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

Posted on Sep 6, 2015

By Natasha Hakimi

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

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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:

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[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.”


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