Monthly Archives: June 2014

The Multicultural Council of Reykjavík

As the weeks have flown by (we have now been here for four weeks!) we continue to talk to many wonderful people who have taken the time out of their busy days to speak to us about multiculturalism. Everyone has been incredibly interesting and willing to speak with us frankly.

The other day we were fortunate enough to speak with a member of the Multicultural Council of Reykjavik. For some background information, “The Multicultural Council of Reykjavík consists of 7 representatives and act as an advisory board to the Human Rights council and other departments in the city that deal with immigration issues.” Thus, this organization works alongside the Human Rights council to ensure that the rights of immigrants are being upheld and also serves as an advocate for immigrants, asylum seekers, and refugees.

The man we spoke with started off the conversation with a brief synopsis of what happens to displaced persons who make their way to Iceland. He explained to us that many of the refugees who currently reside in Iceland were actually trying to move to the United States. However, Iceland acts as a “wall” between Europe and the US and therefore many refugees are forced to apply for refugee status in Iceland since they are denied entry into the United States. Furthermore, many asylum seekers are denied refugee status within Iceland because of the Dublin Regulation, which states that asylum seekers are under the responsibility of the first country to which the asylum seeker fled. Thus many asylum seekers are sent back to the European country from which they came. However, if an asylum seeker is granted refugee status, they receive full benefits of legal refugee status in Iceland, such as working documents and financial assistance.

Once granted permission to stay in Iceland, there are a variety of services available to help aid with the transition process. A few years ago the Icelandic governmental organization named “Intercultural House” was formed with the intention of supplying information and translation services for immigrants. However, with the 2008 financial crisis in Iceland, the organization was unable to keep their doors open due to financial constraints. Thus the Human Rights Office of Reykjavik City undertook the responsibility of providing services for immigrants.

However, the man we spoke to pointed out how the term “immigrants” is problematic since it doesn’t differentiate between the many different types of people and their unique circumstances. To combat this problem the Multicultural Council was formed in 2010 with the intention of creating a council that was as representative as possible to provide information and advice to immigrants. The council was formed and members from different backgrounds were elected into the Congress (one of which was the man with whom we were speaking to). Now, as stated earlier, the council works alongside the Human Rights Office and offers support and advice on immigration issues. 

One of the biggest problems he identified was a lack of knowledge among the Icelandic community and government about multiculturalism and the benefits that accompany multicultural societies. He explained to us how often Icelanders have the “vision of the immigrant as the person in need, who doesn’t know anything, who is stupid.” However, he was quick to point out that just because some immigrants don’t have the skills we take for granted (e.g. computer skills, ability to find information, knowledge of services) does not mean they are “stupid.” In fact, he explained to us that immigrants have a different set of skills, which aren’t privileged in Iceland. For example, some people from other cultures have skills to cope with crises, something he argued Icelanders could learn from. If Icelanders could understand that immigrants have a different and valuable type of human capital, a community of cross-cultural learning could occur. However, many Icelanders do not view the values of a multicultural society in this light, but rather they see multiculturalism as a burden. Thus, to change the current perspective and increase awareness of the benefits of multiculturalism, he hopes to someday create a documentary about the diverse human capital of immigrants. 

Overall, he told us that he was incredibly optimistic for the future. In many regards Iceland is leaps and bounds beyond many countries with respect to immigration policies and services provided by the government. However, this doesn’t mean Iceland’s work is done. The services are there, but common knowledge and acceptance of a multicultural society from the wider population is lacking. It seems as if the next big step is to increase awareness and knowledge about multiculturalism in a hope to change people’s current attitudes and apprehension towards immigration.


Reykjavik Mosque Controversy

Whenever we discuss our project with the Icelanders, be it those we interview, run into in cafes, or meet through friends, it doesn’t take long until they ask if we’ve heard about the controversy surrounding the potential of building Iceland’s first mosque.  Most people say something along the lines of: “So, you must have heard about the mosque, then.”

As we mentioned in a previous blog post, Iceland has been discussing the possibility of building its first mosque, and people in the country have spoken out from all sides of the issue.  After the city council initially granted the Muslim Association of Iceland a piece of land to build a mosque, progress on the issue and plans for the mosque have stalled.

A key voice in the debate surrounding the Reykjavik mosque has been city councilperson Sveinbjörg Birna Sveinbjörnsdóttir, a member of the Progressive Party.  She stated her belief that Iceland should not grant land to a mosque, saying, “I lived in Saudi Arabia for about a year. My opinion is not based on prejudice, but on experience.”

