prairie because of nothing important, really.

Unaware of the minister’s comments, Bryndís sat in her hometown of Hafnarfjörður, and thought: “I am unhappy with this plan, and I should do something, anything, to express this notion, and I should maybe try to offer a solution. She fucked around on Facebook, as we are grown accustomed to. Bryndís grew restless or frustrated in her thoughts. She had seen those photographs—they were all over Facebook.

Like many times in the past, Bryndís got an idea. Just a thought, really, or an inkling. She considered that idea, and then she casually thought: “yes, why not?” Why not.

So she moved forward and spent a little time and she executed a little idea that would maybe amuse her friends and perhaps inspire others to maybe come up with other ideas, and perhaps help her vent some of the frustration that had been building.

Then, something happened.

Another thing happened.

Things kept happening.

And here we are.

THE IDEA

Bryndís’s idea was this: she would make a public Facebook event and invite her friends, and then invite them to invite their friends (and so on). The Facebook event would serve to apply pressure to Iceland’s government, a call to step up their game and accept more refugees at a critical time. This pressure would be of the positive kind; instead of merely yelling “C’mon, Iceland’s government, you suck, get moving already!” the Facebook event would serve as a forum where willing volunteers could pledge their time and resources, wowing to aid in the welcoming of refugees in any way they could.

She thought: “I’ll offer to pay for flights for five refugees. Then, my friend Þorvaldur has offered to put them up for a while in his apartment, and to give them food. Then, Þorvaldur’s friend Sigga might want to volunteer to teach language lessons, or donate blankets, or food, or funds, or something else. Kata might offer to make coffee for everyone. And so on.”

Bryndís’s idea was this: ordinary people from all walks of life all have something to offer, and many of them have already expressed a wish to do something, anything, to aid the refugees in their plight. Once the offers to help had been tallied together, they might amount to a tangible figure; a clear amount of services, goods and funding that would enable Icelanders to welcome an extra ten or 50 or 100 refugees to their country.

All that was needed was for someone to listen, and keep score. She would do this, and then she would present the results to her government, thus pressuring that government to admit more refugees, at a faster pace. Ideally, the government would have a hard time saying “no” when confronted by a tangible expressions of their nation’s will.

“Refugees are human resources, experience and skills. Refugees are our future spouses, best friends, our next soul mate, the drummer in our children’s band, our next colleague, Miss Iceland 2022, the carpenter who finally fixes our bathroom, the chef in the cafeteria, the fireman, the hacker and the television host. People who we’ll never be able to say to: ‘Your life is worth less than mine.’”

Bryndís’s idea was to create a venue where anyone who wished to make a difference could offer their services and assistance, and engage in discussion and exchange ideas with others of the same bent. And maybe alter the local discourse on refugees, so that it focuses on the issues at hand.

So she did.

And here we are.

SCHOOL

Bryndís doesn’t want to be on our cover. Bryndís is exhausted. Bryndís is besieged by the international media.

Bryndís agrees to meet for coffee, and talk about it all. Bryndís arrives late, and Bryndís’s phone keeps ringing throughout our conversation. Bryndís has much to say, and Bryndís—sensing that the world is all of the sudden and out of the blue listening—is trying her best to say all of it.

Her phone now on silent, Bryndís digs into a piece of toast topped with avocado, and our conversation slowly commences. Both children of the ‘80s, we compare experiences of Iceland’s culture of the time, and its educational system, considering whether and how they may have shaped our generation’s seemingly (of late) humanitarian attitudes.

We consider how Icelandic newspapers have traditionally devoted space to reports on children collecting money for charity, through pop-up raffles and flea markets. Icelandic newspapers still occasionally run these stories: pictures of smiling kids, a caption giving their names and ages explaining that they had made a small amount of krónur staging a raffle, and that they donated it to an organization such as the Red Cross or Unicef.

“I did throw a few raffles as a kid,” Bryndís says. “It’s something that was—at least when I was coming up—instilled in kids from an early age; that people should go to efforts for charity, that we should regularly donate to aid agencies and relief institutions. That every little thing made a difference.”

