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Truthdiggers of the Week: Icelanders Who Opened Their Hearts and Homes to Syrian Refugees

A view of rooftops in Reykjavik, Iceland. (Tsuguliev / Shutterstock)

Every week the Truthdig editorial staff selects a Truthdigger of the Week, a group or person worthy of recognition for speaking truth to power, breaking the story or blowing the whistle. It is not a lifetime achievement award. Rather, we’re looking for newsmakers whose actions in a given week are worth celebrating.

Amid news of thousands of refugees having died on their journeys to Europe, an unexpected positive headline broke through last week: “Iceland Said It Would Take Only 50 Syrian Refugees, So 10,000 Icelanders Offered Up Their Own Homes.”

After political representatives of the island nation of 323,000 declared that there was room for only a few dozen refugees, Icelandic author and professor Bryndis Bjorgvinsdottir took to social media to rally her fellow citizens to pressure their government to do more. On a Facebook page titled “Kæra Eygló Harðar – Sýrland kallar,” which translates as “Dear Eygló Harðar – Syria is Calling,” Bjorgvinsdottir wrote:

[This] is a platform to write the minister of Welfare a letter publicly. The idea is to show the government that there exists a will to receive even more refugees from Syria than the 50 that have already been discussed. We want to push the government — show them that we can do better, and do so immediately! In 1973 we received 4,000 refugees from the Westman Islands overnight after a volcanic eruption, when everyone helped — and we should not forget the number of foreign volunteers that came to the country to help then.

Refugees are human resources, they have experience and skills. Refugees are our future spouses, best friends, or soulmates, the drummer for the band of our children, our next colleague, Miss Iceland in 2022, the carpenter who finally finished the bathroom, the cook in the cafeteria, the fireman, the computer genius, or the television host. People who we’ll never be able to say to: “Your life is worth less than mine.”

The open letter was addressed to Eygló Harðar, Iceland’s welfare minister, but it may as well have been addressed to a world that for quite some time has shrugged its shoulders at the intense human suffering causing unprecedented displacement in North Africa and the Middle East. And what is particularly impressive about this call to action is that Iceland and the rest of world decided to listen.

Thousands of Icelanders responded to the letter with comments on the page, offering their homes, services and resources, as well as symbolic hugs and kindness. Here are a few of their replies:

— “I have clothing, kitchenware, bed and a room in Hvanneyri [western Iceland], which I am happy to share with Syrians. … I would like to work as a volunteer to help welcome people and assist them with adapting to Icelandic society.”

— “I want to help one displaced family have the chance to live the carefree life that I do. … We as a family are willing to provide the refugees with temporary housing near Egilsstaoir [eastern Iceland], clothing and other assistance. I am a teacher and I can help children with their learning.”

— “I’m happy to look after children, take them to kindergarten, school and wherever they need. I can cook for people and show them friendship and warmth. I can pay the airfare for one small family. I can contribute with my expertise and assist pregnant women with pre-natal care.”

— “I have an extra room in a spacious apartment which I am more than happy to share along with my time and overall support.”

Bjorgvinsdottir herself has offered to pay for five airplane tickets for Syrian refugees and arranged for those newcomers to stay at a friend’s home. Regarding the overwhelming response to her letter, the author said on public television, “I think people have had enough of seeing news stories from the Mediterranean and refugee camps of dying people and they want something done now.”

One commenter pointed out that some of the current inhabitants of the island were once refugees themselves. And, of course, many Icelanders have migrated to foreign lands. The Daily Beast notes, “In 1883, an article in the Duluth News Tribune described the 180 [Icelandic] immigrants who came in on a [ship]. ‘A queerer looking or more poverty stricken people never came to this city,’ it read.”About 16,000 Icelanders—which, as The Telegraph points out, is 5 percent of the country’s population—took to the page to offer their homes. But Icelanders weren’t the only ones among the growing thousands on the Facebook page. It also received comments from many other parts of the world.

The page quickly succeeded in getting the Icelandic government to reconsider its paltry quota. According to Icelandic Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, a “special committee of ministers” will soon be appointed “to discuss the problem and evaluate how Icelanders can respond, how we can contribute as much as possible.”

The Icelandic Red Cross declared on Facebook, “It is without a doubt due to this support on social media that on Tuesday, almost 100 volunteers showed up at Red Cross headquarters to complete their registration as active volunteers, ready to provide assistance.”

Receiving refugees isn’t something that is unfamiliar to Icelanders. According to the United Nations, Iceland houses 99 refugees and 210 asylum seekers, the majority of whom are Palestinian.

Reportedly inspired by the Icelanders, the Spanish cities of Barcelona, Madrid, Córdoba and Palma de Mallorca have stated intentions to set up registries of “local families who are prepared to help or host refugees.” And, as The Daily Beast writes, Germany has a similar system in place called “Refugees Welcome,” which the news website describes as “a sort of philanthropic Airbnb.”

Americans have started a Facebook page called “Open Homes, Open Hearts US – with Syrian refugees,” containing instructions on how to “[t]ell President Obama that you … believe that America should greatly increase the number of Syrian refugees” allowed to resettle in the U.S. and “that you would be willing to welcome an individual or a family into your home.”

While praising the Syria Is Calling page as “moving,” Benjamín Julian, a member of the human rights group Ekki fleiri Brottvísanir (“No More Deportations”), said in an interview that the grass-roots movement should also focus on pressuring the Icelandic government to waive the Dublin Regulation, “a European law that gives signatory nations the right to deport asylum seekers back to their previous point of departure.” Julian said:

It’s good to see people are prepared to help in case refugees should be brought here. But we should also stop them from being thrown out again — as they are, thanks to the policies of the Interior Ministry and the Directorate of Immigration.

The government’s focus at the moment is on hand-picking a few refugees, securing for all of them full service before they arrive. This obviously hampers relief efforts. The government should put its emphasis on getting people here first. The solidarity movement is, as we can clearly see, strong and willing to take it from there.

While there are always more steps that movements can take, as Julian points out, Icelanders on the Syria Is Calling page have proved that governments do not have the last word when it comes to helping those in need and that the global community is actually far more interested in helping refugees than our elected officials seem to believe. For setting an example for governments and people all over the world, these heroic Icelanders are our Truthdiggers of the Week.

Natasha Hakimi Zapata
Assistant Editor and Poetry Editor
Natasha Hakimi Zapata holds a Creative Writing M.F.A. from Boston University and both a B.A. in Spanish and a B.A. in English with a creative writing concentration from the University of California, Los…
Natasha Hakimi Zapata

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