A woman we spoke with recently voiced a similar opinion to that of Sveinbjörnsdóttir, explaining that this is a matter of upholding the rights of Icelanders.  She expressed concerns that Islam was not a religion that allowed people to integrate into a society such as Iceland’s.  A strong supporter of women’s and gay rights in the country, she also expressed concerns that a decision to build a mosque in Iceland would be at odds with Icelandic laws of equality.  For example, Iceland does not fund churches that refuse to marry homosexual couples.  She concluded that because the mosque would not be willing to do this, it should therefore not be granted land from the government.

Furthermore, she expressed the view that Islam and its practices would be in conflict with the gender equality established in the country, saying, “I fear for the accomplishments that we’ve made.  I fear the younger women don’t realize how hard we’ve fought and how easily we could lose it.”  In this way, she framed the mosque as a threat to the rights of women and the LGBTQ community in Iceland.

However, while her concerns were framed in a rights-based context, some other dissenters to the Reykjavik mosque have used much more Islamaphobic rhetoric.  So much so, that Sveinbjörnsdóttir, the councilperson who originally spoke out against the mosque, recently announced that she has reversed her decision and will no longer fight against the building of the mosque, after having received an uncomfortable amount of support from Islamaphobic groups.


Aerial image of the land plot proposed for the mosque, image courtesy of

To further complicate the issue, we have also spoken with a number of people who oppose the mosque due to geographic logistics.  Apparently when the city voted for the mosque to be built, they decided to give the land to the Muslim Association of Iceland rather than have the association purchase it. This does not sit well with many Icelanders in a city where real estate is extremely expensive (well, everything is for that matter), and they believe that the city should not give this plot of land to anyone for free.  Interestingly enough, depending on which media outlet you read, that plot is either considered a “modest piece of land” or “prime real estate.”  While this land issue might just be the façade of a deeper issue, it certainly does thicken the plot.

Meanwhile, those who favor the building of the mosque have been registering as Muslims in the country, to show their support.  As of now, there are 770 Muslims registered in Iceland.

Sveinbjörnsdóttir’s change in position, as well as the push for Muslims to register to show support, illustrates the constantly changing debate surrounding the mosque, and the wide-ranging array of opinions that have developed around the issue.  This issue is only one example of how immigrants to Iceland and Icelanders themselves face challenges regarding a changing demographic.

Multicultural Initiatives Within Iceland

Since we arrived in Iceland, we have been lucky to have so many great conversations with Icelanders and visitors of the country alike who are interested in our project and want to talk about multiculturalism in the country. Everywhere we go we are welcomed with lively conversation, and each person we speak with seems to connect us with another person we should talk to.

This past week we had the pleasure of meeting with someone from the Reykjavik City Library who has created and managed the library’s multicultural programs. She explained that her outlook on multicultural programming is somewhat different from other programs of similar title. To her, multicultural programs should include both immigrants, non-native Icelanders and native Icelanders alike. These programs aim to break down the “other” stereotype of immigrants by providing unifying programs that include both immigrants and native Icelanders. She explained that her goal in this pursuit is to challenge the “us vs. them” dichotomy that often emerges when discussing multiculturalism.

After explaining her outlook and approach, she then explained some of the main programs the library has developed and enacted in Iceland. One of the first she created is called the “Flying Carpet Project.” This project mainly takes place inside of Icelandic schools as an activity for students of all ages to express their own cultural identity and learn about the identities of their peers. Each student is asked to bring in items that illustrate their own identity and sets up a booth to display them. Parents and teachers are invited to the presentation and walk around listening to each student present their display. The library calls these presentations “intercultural gatherings.”

An important emphasis of the Flying Carpet project is that each student’s identity and culture does not need to be defined by ethnic background. Many students who grew up outside of Iceland, or whose parents or grandparents were born outside of Iceland, will bring items or flags from these places. However, this is not required. Rather, the program welcomes all students to define their cultural identity as they wish, as represented by books, toys, artwork, or any other items they choose. The goal of the Flying Carpet project is to create a welcoming, tolerant, and creative atmosphere. Teachers and parents from schools that have hosted a Flying Carpet gathering say that students feel pride and accomplishment having presented their identity to others.

