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Fences Between Neighbors: Break Them Down or Build Them Up?

If you’ve read the last couple of entries from our blog, then you might have noticed a theme emerging from our interviews.  We’ve spoken with a handful of representatives from various immigrants’ rights organizations, and the takeaway point from most of these conversations has been that Iceland is in need of some sort of “awakening” in which Icelanders will recognize the benefits of immigration and the value of diversity.

The people we’ve spoken with are contributing to the substantial progress being made for immigrants’ rights in Iceland, most of them immigrants themselves.  They provide information, counseling, legal advising, etc. to immigrants in the country.  However, while progress is being made, these representatives agree that a change in mindset from the larger public is necessary.  Our interviewees have expressed hope that knowledge and awareness, as well as inclusive attitudes, will continue to spread throughout Iceland in order to promote peaceful and productive integration for immigrants.

Among those we’ve interviewed, integration of immigrants into Icelandic society seems to be the obvious goal of their governmental and nongovernmental programs for immigrants.  However, a recent academic article titled “Good Fences: The Importance of Setting Boundaries for Peaceful Coexistence,” which was recently mentioned in David Brooks’ New York Times column as a notable piece of social science research, argues that integration may not be the best recipe for peace.

After looking at case studies such as Switzerland, diverse in both language and religion, as well as the former Yugoslavia, the article concludes that separation of differing groups of people is conducive to peace, contrary to the popular push for integration.  The authors write, “Our analysis shows that peace does not depend on integrated coexistence, but rather on well defined topographical and political boundaries separating groups” (1).

It’s important to note that this study looked at various ethnic/religious groups geographically rubbing up against one another, which is not necessarily the case in Iceland.  Rather than tension arising between large established groups of people, Iceland faces the challenge of integrating a small but growing number of immigrants, all of whom come from very different and diverse backgrounds, into a homogenous and isolated society.

However, the research essentially concludes that based on their examples, separation rather than integration brings peace.  Although perhaps an imperfect comparison to Iceland’s situation, this research presents a provocative question.  The authors’ conclusion regarding ingredients for peace is not what we have been hearing as the ideal solution from the people in Iceland who are working on these issues.

Our initial research questions, along with the guiding missions of the organizations we have visited, are based on the assumption that integration of diverse populations is the ideal for a peaceful society.  Is this something we should question?  The authors of the article write, “Achieving peace requires a vision of what it looks like. How we imagine peace affects the steps we take and our ability to implement it in diverse locations around the world. Does peace in one place look the same as in another?” (2).

Yet imagining a vision of peace that relies on “good fences,” as the article is titled, or separation rather than integration, cannot be discussed without evoking memories of South African Apartheid or American segregation and the legacies of those systems.  Where is the line between separation for the good of peace and separation because of racism?

As this is our final blog post, we’ve decided to present this article to raise questions about our findings in Iceland.  If everyone working for immigrant rights in Iceland agrees that the key to peaceful success is efforts towards integration, how does that fit in with this research, which proposes isolation and boundaries (the opposite of integration) can bring peace?  What conclusions can your draw from these varying opinions?

If you’ve been reading our blog throughout our project, or even are just stumbling upon it now, we would love to hear your input and thoughts, no matter how brief, in the comments of this post.

Landakotskirkja, Reykjavik’s Catholic church which holds mass in Icelandic, English, Polish, and Spanish

Landakotskirkja, Reykjavik’s Catholic church which holds mass in Icelandic, English, Polish, and Spanish

We have had such a wonderful experience in Iceland over the past 8 weeks and are incredibly thankful to the Kathryn W. Davis Foundation for funding this project, as well as Colgate University, especially Professors Susan Thomson and Jacob Mundy (you both rock), for connecting us to this opportunity and advising us on our project.  And, of course, we are incredibly grateful for all of the amazing people who have spoken to us in Iceland.  Everyone has been so welcoming and open with us- this is a great time to use the only Icelandic word we can pronounce: Takk!