We remember the children’s TV programming of our youth, much of it educational in nature, often with a Scandinavian social realist bent. We consider textbooks and classes that strived to assert the value of empathy and understanding, and how teachers would organize class-wide collections for those in need. We wonder if some of the people manning Iceland’s classrooms in the 1980s had been influenced coming up during the social and ideological upheaval of the preceding two decades, and whether this had in turn affected our own attitudes.

“I read something the other day that stuck with me,” Bryndís says, “where a schoolteacher said something like: ‘You rich, narrow minded people. If you’re wondering why your offspring turned out the way they did, you would do well to keep in mind that those of us who were called to be teachers, those of us tasked with the low-paying job of raising your children, often heeded that call because we are idealists. It is these idealists who write the textbooks, it is us who nurture your children.’”

I start asking some questions.

COME AS YOU ARE

What is your educational background?
My degree is in folkloristics. I had no idea what I wanted to study, but I eventually figured out that I am interested in history, in all stories, really. So I signed up for a history undergraduate, and that’s what eventually lead me to folkoristics and creative writing. All of it is connected—I have slowly become aware that there is a unifying factor and common thread running through my ventures, which is my interest in stories of any kind. People’s stories, the stories we tell one another, stories we tell ourselves, stories that are passed on through the ages. They are what makes up our world.

No one in my family is a writer, or even particularly involved in the arts, but there are several old-school storytellers in our ranks. I come from a fairly basic Icelandic middle class family. I was not raised in a particularly radical, or even political, household. However, my parents would emphasize the importance of care, empathy, stuff like that. And this, perhaps, lead me to the humanities.

I have no idea what sparked my interest in volunteer work, activism or any of what I do. However, I’ve been fascinated with all kinds of movements for as long as I can remember, especially those that are practical in nature. By practical, I mean: I cannot participate in a group or movement that places the main focus on itself—its ideology and inner workings. Certain groups tend to spend too much time on themselves, creating and debating hierarchies, who did what and said this or that, padding their egos… As soon as a movement grows self-centred like that, I’m out.

By practical, I mean: as soon as I eye an opportunity to engage in direct action, for instance working directly with asylum seekers or as a teacher interacting with students, I grow fascinated. Exposure and interaction with humans on that level is important to me.

IN BLOOM

How did you come back to your love for stories?
I was always interested in writing and telling stories. I co-wrote a book at age fifteen. Then, a sort of decade of disillusion followed, where I was kind of lost to the world and especially myself. At age twenty-five, I came to my senses again, and realized that what I really enjoyed, what really made me comfortable in my skin, was reading and writing. I learned that what I wanted was to work with text and ideas, and that’s when I started writing again. It was what I enjoyed, I realized, and what I was good at.

I’m not good at very many things; I was bad at a lot of school stuff. I suck at languages, for instance. But, here’s the thing: being a writer does not necessarily entail being good at language. It means being good at connecting ideas and finding new connections, that were previously hidden, or forging ones that didn’t exist. It means being able to play around, to discover and underline funny or clever things: all of this is equally important as language itself, or more important—even though the two obviously go together, and one cannot exist without the other.

And then you were part of the Nýhil collective [a formidable collection of poets and writers that made waves in Iceland in the mid-naughts], right?
A little. I got involved when Eiríkur [Örn Norðdahl, Nýhil founding member, author and poet: read his poem about a kebab in our new issue] got in touch, because he had seen some of my writing online or whatever.

I didn’t do much work with Nýhil, but it was a great community to come across at the time, and proved a great inspiration. My introduction to the collective marked the first time I met people who really sort of wanted the same things that I did. I was enthusiastic and interested, and they received me so well, like they received anyone as far as I could tell.

Perhaps most important about Nýhil was that they had come together for art’s sake, to engage in projects, and to do things. Execute ideas. I did not sense any competition within the group, or any of the boring stuff that’s sometimes inherent in scenes of aspiring artists. There was just excitement and play, the joy of doing.

This inherent playfulness was what set them apart, and what drew me to them. This constant urge to play and collaborate and fuck around and mess with language and structures and the literary scene and everything else in the world. This kind of blue-eyed excitement and enthusiasm that grants you a freedom to experiment, to seek your true colours and express what lies within, without fear of being judged or measured.