Another multicultural project that we found particularly interesting was called The Women’s Story Circle. Every month women are welcome to come to the library to meet one another and share their experiences. These consciousness-raising groups allow women to connect with one another and create a network of support and friendship. The group utilizes culture and arts to help build the sense of community among the women. Currently they are partaking in a theatre workshop and in the past the group has created two paintings using the Aboriginal method of painting with dots. Both paintings are maps, one of Reykjavik and the other of the whole island. However what makes these paintings unique is the fact that the women have personalized the maps with symbols that are of significance to their lives.

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As you can see, the paintings are absolutely beautiful and it is easy to understand why one of the coffee chains here in Iceland approached the women’s group and asked whether their multicultural paintings could be used as the design on their coffee bags. The group agreed with hopes that their project would shed light on how multiculturalism is a vibrant part of Iceland’s culture. Now in the coffee shop not only sells coffee with the design on the packaging, but there are postcards also available with mini biographies of each of the women in both Icelandic and their mother tongue.

Because of projects like these, the library has been making great strides towards making multiculturalism visible within Iceland. Using a variety of projects and targeting different demographics, the library has been successful in opening up the discussion to make the conversation less about simply tolerance but rather appreciation of all cultures. The woman with whom we were talking emphasized the point of these projects was not just to create a space for immigrants in Iceland, but to also to include native Icelanders into the conversation and help them feel like they are also a part of multiculturalism in Iceland. Needless to say, we were very impressed with the library’s initiative and believe there is a lot to learn from these programs in terms of multicultural education.

Diversity in Iceland

After a week in Iceland, we are settling in very nicely.  With the recent purchase of blackout eye-masks and some towels stuffed in the gaps between curtains, we are finally getting some sleep during Iceland’s perpetual summer daylight.  As for our research, we are making headway with planning and organizing some meetings with people we hope to interview.

After getting to know the city better and getting a feel for how small the Reykjavik community really is, we are planning to broaden our research scope a bit to include questions surrounding the integration of immigrants in addition to refugees.  While our project will still aim to answer the questions we initially posed about Iceland’s refugee resettlement program, including issues of immigration will provide us with a larger population to study that faces many of the same issues that refugees in Iceland face.

One of our main reasons for studying Icelandic national identity stems from our interest in the country’s homogenous population and isolated location.  Because of Iceland’s remote location, boats of hopeful migrants do not set sail for the shores of Reykjavik as often happens across the Mediterranean, such as the recent incident surrounding a boat of migrants headed for Italy.

However, having a smaller number of immigrants and refugees does not mean that Iceland does not struggle with the same identity issues that other European countries currently face.  Icelanders have a strong sense of Icelandic culture, history, and national identity, which can cause dispute when diversity grows on the island. So, we are curious as to how those that do not identify as white, Christian, or an Icelandic native are treated in a country that prides itself on preserving tradition and culture.

With these questions in mind, we decided to first look at how different religions are represented and practiced within Iceland. One does not have to delve into the figures and numbers to understand that Iceland is a proud to be a Christian country. The focal point and largest building in Reykajvik is a Lutheran Church, Hallgrímskirkja, which you can see from virtually every corner of the city. Thus it is not surprising that a vast majority of Icelanders consider themselves Christian with roughly 75% of them following the Lutheran denomination. However, Icelanders will be quick to point out that they do not practice the faith diligently. Rather, it stands as a mere icon of heritage. But, we wonder, what about those in Iceland that do not believe in Christianity? Where are they?

A friend of ours, Tyler Smith, recently sent us this fascinating article titled Iceland is About to Get Its First Mosque. The article explains that only just recently the City Council approved Iceland’s first mosque however a few Islanders have been less than supportive of the idea. As indicated by hateful Facebook posts and an incident in which someone placed three pig heads and bloodied pages of the Quran at the site where the mosque is about to built, not all of Iceland is onboard with religious diversity. While it is important to keep in mind that these incidents only reflect the viewpoints of a few individuals and by no means reflect the views of the general population, it still something to take into consideration with regards to our research. Hopefully we can uncover more information about this event with those we speak to in the future.

Thus, to get a better grasp of what it is like to live in Iceland as non-Christians we are reaching out to members of religious organizations such as the Muslim Association of Iceland, the Russian Orthodox community, the Jewish community, and the Buddhist community, to see if representatives would be willing to speak to us about religious diversity within Iceland.