Sarah & Michelle


Human Rights Office

We decided to study immigration within Iceland for a variety of reasons but namely we wanted to study a country that is consistently ranked as one of the most peaceful in the world. One of the reasons Iceland is granted this title is due to its strides made with gender equality and gay rights. These topics are clearly a source of pride for Icelanders who boast that equality within Iceland is among the best. Thus, we wanted to get into contact with the Human Rights Office of Reykjavik to speak on not only these two topics, but to see how immigration fit under the human rights umbrella. We were fortunate enough to speak to two representatives who act as counselors for immigrants.

One of the counselors explained to us that in the 1970s human rights were synonymous with gender equality but that was the extent of it. Then, in 2006 there was a bigger push to go beyond the scope of gender equality and include other minority groups within the realm of human rights (e.g. LGBTQ, immigrants, etc.). It was at this point the Human Rights Office was established within the Reykjavik city government. The Human Rights Office took on more responsibility in 2009 when the Intercultural House (mentioned in a previous post) went bankrupt and the funds were then redirected to the Human Rights Office.

To provide an overview of what the office does, the counselors explained they provide a variety of services for immigrants regarding legal rights. The counselors speak a variety of languages with each counselor having their own ‘specialty demographic’ with which they work with (e.g. there is one counselor who is fluent in both Polish and Icelandic and thus interacts mostly with the Polish population). The counselors educate the immigrants about their rights, serve as a liaison between immigrants and city employees (e.g. schools, police, medical system), connect the immigrants to other services, and help with the process of applying for permits and other legal documents, etc. For example, one counselor provided support when a Polish woman came to the office after being told that she was forbidden to teach her children Polish and they were only supposed to learn Icelandic. However, the counselor informed her it is in fact illegal to forbid two people from speaking another language in a school or workplace. In this instance the counselor intervened, informed the Polish woman of her rights, and then proceeded to clear up the misunderstanding with the person who had upset the woman.

It is because of cases like this one that the Office also works to spread awareness and knowledge about the benefits of multiculturalism and immigration. For example, they present information about what would happen to Reykjavik if there were no immigrants to fulfill the ‘lower class’ jobs, which she joking called the “worst case scenario presentation.” For example, they present information about the jobs immigrants do in Reykjavik that benefit the city to demonstrate how the city would be worse off without immigrants. Additionally, one of the counselors told us some of her Icelandic friends complain that they cannot go to a coffee shop and order in Icelandic because the employee may be an immigrant and not speak Icelandic. However, when asked if they want their son or daughter to work in a coffee shop they promptly respond, “Of course not!” (We would like to point out this should not imply that all immigrants automatically attain ‘lower class’ jobs.)

The counselors reiterated the sentiments we have heard repeatedly in our research, noting one of the biggest hurdles currently for immigration is the lack of awareness and knowledge surrounding the benefits of living in a multicultural society. Rather, they believe Icelanders are looking at fellow European countries such as France and Sweden and are fearful the same immigration issues are going to infiltrate Iceland. What they do not realize is many of their beliefs are rooted in misinformation and negative media reporting.

However, it is clear things are starting to change. Much to the delight of one of the counselors, the City Council has recently approved the city’s application to the Council of Europe’s “Intercultural Cities” project. She explained to us that if approved, Reykjavik would be professionally peer reviewed on multiculturalism. Once the analysis has been conducted the program then produces a list of solutions for improvement. The counselor was especially happy about this because it shows that the government is willing to take the initiative and provide the funding for the enhancement of immigration policies and multicultural initiatives.