It is important for humans, being paid attention to and engaged with. I experienced some of that with Nýhil, and it is what I love and strive to recreate whenever possible.

HERE SHE COMES NOW 

As with the “Dear Eygló” movement?
Yes, but not just in that sense. Last week, for instance, I staged a short film festival that featured only the works of female filmmakers. It was in response to recent discourse, where people have been discussing the need for a quota on film funding, to improve women’s access to grants and enable more women to make films. I thought: “Hey, let’s meet up and watch some of these movies, enjoy the art and discuss it, so we can have a better idea of what we’re talking about!’ Despite all my efforts to promote the event, the crowd that showed up was eighty percent female. Men failed to show any interest, which I found disappointingly dismissive.

Because, if men fail to take women artists seriously, if they fail to engage with their work, the result is that women are not party to their party. They do not register as active participants in the artworld. And this can be genuinely harmful.

As a writer, I want to belong to the same world as my idols, I want to carry on their discussion, partake in it and contribute to it. My all time favourite writer is Kurt Vonnegut—he is probably one of the biggest reasons I took up writing in the first place—but when I release a novel or a poem or a story, I’m maybe just grouped in with ‘interesting females’ or something, set aside like that, and not allowed entry into that greater world of writing and storytelling, where my true inspiration lies. I am removed from the greater context, and am thus not part of the greater conversation.

There needs to be space for all of us to work together and collaborate and move forward. And this means that men need to show an active interest, and dedicate their attention and time to listening when women talk, rather than placing them in a separate box, denoting them a separate discussion.

It’s important. It is the most important thing, to sense that someone is listening. That someone registers your existence, and shows a will to play along—to engage with and acknowledge you. This is why Nýhil was important when they emerged, for me and for, I think, many others. They engaged. They paid attention. They participated.

Bryndis Bjorgvinsdottir and the ninja team by Axel Sigurðarson

Bryndís and the Ninja Team of volunteers! More on that elsewhere! 

THE MONEY WILL ROLL RIGHT IN

This kind of brings to mind how you’ve been describing the “Dear Eygló” efforts…
Maybe, a little. The entire effort is about participation, about enabling and empowering individuals to do something. Because, contending with a situation like the one we now face can be so overwhelming, because the odds seem so against our favour, because the problem at hand seems insurmountable in its sheer gravity and scope.

That feeling of helplessness is exactly what we want to counter. It’s true that you can’t save the world on an individual level, and no one person can help everyone, but it’s equally true—and far more important—that each of us can contribute in some way, and those individual contributions can ultimately make a great difference. Every little bit is worth it. So, with “Dear Eygló”, as I’ve said, the idea was to inspire people to take stock and figure out what they might have to offer, because had become so evident that everyone wants to help, to do their part.

It’s all based on enabling voluntary participation, adding it up and seeing where it might lead us. It’s based on thinking: “My friend can host five Syrians, and another friend of mine has a couch to spare, and—HEY!—I have a little bit of money saved up and I can sponsor flights for some of them…”

It’s about asking: “Is there anyone out there that could donate some food? Or perhaps spend some time talking to Bónus and Krónan, to ask them to donate some food? Is there maybe an adept translator among us? Does anyone know how to fix microwave ovens?”

From the outset, my idea was to create a framework that people could play within. A forum that might enable us to gradually build some sort of phenomenon, which would ideally result in a tangible and symbolic pressure, demonstrating—in a practical manner—that, yes, we can do better! We have everything we need to do better! We want to do better!

What’s crazy is that it actually seems to have worked, a little. And now, we await answers.

NEGATIVE CREEPS

So you were making a venue for creation?
Yes, and maybe offering some creative assistance. Witnessing what’s going on in the world, everyone feels a need to contribute, to do their part, to show compassion and humanity in action. Yet, the only available resource, the only outlet, is dialling 1900 and tagging Unicef, contributing 2,000 krónur.

And that’s just not enough for all the energy that’s out there.

