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Unnar Christiansdottir on her work in a 'support family'
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Thursday, 6 August, 1998, 11:57 GMT 12:57 UK
No free ride in Iceland
Meriel Beattie, refugee and Icelandic helper by lake, Isafjordur, 8/98
Refugee Sasha Borojevic, support family stalwart Unnar Christiansdottir and Meriel Beattie go fishing

Iceland is usually seen as one of the most isolated and ethnically homogeneous states in Europe; a place where national identity is jealously guarded and a rugged climate has forced people to pull together. The harshness of the landscape mean that solidarity and mutual aid are bred in the bone here: helping your neighbour is simply second nature. But that very ethos goes hand in hand with a rather ambivalent attitude to outsiders.

During World War II Iceland was notably reticent in accepting refugees from Nazism and even deported some Jewish families back to the mainland. More recently, the US Army, which maintains a large military bases on the island, was discreetly asked not to send any black soldiers lest they upset the locals.

But no country can stay isolated forever. Over the last few decades, like the rest of the continent, Iceland has had to come to terms with a more complex, multi-cultural reality. In the wake of the Yugoslavian war, as Europe tried to cope with tens of thousands of refugees, Iceland too stepped forward and said it wanted to help - in its own special way. That's led to an unusual policy of dispersing refugee families to live and work in some of the remotest corners of the country.

When Sasha Borojevic told his friends in Krajina that he was fleeing to Iceland, they weren't impressed. "You're not normal," they said ... "you'll be frozen and buried under the ice".

But with nowhere else to go, and facing the threat of being drafted into the Army and possibly sent to fight in Kosovo, Sasha and his family decided to take the chance - and they met with a surprisingly warm welcome as they arrived in the remote village of Blonduos in the west of Iceland. "It was like a celebration", he remembers. "they made a little dinner for us and gave us some presents with the keys to the flat."

Statue of Icelandic fishermen
Iceland's work ethic applies to everyone...
It's that kind of community involvement which really marks out Iceland's approach to its immigrants. Here, the aim is not just to support refugees, but to integrate them as quickly and thoroughly as possible into the Icelandic way of life.

All the Yugoslavs were assigned 'support families', who help them negotiate the pitfalls of getting started in a new country - from housing to shopping. Unnar Christiandottir, who was one of the support team for the Borojevic family, remembers their efforts to make them feel at home - even to the point of replacing the pink sheets they'd provided for Sasha's bed with "something more boyish."

The Icelanders' concern is not completely altruistic. The influx of refugees - about 70 in the last three years - pushed Blonduos's population over the magic figure of 1,000, which in Iceland marks the difference between a village and a town. And most of all, foreigners are settled in the regions rather than in the capital not just for their own good, but to provide much-needed labour.

Pall Petersen, Iceland's Social Affairs Minister, who grew up on a remote farm himself and is a stalwart promoter of rural interests, is proud of the Icelandic approach: " I think our programme is unique; I still feel it was a good idea and we'll keep on with it. The Icelandic people have a duty to take on some people and try to help after disasters, and our small communities feel they lack people. We're fortunate here to have low unemployment, but we lack people for working."

Indeed, in the rural areas unemployment has been put as low as 1%. This is a country where self-sufficiency is central to the culture, where children start working in their early teens and headmasters occasionally clash with factory owners who want the schools closed for a few weeks so that all available hands can help process a large fish catch.

New immigrants are no exception to the rule: they'll be helped for nine months, but after that they're expected to find a job and fend for themselves. Most are encouraged to start working as soon as possible - sometimes as little as six to eight weeks after they arrive.

Zhelka Popovic, with fish and hairnet
Zhelka Popovic at work in the fish factory in Isafjordur
It's a regime which has worked well for Zhelka Popovic, another refugee from Krajina who's settled with her family in the town of Isafjordur, on the far north-western coast. She's now thoroughly settled in, with a job in a local fish factory, and says she now thinks of herself as " a person from Isafjordur." But the real key to her success wasn't just finding a job: it was getting to grips with the Icelandic language.

Icelandic is the major hurdle facing the refugees: it's not an easy tongue to learn, and despite the nine months of intensive coaching, few refugees become truly fluent for at least a couple of years. Adding to the burden is the absolutely central role the language plays in Icelanders' fierce pride in their culture and identity. Until recently, it was even compulsory for immigrants to adopt an Icelandic name.

Stories abounded of names being picked out from the approved list given out on the plane and allotted to new immigrants who couldn't even pronounce them. Even Ingibjorg Hafstad, a sensitive and open-minded educator who runs programmes for foreign children in Iceland, admits that "it just irritates us [Icelanders] to hear wrongly-spoken Icelandic."

Family of Yugo refugees, Iceland, 8/98
Zhelka at home with husband Jovan and daughters Milenka and Jovana
The Popovic family are keen to integrate as much as they can, but - like immigrants everywhere - they also want to hang on to a sense of their own identity. Zhelka makes sure that her two daughters, Milenka and Jovana, are learning their mother tongue at home. And while the initial welcome was warm, many of the new immigrants haven't found it easy to form really close relations or friendships with their neighbours. Irena Kojic, who works for the Red Cross helping to resettle the refugees, can straddle both cultures, having a Yugoslavian father and an Icelandic mother. She finds that some of the families, still feeling a little isolated in their new homes, lean heavily on her for companionship and help.

Irena Kojic, Red Cross worker, Iceland, 8/98
Irena Kojic has a foot in both Icelandic and Yugoslav camps
While Iceland's climate and culture have equipped the Icelanders to take a practical, straightforward view of helping the immigrants, she feels that they still have a very different mentality from the Yugoslavs. "The police in Iceland don't carry any weapons, there's no army in Iceland, they've only seen war on television, they have no concept of war. Maybe taking in a group of refugees makes the Icelanders realise how protected their lives are, maybe they realise how lucky they are, living in a country like this."

And that, after all, is the reason why the refugees are staying in Iceland, despite all the difficulties. Sasha is only beginning to find his way in his new country: "you can't feel at home after just three weeks," he points out, "but I feel very safe here, and I like that."

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30 Jun 98 | Europe
Crackdown on European migrants
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