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Iceland, an unexpected Arctic asylum for Syrian refugees

  • Iceland's Minister of Social Affairs and Housing Eyglo Hardardottir (R) welcomign the first group of Syrian refugees at Keflavik airport. Photo courtesy: AFP

By Jérémie RICHARD

Reykjavik (AFP) -- The wind blows in icy gusts and the rain gently melts the snow: welcome to Iceland! Far from their hometown Damascus, Joumaa and his family don't mind the Arctic cold, they're just happy to be living in safety.

With 330,000 inhabitants surrounded by volcanoes, glaciers and geysers, Iceland is an unusual destination for refugees fleeing war in Syria.

But since 2015, 118 Syrians have found hope for a new and tranquil life in the Nordic nation.

Many of them lived in Lebanon for several years before coming to the land of ice and fire, sent by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Most of them have settled in the capital Reykjavik and its surroundings, while others are beginning their new lives in Akureyri in the north of the country, 70 kilometres (45 miles) south of the Arctic Circle.

Akureyri is where Joumaa Naser, his wife and their five children now call home.

The state finances their rent for one year and pays them an allowance for daily expenses. The Red Cross meanwhile finances Icelandic language classes and cultural courses.

Speaking Icelandic is the main obstacle for Joumaa, sporting a finely trimmed moustache and bundled up in a down jacket, his words translated by an interpreter.

Does the harsh Nordic climate bother him? Not so much.

"We're able to adapt to any conditions here, whether they're easy or difficult, we can live with them," he tells AFP.

"It's only the language that is a bit complicated. We need time to become fully adapted," he adds.

Friends and football

But Joumaa's children, including his son Amjad, are picking up the language faster.

Making friends and playing local sports like football have helped them adapt to their new homeland.

"I like Iceland because it's very nice and there are very nice people. Here we like the snow because in Syria, maybe you'll see the snow but maybe not," Amjad says with a laugh as he throws himself down to make a snow angel.

On the other side of the North Atlantic island, in a residential suburb of Reykjavik, live Mustafa and Basma.

In their modern and soberly decorated two-room apartment of 50 square metres (538 square feet), located just a stone's throw from the ocean, the couple enjoy their newfound security, far from the chaos of Latakia, the Mediterranean port city in Syria which they fled.

"They (Icelanders) welcomed us in a very nice way," says 30-year-old Mustafa Akra, thin glasses perched on his nose and a cap on his head.

Child of exile

Mustafa says some people he has met in Iceland are "racist", but fewer than in other countries.

Support for the anti-immigration Icelandic National Front, founded in early 2016 when the first Syrian refugees began arriving, remains minimal.

The party garnered only 0.2 percent of votes in October's snap election. And according to a survey carried out for Amnesty International in September, more than 85 percent of Icelanders want to take in more refugees.

"People are shy to advertise their opposition against refugees. It's not a popular view here," says Linda Blondal, the Syrian couple's neighbour who is helping them integrate into Icelandic society.

The couple knew little or nothing about their new home before coming.

"We had never heard of Iceland before arriving here. We barely knew where it was!", explains Basma, who wears a hijab.

Mustafa, a strapping man willing to work hard, ended up finding a job. But it wasn't easy -- he speaks neither Icelandic nor English.

In Syria he worked as a taxi driver, a car mechanic, a cook, a house painter and an electrician. He now works for Ali Baba, a Middle Eastern restaurant in the centre of Reykjavik.

The family is set to grow, as Basma is expected to give birth to their first child, a boy, in the coming weeks.

"I'm proud that he will be born in Iceland, as safe as possible in a beautiful country," the 28-year-old mum-to-be says.

Iceland registered 791 asylum applications last year, mostly from Balkan countries.

Only 100 have been granted refugee status, including 25 Iraqis, 17 Syrians and 14 Iranians.

A year ago, then-prime minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson welcomed the first six Syrian refugee families at Reykjavik airport.

And on Monday, President Gudni Johannesson received another five refugees at his official residence.

 

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