Then, there’s another aspect to that idea, of creating a venue. When attempting to engage in discussion, or just expressing one’s feelings about such matters, you are often brought down and left feeling pessimistic and hopeless. That’s when the negative voices of the internet take over. They demand so much room; they are so persistent and prevalent, that—if you let them—they can easily strip you of hope and faith and trick you into believing that the majority of people is negative, mean and narrow minded.

These voices show up at every opportunity, their only goal seemingly to dissuade others from caring or participating, to extinguish any sort of flame that might be alight within others. They present no solution, all they can offer is desolation, fear and distrust. Prejudiced thought is simplistic and one-dimensional, which grants it a weight and urgency, and makes it easy to relay and understand. At the same time, delivering solutions and ideas and empathy in short comment form is a far harder and more nuanced prospect. And, because the act is an intrinsically polite and inagressive one, it can be easily ignored.

But then, all of the sudden, we have a framework! We find a venue! We can leave the negative creeps to their comments sections and discussion groups.

This was all running through my mind that Sunday. And as I started forging the sort of venue for action and discussion I had longed for, our welfare minister made her remarks and thereby provided a much-needed urgency.

Almost immediately once we got going, it became apparent that those who want to exert a positive influence—those who want to contribute—far outnumber the negative voices that can seem so overpowering at times. Good news! It turns out that we had been sorely missing a venue for positive voices to express themselves and engage in conversation. A space where we can listen to one another, and try to come up with practical solutions.

TERRITORIAL PISSINGS

You really put a lot of thought into this, huh?
Not so much, really. All of this comes after the fact.

For me, it was first and foremost a symbolic gesture. I didn’t really imagine it would go beyond my regular circle of friends, any more than any other protest I’ve participated in.

And then we learn that people aren’t actually like we’ve been lead to believe, by the media or whoever. That there are all these folks out there ready to make sacrifices and alter their lives so they may make a difference to those in need, which opens up for so many possibilities.

At the moment, the main urgency lies in accepting more than fifty refugees. We’ve easily demonstrated that we can do better, and that the response time doesn’t need to be stretched out to two years. Why should we sit on our laurels and mete out salvation while our country is crowded with empty buildings that are sorely lacking in purpose. There are so many, as our people have pointed out, and of them would make for better homes than the spaces refugees currently inhabit—they could at the very least stay there while we sort out the details.

By adding up what each of us has to offer and passing it forward, we’ve been able to challenge popular conception of how things happen or can happen.

Which brings us to yet another purpose of our demonstration that has revealed itself of late: it serves to underline and criticize how rigid and slow our system has become. It’s become apparent that we need to start thinking outside the box, and come up with novel solutions and makeshift programmes that can later be evaluated. We can and should anticipate an ever-growing number of displaced humans, due to global warming and other coming crises. It has become clear that we need to decomplicate the process, and formulate plans of action that we can resort to in the future, to ensure we respond swiftly and with force. Not just Iceland, but the whole of Europe.

Sometimes, timing is everything.

Many have noted that the process of admitting and assimilating refugees is a far more complicated process than you make it out to be, that it takes time and energy that you’re not accounting for…
Of course, we don’t have all the resources at hand. All those people need doctors and psychiatric care and employment, which we might not be able to provide instantly. In the face of that, I say: we need to reshape the process, remove every complication and optimize it for speed. This is the most important thing we can do. To bring people to a place where they’ll have beds and access to clean drinking water and food and lavatory facilities—where they’re free from violence, fear and uncertainty.

Furthermore: I am a teacher at the Iceland Academy of the Arts, and I can attest that everything now revolves around improving processes. Almost nobody’s trying to make a new musical instrument, and we don’t need a new candlestick or couch today—the entire focus is on optimizing and streamlining what’s already there; on removing unnecessary complications and bottlenecks. The auto industry is optimizing its processes, so is the computer industry, so is every other industry on Earth. So, why isn’t this true for governmental and administrative fields, too?

Optimization requires disassembling, examining, contemplating and reassembling a process to gain an insight into how it works, and how it might work better. With all that’s going on in the world, we are surely going to feel the need for such an optimization sooner than later.

