The Intercultural Centre, standing directly across from the National Theatre, plays a vital role in Reykjavík’s immigrant community. Their staff provide an array of services and information, publish a magazine and even run a coffee shop on the ground floor. The Grapevine went to speak with the centre’s director, Einar Skúlason, and asked him about the work they do there, what life is like for immigrants in Iceland, and what part he thinks they will play in the upcoming elections.
/// The Centre’s magazine has been covering the upcoming elections in some detail. What kind of reaction have you been seeing from the immigrant community?
– I’d say most people I have spoken to have shown some degree of curiosity, but there is a significant segment of immigrants with voting rights that doesn’t seem to feel these elections are any of their business.
/// Do you think they are afraid of rocking the boat?
– The general feeling seems to be more along the lines of: “This is not my concern.” Which is odd, because when you are a taxpayer and a citizen of a particular society you are obviously going to need to interact with many aspects of service and governance in that society. When the time comes to actually vote and influence practical and political issues, however, people back off and become strangely indifferent.
/// There has been much talk of forming an anti-immigrant, nationalist party in Iceland. This is obviously a worrying prospect for the people you represent, has it given more impetus to your attempts to involve immigrants in Icelandic politics?
– I don’t think people have responded strongly enough. I expected a much more pronounced reaction to this kind of talk. A dialogue must be established between immigrants and, for lack of a better term, ‘those in charge.’ There is a relatively small group of people in our society who wield more influence than others, and if immigrants do not become a part of that group there is a distinct danger of a cultural chasm opening up. Sadly, we have already seen this happen in some European countries.
/// Do you think it’s generally difficult for immigrants to have to give up language and customs to blend in?
– You know, one often sees full page articles in major newspapers like Morgunblaðið, touting the achievements of some ‘West Icelander’ with far-fetched family ties to Iceland. Can you imagine the reaction here, if a major Thai newspaper ran regular stories highlighting the emergence of a culturally distinctive ‘Thai Town’ in Reykjavík? I think making part of the city a Thai language zone and renaming the streets would probably result in some mixed reactions, to say the least.
/// What was the main goal you had when you launched your quarterly magazine?
– Mostly we try to focus on education people about their rights and other practical information relating to life in Iceland. In the last issue we had a feature on the kennitala system, for example. National identification numbers are new to many people, and many of them find it hard to understand why you need some kind of centrally registered numerical code to do the simplest things, such as rent a video. We also make a point of interviewing varied people from all over the world, if only to give a small insight into the different cultures and societies they hail from.
/// Do Icelanders, particularly those in positions of authority, freely grant interviews as well? How are the authorities treating you in general?
– The relationship is quite good. We interviewed Jón Kristjánsson, the Minister for Social Affairs, in our last issue and the parties currently in government were apparently very pleased with the result. They have requested a great number of copies to take on the campaign trail and pass out at workplaces that have a high percentage of immigrant workers. After the elections, we have a series of meetings planned with representatives of all the parties, during which we plan to go over what went right, what went wrong and how we can better involve new Icelanders in the election process in the future – both as voters and candidates.
/// The politicians seem to be interested, then. What kind of impact do they think the immigrant vote can have on their election prospects?
– Some very rough math indicates that we have around 9000 potential voters of non-Icelandic origins.
/// But most of them not terribly interested in exercising their right to vote?
– Sadly, I don’t think there is nearly enough interest in these elections. We hosted a series of open meetings with representatives of all the parties, and a number of translators, but only a handful of people showed up and we had to cancel the last three in a series of twelve.
/// Did you get the feeling that those who did show up were learning from the experience, though?
– Actually, I think the politicians learned the most from the experience. For one thing, they all seemed to come away understanding how meaningless the word ‘immigrant’ is when trying to describe such a disparate group of people. I think the main thing the Icelanders came away with was an appreciation of the diversity of the immigrant community in Iceland.
/// What campaign issues concern immigrants the most, in your experience?
– The school system is a major concern, as are day care facilities, as the way those institutions are run can touch on many critical issues such as language proficiency, cultural identity and tolerance. Secondly, there is housing, particularly its rising cost.
/// Do they tend to vote along ‘left-right’ political lines?
– One thing that worries me sometimes is the degree to which the political leanings of political parties in Iceland can be translated into terms that outsiders can relate to. I think the political landscape in Iceland is not all that varied, most of our politicians seem to straddle the middle and there isn’t any fascist or communist party to draw away the fringe. Thus it’s important to explain to people that the Independence Party is not ultra-conservative and the Left Greens aren’t actually a communist party, either. We don’t have those extremes.
/// Do immigrants in Iceland feel empowered, generally speaking?
– I’m afraid that would be the exception. There has been some talk about moving democracy in Iceland to the grass roots level and making politics more local, but non-native Icelanders as a group have not been part of that trend.
/// Couldn’t that be key, then, to increasing the election turnout – to give immigrants a better opportunity to become invested in their adopted society?
– Well, that’s basically the message we have been trying to get across. Iceland is a democratic country, we have a parliamentary system and it is possible to affect change through that system. Apart from our efforts to promote this approach, the political parties themselves will also need to open up to a much greater extent.
/// The Intercultural Centre is the main hub for non-native residents and citizens of Iceland, which of your services are most in demand?
– The translation and legal services, definitely. We translated over thirty five hundred documents last year and have a registry of about two hundred interpreters. As far as the legal side goes, we have a perpetually booked lawyer here that gives free advice, mostly pertaining to residency permits and such. Many people come here without the expectation of settling down, only to change their minds. They then require legal advice on how to go about applying for the paperwork their family would need to join them – in cases where that is even possible. It should be noted that, as of two years ago, it became a lot harder to get such permits.
/// Lastly, what do you, and the people who come to your centre, need the most right now?
– There is not nearly enough being done to help people learn the language in a timely and affordable manner. Politicians pay lip service to this problem, but there is little movement to be seen.
/// Árni Magnússon, then Minister of Social Affairs, once told the Grapevine, when asked how he could defend the policy of making 150 hours of Icelandic classes mandatory while doing nothing to curb their rising cost: “That’s life.”
– That’s an interesting way to put it. I wonder if “well, that’s life” would still be his response if government mismanagement of immigration issues were to actually ignite serious social strife in this country in the future.