In Iceland, refugee population helps yield diversity, economic growth

As refugees from war flee across continental Europe, a few have found safety in an unlikely place: Iceland. New legislation there relaxes immigration controls, worrying some residents -- but more citizens favor diversifying their mostly white and Christian nation. In fact, the country’s economy may rely on population growth. Malcolm Brabant recounts the Icelandic experience of one Syrian family.

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    But, first: Anti-immigrant sentiment is on the rise in Europe, and it has spread to Iceland, one of the more unusual destinations for refugees from the war in Syria.

    But many people on this island nation in the middle of the North Atlantic welcome the prospect of their traditionally white, Christian country becoming more multicultural.

    Special correspondent Malcolm Brabant reports from the Icelandic capital, Reykjavik.

  • MALCOLM BRABANT, Special Correspondent:

    Outside Iceland's tiny Parliament, pro-refugee supporters outnumber and encircle a group from a new party called the Icelandic National Front, which objects to recent legislation relaxing rules on immigration.

    One of their standard-bearers is nurse Maria Magnusdottir.

  • MARIA MAGNUSDOTTIR, Icelandic National Front:

    We do not want people that are not adapting to our culture, like, for example, Muslims. I'm not saying that all Muslims are bad people. But, unfortunately, they are not adapting to cultures. So, like, in Europe, we can see two cultures in most of those countries. And that is what we are afraid of.


    One of the cheerleaders on the other side is Salmann Tamimi, a Palestinian imam who stopped off in Iceland en route to North America in the 1970s, and never left.

    IMAM SALMANN TAMIMI, Muslim Association of Iceland: You see how many supporters are, five, six, 10 times more than the other guys. And this is how the Icelandic society is, really. We have maybe 2 or 3 percent who are what I call racists and fascists. And — but the majority is nice people and we are happy for their support that we are getting.


    The population is very small here in Iceland. We are very few persons. And if you open all the borders, then we're in trouble.


    "This is a disgusting use of the flag," shouts Logi Stefansson, a well-known musician who shares Icelandic and Angolan heritage.

  • LOGI STEFANSSON, Musician:

    They want to basically keep the country white. They're talking about — like, they have 800 asylum-seekers coming next year, which is, like, a disgraceful number. That's too small. They just want the white supremacy. Like, seriously, the system for asylum-seekers in Iceland is disgusting. They get treated like dogs.


    But the treatment afforded the Al-Mohammad family from Aleppo has been exemplary. The Al-Mohammads left Syria for Lebanon in 2012, signed up for the U.N. refugee resettlement program, and in January were told that they were going to Iceland. Although it wasn't their choice, English teacher Khattab is not complaining.

  • KHATTAB AL-MOHAMMAD, Syrian Refugee:

    This is now the dream of most of the Syrians, to restore the happiness of their children and find a means for making this happen. And we were very lucky to be here, for example, and have this chance to play, because other children in Syria now, they are killed by the — our criminal president and his supporters.


    Al-Mohammad, his wife, their six children and his mother, have been given an apartment in the middle-class neighborhood of Akureyri, a northern town less than 40 miles from the Arctic Circle.


    We found a lot of similarities between the two societies, for example, the safety of children, and the educational system, health care. These are free in Syria, and now we found it here. And maybe the most obstacle was the weather, the climate itself.

    So, we used to have sunny days. A little bit were cold winter, but not snow for, for example, six months. It's very hard for us.


    The local council is working hard to integrate the newcomers. And the refugee coordinator is visiting to help the family with temporary citizenship documents that will enable them to travel freely throughout Europe.

    Al-Mohammad is looking to get off welfare benefits and is seeking a business partner to set up a restaurant.


    Although we are — appreciate their help, but we want to participate in this society and in the economy of this country. So, we don't like to be living on this kind of charity. And I suppose all the Syrians are trying their best in the different places. We are normally independent. We don't like to be dependent on someone.

  • NOUFA AL MOHAMMAD, Syrian Refugee (through translator):

    I'm very happy. Icelanders are good people. The country is very generous and welcoming. And we are proud to be here and to be part of this country.

  • BOY (through translator):

    I'm happy here. I have friends to play ball with.

  • HALINA AL-MOHAMMAD, Syrian Refugee (through translator):

    Of course it's better here, and secure. The living here is good, especially the kids' school.


    Akureyri is a bustling town of 18,000 people, popular with tourists for whale watching and another nature pursuits.

    The council is anxious to avoid the mistakes of much bigger countries, which have created ghettos by placing immigrants together. In a nation of just 330,000 people, it's much easier to house refugees amongst Icelanders.

    The town's Red Cross has organized a support group whose purpose is to help the newcomers find their feet and bloom.

  • KARI LAURSSON, Conservationist:

    I hope that, if at some point, Iceland would go sort of be a war zone or something like that, someone somewhere else on the planet would welcome me as well as they possibly can.


    I think of our country as just a part of the global village. Nobody can decide where they're born, and I think everyone should have a fair chance.


    Two of the volunteers are heading out to the house of an electrician from Damascus called Joumaa Naser, who lives with his wife and their five children.


    They don't speak English but they're very good at practicing Icelandic. And we are helping them to learn. I want to teach them how to be themselves in our society and to use the Icelandic language.


    As the girls help one of the younger children with his Icelandic, the town's cultural coordinator is on hand to translate a conversation between one of the sons, who is just about to start high school, and his new teachers.

    Joumaa Naser's skills as an electrician are in demand, and he's happy to be working.

  • JOUMAA NASER, Syrian Refugee (through translator):

    In the long term future, we haven't yet decided what's going to happen. But for the immediate future, we are settling here. This is good for the children. They feel safe here. They will get an education. But, ultimately, our aim is to get back to Syria, when it's safe to do so.


    Much of the debate about refugees and immigration centers on multiculturalism and religion. But the realpolitik of hard cash has entered the fray.

    Ever since the financial crisis of 2008, Iceland has been trying to get back on its feet, and it has succeeded. The economy is booming. The growth rate here is about 4 percent a year, and, according to the country's business leaders, Iceland needs 2,000 immigrants a year to maintain that level of growth.

    Akureyri's Mayor Eirokur Bjorgvinsson is very clear where he stands on the issue.


    Some people say that the people need also social support. So it is also money getting out. But they are giving more back than they have actually received. Maybe they have received something for months or years, but in the long term, they will give much more back than they have received.


    As elsewhere in Europe, some Icelanders have a profound fear, if not phobia, of Islam.


    Islam is a group of values, not only just praying and you agree that — values. The values of Islam, we see it here. So, why are they afraid?

    The values, to be honest, the value of to be helpful, the value to be democratic, the value of being human, these are the values of Islam. And we found them here. We missed them in Syria, but we found them here.

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