When asked what else this counselor would like to change, she listed a few suggestions, which we will list:
First, she told us that three ministries oversee immigration laws, which leads to a lack of cohesion and legal uniformity (the Ministry of the Interior oversees laws pertaining to border control and immigration, the Social Ministry oversees integration, and the Ministry of Education oversees language). She would like the implementation of an umbrella organization, which would oversee all immigration laws in a holistic and integrated manner.
Secondly, she would like to see more integration laws, which would aid the dissemination of information to new immigrants. For example, in Holland you are required to take a class in civics training, which provides information about the immigrants’ legal rights. Currently, immigrants in Iceland have to seek out this information on their own time.
Third, she believes free lessons in Icelandic should be offered for immigrants. Beyond the obvious benefits of learning Icelandic, the counselor explained that many immigrants arrive with their own set of personal issues and cannot find help without speaking Icelandic. For example, Iceland has excellent rehab programs for alcoholism but they are only offered in Icelandic and thus create a barrier for non-Icelandic speakers seeking those types of services.
Finally, she expressed a desire for immigrants to get involved and become more visible within the current multicultural debates. Immigrants are writing “brilliant” things online, she said, but are unwilling to publish their comments or submit them to newspapers. But speaking openly about their opinions and experiences as immigrants in Iceland she believes would serve both a political and educational purpose.

In conclusion, it was fascinating talking to these two women about their work, but also about their personal experiences with immigration (both being immigrants themselves). Overall we got the sense they are pleased with the progress Iceland has made in terms of gender equality and gay rights, but would now like to see the same type of energy devoted towards multiculturalism. Unfortunately it has not happened quite yet, but both of them are optimistic it will happen in the future.

The Icelander and The Other

Over the past few weeks we’ve met with multiple people who work in the offices of multicultural centers or organizations that provide services to immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers.  One persistent theme that we’ve noticed has been these representatives’ emphasis on a problem of “otherness” that seems so surround non-native people in Iceland.

Ewa Protasiuk, a fellow Colgate University student who is spending the summer researching youth immigrants of color in Poland, kindly forwarded us an article by Icelandic anthropologist Kristín Loftsdóttir titled “Republishing ‘The Ten Little Negros’: Exploring Nationalism and ‘Whiteness’ In Iceland.”  In 2007 this rhyming children’s book was republished in Iceland, evoking a wide variety of responses from Icelanders and foreigners alike.  Some people voiced the opinion that this book was outdated and racist and should not be circulated or republished.  Others cited it as a piece of Icelandic history, written and illustrated by famous Icelanders, that was not racist in its nature.

In her interviews with Icelanders (both native to the country and immigrants alike), Loftsdóttir observed many sentiments that we have also found prominent through our research.  She writes, “Many of the immigrants that I have interviewed, both members of the African diaspora and those historically classified as ‘white’, expressed how difficult they felt it was being accepted in Icelandic society and their persistent categorization as ‘foreigners’” (301).  She elaborated on the immense pride Icelanders have for their country’s history, culture, and language, and the frequent view that being ‘purely’ Icelandic is something to be proud of.

One of the most interesting observations in the paper is that those who defended the publication of the book often viewed racism as an outside problem that is not native to Iceland.  One blogger wrote, “For God’s sake, stop importing problems!” (305).  Loftsdóttir reflects on this:

The notion that problems are ‘imported’ seems to imply that the ‘multi-culturalists’ are making simple things complex… [These bloggers] claim that Icelanders are not racist and have not been racist, and that these are rather just ‘trivial’ imported problems – ‘foreign’ in a sense like the people involved. (305)

This idea is very similar to the comments we’ve heard from people working in organizations that provide services to immigrants and strive to promote a welcoming atmosphere to non-native Icelanders.  They agree that there is a continual labeling of immigrants as ‘others’ who bring challenges of integration and assimilation to the country that did not previously exist.

As we wrote in last week’s blog, a push for multicultural education, awareness, and appreciation is needed.  However, this is an issue that affects international society on a much wider scale than just Iceland alone.  As our lives become more interconnected in today’s globalized way of life, people have the ability to travel, move and meet people very different from themselves.  Immigration policies, as well as social issues that arise in newly diverse populations, are problems that most countries around the world are facing today.  Iceland’s experience of republishing “Ten Little Negros” provides a window through which we can view the domestic discussion of a homogenous population dealing with questions of race, diversity, and history.



Graffiti seen in Reykjavik

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.