Consider that in an era of growing calls for transparency, it’s somehow remarkably easy for governments to hide behind claims of ‘the system’ being too hard to operate, too slow, for them to change anything or go about things differently. Why aren’t these processes made transparent, so that we, the people they are meant to serve, may observe for ourselves what’s taking so damn long, and whether there’s room for improvement.

Of course I understand that it isn’t enough for Siggi to offer his sleeping bag and Kata to bring some coffee. Of course, more is needed to do things adequately. However, it is concerning that the ability to save lives, to do good and offer a helping hand, has been institutionalized, that it has been removed so far from actual, compassionate humans that are dying to help and have so much to offer.

While a coffee and a sleeping bag might not be enough, we can still all contribute a piece to the puzzle, and the complete picture that results might prove useful.

STAY AWAY

Some express fear that admitting a great number of refugees will have some sort of irrevocable effect on Icelandic society? That it will change quickly, and for the worse…
As an exchange student in Canada, I experienced for the first time the idea that immigrants could be thought of as a positive addition to a society. At the time, state and city governments were running TV ads that showed a number of Canadians speaking different languages. The message was clear: “Thank you for choosing Canada… thank you for bringing your language and culture and knowledge into our community, and for enriching it.”

The attitudes I experienced at the time, from the Canadian people and their state, made me proud to be an immigrant. Everyone I met was some sort of dash-Canadian, and people would celebrate their origins as well as their new identity. An emphasis had been placed on celebrating diversity and shared positive experiences, with the aim of creating a good community to everyone live in and enjoy. I loved it.

Imagine if the Icelandic government were to advertise like that on national TV. “Thank you for choosing Iceland.” That would be amazing! But it’s also clearly not going to happen anytime soon. We sorely need to change the way we as a society think and speak about others. Being positive towards accepting refugees and positive towards accepting other cultures and people is also a valid option—more valid and true than being so negative about other people.

As a historian, I’ve noticed in my studies how negative we are when we speak of outsiders, especially those we denote to the status of ‘others’ and ‘strangers’. There are countless examples in our history. Absurd ones. Like when the US Army had a base here, and we asked them to not station any black soldiers there. And they obliged. And then, when they couldn’t possibly keep that up, they had to explain to us why that sort of thing was unfeasible.

Then, there was our attitude towards Jewish refugees during the second World War. We didn’t admit a single one—we refused them all. We sent people away, to their deaths, as other nations, in far worse situations, took them in, saved them and gave them life. I was confronted by the absurdity of this history in London one time, upon seeing a statue that commemorates the Jewish refugee children [Frank Meisler’s ‘Kindertransport – The Arrival’] by the Liverpool Street Station. The Brits welcomed Jewish refugee children in 1938—and they changed their laws to hurry the process and get them to the country as soon as possible.

Sometime in the past, Icelanders seem to have grown convinced that we are some sort of exception—that we are exempt from participating in the greater world, or partaking in the international community. That we’d have drop dead of shock if were exposed to someone who was different looking, or from a different background.

I sometimes feel this is still the situation. That we’re all scared that we’ll get a heart attack if faced with something unusual. What’s crazy is that this does not in any way correlate to reality. Especially now. We are all living abroad, or travelling, or studying, or bringing over foreign spouses—meanwhile the tourist economy is blossoming, with more people coming from all over the world every year.

When someone says: “It’s easy to talk shit on Facebook, but would you really want a Syrian person living on your couch, if even for a little while?” I counter that with a big “Hell yeah!” And I’m far from alone here. Just consider Airbnb, or couch-surfing. People open up their homes to strangers all the time, and they’ll stay in strangers’ homes on their own travels. And they even like it. Enjoy it.

Times have changed, and the establishment needs to start owning up and responding to the open-minded, liberal, humanist values of the generation that’s currently growing to prominence.

Ninjas by Axel Sigurðarson

Meet The Ninja Team
As Bryndís’s Facebook event snowballed, the “Kæra Eygló” initiative received a wave of attention from various groups. Along with heightened positive interest from concerned and energised Icelanders—and the worldwide media—the page also caught the attention of various online anti-immigration/refugee/Muslim groups, who launched a relentless attack on the page, spamming it page with inflammatory comments, memes and videos. Meanwhile, Bryndís was inundiated with interview requests and queries from all over the world, far surpassing her capacity to respond in a measured and timely fashion. She determined that she would never be able to do this all by herself, opting to post a simple call for help in dealing with the growing shitstorm.
Read full note.