That being said, we have been repeatedly humbled by how many people are willing to help us with this project. On numerous occasions we have had people go out of their way to send us articles, get us into contact with people who many be able to talk to us, and pose interesting questions for us to ponder. We could not be any more grateful for all the help and support we have received just within the last week. And if you think you might have an article, contact, or question that pertains to our research we would love to hear from you! You can comment on our blog or send either one of us an email (found on our about page).

Until next time!


       The local Icelandic Lutheran church in our neighborhood.



Halló Iceland!

We made it! We have arrived in Iceland after an easy flight, settled into our apartment, which we’ve subleased for the next 5 weeks, and are currently sitting in a café in downtown Reykjavik drinking coffee.

We will be in Iceland for 8 weeks researching as fellows of the Kathryn W. Davis Projects for Peace Foundation.  Our project, titled “A Threat to Homogeneity: Refugees and National Identity in Iceland” hopes to explore how Iceland’s homogenous population and isolated geography contribute to its peaceful reputation, and how its management of the Icelandic refugee resettlement program potentially reinforces this homogeneity.

To get a better idea of how exactly our project is focused, here are a few excerpts from our research proposal:

An advocate for humanitarian rights around the world, Iceland has invested a significant amount of money into peacekeeping operations and refugee aid. However, in terms of opening up its own borders and granting asylum to refugee populations, Iceland falls behind fellow European counterparts with its stringent immigration policies. While Iceland’s demographics and geography contribute to its homogenous population, the Icelandic government also uses lesser-known legal tactics to reinforce and uphold the country’s homogeneity.

Immigrating to Iceland is a tedious and competitive process. With the allowance of only 25 to 30 refugees per year, Iceland remains strict about opening its borders. Those who come to Iceland illegally, face time in prison and probable deportation. Handling illegal refugees in this manner is controversial as the UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees states that refugees should be exempt from penalties for forgery, because legal documentation is often infeasible and potentially dangerous to attain for refugees. However, Iceland has worked its way around this policy by stating that refugees coming from another EU country face the possibility of deportation. Ninety nine percent of refugees come through EU countries prior to coming to Iceland.

Those refugees that come to Iceland legally also face difficulty within the framework of the Icelandic political and social structures. They are immediately placed within a community outside of the capitol city, Reykjavik, to help support the local economy, fishing. Therefore, these refugees are immediately placed on the ‘margins’ of society until they are fully integrated within the Icelandic culture. To help with this process, refugee families are initially adopted by an Icelandic ‘support family’ to help them integrate as quickly into Icelandic society.

A major barrier that immigrants face when adjusting to life in Iceland is the strong sense of national pride and solidarity among the Icelandic people. Immigrants cite their main difficulty not as finding a job, but rather becoming proficient in Icelandic. Becoming economically stable is not a source of anxiety among the refugee population; rather, it is becoming integrated into the Icelandic way of life while maintaining a sense of identity to their nation of origin. Thus, these refugees are encouraged to assimilate into the predominant Icelandic culture and put their own identity aside in order to maintain homogeneity.

With that background in mind, we decided to look into the following questions:

How do Icelanders understand the homogeneity of their country?  Is the presence of refugees in Iceland commonly known among Icelandic citizens?  How do the legal practices of the government towards refugees reflect the population’s outlook on the homogeneity of the Icelandic national identity?  Do these legal policies represent a type of structural violence aimed at keeping Iceland a homogenous state?  If tensions between Icelandic nationals and refugees exist, how can they be observed?

In order to answer these questions, we hope to combine a number of methods including personal interviews, interviews with institutions that help resettle refugees, as well as observations during events like Midsummer to understand how refugees participate in nationalistic events.

As for Iceland itself, we are loving it so far.  The sun sets after 11:30pm, and rises again around 3:30am, which (combined the time change) has been interesting for our sleep schedule.  We are living on the very western edge of Reykjavik, the capital city where almost all of the Icelandic population lives, in a great apartment very close to the rocky coast.  It’s been about 55 degrees and, as the owner of the apartment described to us, it rains “at the drop of a hat,” which has proved to be very true.  On our walk downtown today it switched between rainy and sunny at least 3 times.  Today’s tasks are to find some pay-as-you-go phones, look into renting bikes, and figure out the bus system.

Check back soon, we’re hoping to update this blog weekly with research updates and photos!

Sarah & Michelle


*Photo Cred: Molly Heller