City of Reykjavík employees with a foreign background have been crucial in informing the immigrant community during the COVID-19 pandemic, says City Councillor Sabine Leskopf, who also chairs the city’s Intercultural Committee. While translation of key information got off to a slow start, now many organisations are co-ordinating their efforts to ensure that foreigners living in Iceland aren’t out of the loop.
“There’s a lot of co-operation now, and that’s the amazing thing that’s happening,” Sabine says. “The beauty of Iceland is that the hierarchies are flat, it just takes a couple of phone calls, and things get done, and that’s happening a lot in this area as well.”
Information in many languages key
Sabine says those who speak Icelandic or English have had relatively good access to local information since the first coronavirus case was confirmed in Iceland. “A lot of immigrants speak good Icelandic, and those who do, of course, have more or less sufficient access to information as all the others have. Then there is a large group that speaks not much Icelandic but good English, and info in English started early, so I think this group also had good access. But then there’s a group that speaks neither good Icelandic nor English that we need to worry about. I’m a fierce supporter of learning Icelandic, I think there’s no way around it if you want to live here. But this is a time where we shouldn’t be arguing about people learning Icelandic or not. This is a time of emergency: we have to get information out there so people can get through this.”
Lack of accessible information leads to mistrust
“I’ve worked for a long time in translation – multilingual website translation is a very tricky thing. It was done incredibly fast, for the city’s official website, the COVID website and everyone else, but it still came late to the public.” Residents who don’t understand Icelandic or English well had trouble understanding and trusting Iceland’s unique approach to curbing the pandemic, says Sabine. “The strategy used in Iceland is very different from other countries. Immigrants who don’t speak Icelandic or English, they look for information elsewhere, mostly to their countries of origin, and that information was very different. So that confused people and maybe increased their worries about what’s happening here, particularly with schools. I think that’s the major issue for most immigrants; they’re wondering why the schools aren’t closed. They’re closed back home and not here, so people are scared and critical of government response and I think that’s understandable.”
“They have to know their options”
Besides providing information on COVID-19 on their website and Facebook pages in English and Polish, the City of Reykjavík is working to inform immigrants about what schools are doing to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus even while they remain open.
“We have what you call ‘bridge builders’ – people who have a foreign background, speak foreign languages, and have a teacher’s education who work in the school department. These people have been crucial for us. All messages sent from schools are always sent out at least in English, Polish, and Icelandic. These bridge builders have been in personal contact with the public, particularly calling parents who haven’t sent their children to school. We have called these people with an interpreter or spoken directly to them in their language. We always have to respect if they make the personal decision not to send their children to school. There can be many reasons for it. But we have to make sure they know their options, make sure they understand what the school is doing to protect their children.”
Sabine’s biggest concern is ensuring that children who are kept home can continue to learn. “If you have foreign children who don’t speak Icelandic in the home, for those children to be out of school maybe for months, that will set them back immensely, and they may already be in a vulnerable situation. So this is what we really want to inform the parents about. We want to make sure they understand their options and that they trust us so they can really think it through whether they want to send their children to school, and if not make sure children can stay in touch and continue to study.”
More immigrants needed in positions of responsibility
Of the City of Reykjavík’s 9,000 employees, around 10% are of foreign origin. Those working within the welfare as well as the human rights department and other communication-focused jobs have been crucial to keeping foreign residents informed, says Sabine. “It takes a lot of time for a translator to get into a new subject matter, to learn about it and understand it. It’s different when you have someone who works in the institution and knows it well. These people have the language, they understand the needs of the community, and they know the institution.”
While the city of Reykjavík has benefited from such employees, Sabine says it could do better. “That’s what I’m taking away from this time, what’s going to be my mission: we need to have more people with an immigrant background in responsible positions in the administration and in society.”