ALL APOLOGIES

You’re saying Iceland’s establishment isn’t liberal and open-minded?
Sort of, yes. The fact of the matter is, Iceland has been far from doing its part, for a long time. Even if we were to greatly increase the amount of refugees we accept, we wouldn’t be close to matching what the rest of the Nordics are doing, and what treaties we are member to stipulate. This has become especially apparent now that the international media has started lionizing us because of recent events. They envision that we as a nation have historically been on par with Sweden, and that now we’re going even further. Which couldn’t be further from the truth—we are in fact actively criticized by international organizations for accepting far too few refugees. 

The good news is that the people of Iceland are now actively expressing clear will to do much better. It remains to be seen, though, whether our government is interesting in hearing its people, and reflecting their will.

Imagine that. The pope is more open minded and radical than Iceland’s government, which is made up of people half his age, none of which were raised in a particularly religious environment or operate within an ancient, rigid institution such as the Catholic Church.

I hope they will, but their response so far not has not given reason for optimism. The Icelandic Red Cross has already declared that we have the resources to admit more refugees, but the government hasn’t even responded. I mean, even the pope is currently imploring every Catholic church on Earth to accept a family of refugees, leading by doing so himself. Imagine that. The pope is more open minded and radical than Iceland’s government, which is made up of people half his age, none of which were raised in a particularly religious environment or operate within an ancient, rigid institution such as the Catholic Church!

In any case, pressuring the government into action, into doing our will, is always a worthwhile endeavour. Indeed, this whole effort that we’ve been talking about, it basically started when I remembered that we can of course always pressure the government. So, I figured I’d try to make a symbolic gesture that would communicate my will and others’. Again: I thought it would be me and maybe twenty friends, but even that would have been wonderful. I just wanted to demonstrate that we could easily make a difference, if Siggi paid for a flight, if Jói donated his guest bedroom, if Kata brought coffee. Et cetera.

We would manually add to the number 50. My goal was initially to bring it up to 55 – as Þorvaldur and I were going to house and help five more. And then, the response kept growing, and I tried hard to do the math but I lost track at 57. Because, I just couldn’t keep track of all the responses that were flowing in, I still haven’t had time to read them all. We even had midwives offering their services on our site, psychologists volunteering their expertise, on top of the guy with the couch and Kata with her coffee. And, then, a lot of those folks registered for the Red Cross. Through our page.

I am quite a chaotic person, so my capabilities are limited, but we were thankfully joined by engineers and other smart folks who immediately offered their services. They started building databases, and fleshed out a registration process to compile the list of willing volunteers. We’re handed that to the Red Cross last Monday.

So, the practical effect is already there.

We claim no right to determine for the nation how many refugees we should accept. If we gather enough food and sleeping bags to be able to host a million refugees, the idea isn’t necessarily that we invite a million refugees over. Our main point is to help those in power understand that there is a general for doing better; that they are under pressure, and that they need to start doing better—that the help Iceland volunteers on the national level needs to reflect the will of Iceland’s people.

MILK IT

Speaking of the Icelandic people, some of your opponents claim that Icelanders should focus on other Icelanders in need, that your efforts would be better spent fighting on behalf of the country’s disadvantaged, disabled and elderly…
For me, these are just two completely different separate issues. They’re not in the same category. You’ll find poverty in every community. But, that doesn’t necessarily mean that a community can’t offer help to refugees in dire need.

It also bothers me that those who say that we should rather the elderly or disadvantaged in our own community simultaneously maintain that any refugees we welcome should be strong and healthy, so they don’t become “a burden”. Are they thereby saying that Iceland’s elderly, and it’s disabled, are somehow more human, somehow more worthy of care and compassion than Syrian ones? At the same time, we’ve been hearing from a lot of disadvantaged people in Iceland that they would welcome more refugees. They have their own voices and opinions, and they have stated that they resent this ridiculous comparison, that they resent being used as an excuse to not contribute in a time of need.

It’s important that those who claim we should tend first to our garden realize that they’re using nationalistic terminologies—that they’re spouting nationalist rhetoric. The “nation” they refer to are Iceland’s bred and born, and that “garden” is Iceland’s community. But why should “we” be confined to just Icelanders. Always limiting the scope of “us” to nationality is an outdated, outmoded idea.

Oddly, there still remains a strange determination to keep it going. I think it’s very important that we forego the notion that our identity is tied up with our nationality, with our place of origin. For an example: I’m fluent in US culture. I’d probably feel more at home in some shitty American suburb than in a town like Selfoss or Hveragerði. I went to Buffalo last spring to give a lecture on Kurt Vonnegut and Kurt Cobain [Bryndís discovered the music and art of Kurt Cobain in 2012, when she heard some Nirvana on the radio, and was instantly enamored], and I felt more at home there than in Reykjavík. All of these things, and more, define who we are to a far greater extent than our geographical location. Confining our identities and sympathies to a specific, sporadic factor just seems ludicrous.

Whenever I have to deal with racists and nationalists, a phrase comes to mind. “The opposite of love is not hate, but fear.” This explains to me how they function. It is through fear, first and foremost. They fear others. They fear Malmö. They fear refugees. They fear change.

DUMB

It’s interesting when you say that we can always try to influence the government. Because, it’s seemed pretty clear for a while that the current one is perhaps less than interested in what large parts of the nation think or feel—casually dismissing criticisms and even mass protest, going directly against stated majority will in some cases.
Well. I’ve been working with this idea, this naïveté, which I think can be important in this regard. Because, despite the government’s actions, they still pretend they want to hear what people have to say, and claim to take them seriously. So, my response to all of this is to play dumb and innocent and take their offers seriously, at face value. To actually respond—because they do not really expect that.

That’s literally what happened when Eygló, the welfare minister, said she wanted to hear from Icelanders. I doubt she expected a lot of reaction, because, yes, people have grown tired. And, unfortunately, jaded.

But it worked! Or it seems to be working. And that only means we must keep trying, that we must attempt to promote the positive change we desire, because sometimes, these cracks open, and you can slip through if you spot them take them seriously and if you’re prepared for action. And then, they’re forced to contend with you and what you have to say. Then, the minster called called me as I was taking a shower.

We can always pressure the government. And we must. It doesn’t mean we can necessarily trust the government to listen or do anything in response, but at some point we might have a chance to actually enter the discussion, and that in and of itself becomes valuable.

Through human history, The Fool has been an important archetype—you’ll find him in Shakespeare, in H. C. Andersen’s fairy tales—in most of our stories. The Fool often takes things too literally, feigning an inability to read between the lines, to determine when not to take something seriously. This way, The Fool often penetrates through, unveiling a deeper truth about our condition. He passes on a message, and he will say things that people don’t want to hear. And he’ll be called dumb or stupid, but he still hits the mark.

That’s why—when people call me a fool for saying that five refugees should come live with my friend Þorvaldur and drink Kata’s coffee—I happily assume the role. I’m making a point; I know for sure that it’s not that simple, but I want to hear the government actually explain why it isn’t so simple—that’s how the processes start to become more visible, real and transparent. Then we can start making them better.

Maybe the idea of stranger danger really is fading, and we’re reverting back to a time when people took pride in opening their homes to outsiders; in welcoming people, being good hosts and enjoying the act of communicating with others.

A girl can dream.

See Also:

Welcome To Iceland: A Walk-Through Of The Refugee Arrival Process
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.

ISAFJORDUR REFUGEESCase Study: Ísafjörður As Safe Haven For Persecuted Families
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.

GV.Kári.10.09.2015bSo What’s This I Keep Hearing About Icelanders Welcoming Refugees Into Their Homes?
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.

Ísafjarðarbær Mayor: “We Will Gladly Welcome Refugees To Our Community”

“We Have To Do This Together”: Mayor Dagur B. On Acceepting “Hundreds” Of Refugees