Intercultural Conference Addresses Ways to Fight Xenophobia

Hitt Húsið

The City of Reykjavík hosted this year’s Intercultural Conference at the youth centre Hitt Húsið, which was by all accounts well attended and well received. Speakers and attendees alike related their experiences with xenophobia and racism, as well as ways to combat it.

Translations and accents

Amongst the events at the conference was one led by First Lady Eliza Reid, entitled “Can good literary translations involve inclusion?”, which explored the idea of translated literature establishing better connections between cultures.

Yet another event explored the oft-overlooked subject of Icelandic spoken with an accent. Many people of foreign origin in Iceland who speak Icelandic will do so with an accent, and this event sought to examine how this affects one’s self-image, how those with Icelandic as a mother tongue respond to Icelandic with an accent, and related subjects.

Young people and racism

One of the other more compelling events was an open discussion group for young people aged 13 through 18. This event was coordinated in cooperation between Nordic Pioneers, the anti-racist group Antirasistarnir and Isabel Díaz, Iceland’s UN Youth Delegate on Education, Science and Culture.

Some of these attendees who spoke to RÚV recounted being subjected to bullying and slurs, in school and in the workplace, as well as more subtle kinds of racism. As one example, Kristín Taiwo Reynisdóttir was adopted and brought to Iceland when she was just a couple weeks old. Despite this, she says, she is repeatedly asked where she is from because she is Black. Other people of colour who attended expressed frustration with always being addressed in English first, no matter how long they have lived in Iceland, based on the presumptions others make because of their skin colour.

Women of foreign origin and education

Towards the end of the conference, W.O.M.E.N., an organisation of women of foreign origin in Iceland, led a panel discussion about how, despite their numbers, women of foreign origin are seldom in policy-making positions and are underrepresented in other spheres of society as well.

On a brighter note, the open discussion of young people raised several ideas for how xenophobia and racism can be combated. One of the more prevalent ideas to arise was education–for students, parents and teachers alike. Antirasistarnir offers such education for interested schools, as well as making themselves available to students struggling with xenophobia.

As about one quarter of Reykajvík’s residents are of foreign origin, the conference was by all accounts well received.

Manslaughter Case Raises Concerns Among Immigrant Community

Experts in multiculturalism and members of Iceland’s largest immigrant community fear the implications of a case involving the stabbing and death of a Polish man. The four suspects are all Icelandic teenagers and are currently in custody.

Around midnight on April 20, law enforcement was tipped off to a confrontation between the four suspects and the victim in the parking lot of Fjarðarkaup grocery store in Hafnarfjörður, a town in the Reykjavík capital area. Police arrived shortly after to find the victim, who was transported to the emergency room with several stab wounds. He was pronounced dead shortly after. The victim was a Polish man 27 years of age. The four suspects are Icelandic youth, three male and one female. The oldest suspect is 18 and the other three are under 18 years of age. Police have not identified any connection between the suspects and the victim.

Community in shock

The Polish community is Iceland’s largest immigrant community, making up around 40% of all immigrants in the country. “I think everyone, not just the Polish community, is in shock, because this is very difficult,” Martyna Ylfa Suzko, a Polish-Icelandic interpreter, told RÚV. Martyna has lived in Iceland for 18 years and considers herself as much Icelandic as Polish. She believes the incident could cause conflict between Polish and Icelandic people in Iceland by encouraging people to think in terms of “us” versus “them.”

Inadequate language interpreting services

In an interview with Heimildin, the mother of the victim stated it had been difficult to receive information about the case. “All communication goes through an interpreter and it’s a new interpreter every time.” Martyna says she is familiar with such issues in the Iceland. “This is not OK at all and as I always say, receiving good and certified quality interpreting services is simply a human right, especially in a situation like this. There isn’t enough professionalism yet. […] That’s something that can recreate the trauma for this person. Interpreting is not just putting something into Google translate and translating word for word.”

Xenophobia on social media

The manslaughter case sparked much discussion on social media, with many Icelanders assuming that the suspects were foreigners before their nationality was made public. Many Icelanders posted xenophobic comments on social media in response to the case, for example encouraging immigrants in Iceland to “go back home.” Jasmina Vajzovic Crnac, the director of International Issues at the City of Reykjavík’s Welfare Department, says this rhetoric has often been seen in comment sections on Icelandic media before and called it a dangerous development.

‘It’s the worst country I’ve ever been to’: Polish Football Player Leaves Iceland, Cites Xenophobia, Discrimination

Polish football player Chris Jastrzembski, formerly of UMF Selfoss in South Iceland, joined the team prior to the start of the current season and made 13 league and cup appearances before transferring to Prey Veng in Cambodia last month. Vísir reports that Jastrzembski endured repeated xenophobic comments and discrimination on the basis of his nationality while living and working in Iceland.

The 25-year-old defender opened up about his experience in Iceland in an interview with the Polish paper Gazeta on Thursday.

“It’s the worst country I’ve ever been to,” he said. “I will never go back. Many Poles live there and they’re fine, but my experience of Icelanders is terrible. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. People are sorted into categories there.”

“The club treated me worse because I have a Polish passport. From day one, those people had no respect for me.”

In the interview, Jastrzembski recalled an incident in which he was putting up scaffolding at the stadium in Selfoss. He was doing so from a ladder that an Icelandic woman was holding for him.

“Then the boss came and told her to stop helping me because the wind wasn’t that strong, and I’d be fine. The woman left and I fell,” Jastrzembski said, adding that the woman had felt bad about the accident and he’d told her not to worry. The supervisor then began speaking to her in Icelandic and she translated what he said for Jastrzembski. According to the woman, what the Icelandic man said was: “To hell with him. He’s just a Pole. If he dies, there are plenty of Poles who can take his place.”

‘Requested to be released from his contract for personal reasons’

In a Facebook post about Jastrzembski’s departure from the team in July, the team wrote:

“Defender Chris Jastrzembski has played his last game for Selfoss. The player requested to be released from his contract with the club for personal reasons and the club has granted that request. Chris joined the team in the winter and played 13 games this summer and scored one goal. We thank Chris for his time here in Selfoss and wish him the best in his future endeavors.”

Prior to playing for UMF Selfoss, Jastrzembski played in the Faroe Islands, Germany, and for Poland’s national youth football team.

Call on Social Affairs Minister to Address Xenophobic Comments

Efling Labour Union has released a statement calling on the Minister of Social Affairs to take responsibility for xenophobic comments made by the Ministry’s Permanent Secretary at a panel on immigrants on the Icelandic labour market last week.

Minister of Social Affairs Ásmundur Einar Daðason was invited to speak on a panel last Friday at the University of Iceland at a one-day conference focused on immigrants on the Icelandic labour market. Ásmundur was unable to attend the event, but sent the Ministry’s Permanent Secretary Gissur Pétursson in his place.

“Is the translation correct? Where am I?” Dovelyn Rannveig Mendoza, a migration policy specialist, asked herself after hearing Gissur’s comments. According to both Efling and City Councillor Sabine Leskopf, Gissur said foreign workers were an asset because they were easy to get rid of when an economic downturn begins. Gissur also stated that it was foreign workers’ responsibility to inform themselves about their rights and create the working conditions they want. Gissur expressed his belief that it was worthless to fund Icelandic classes for immigrants because foreigners couldn’t be bothered to learn Icelandic.

“The comments aroused fear and anger among panel participants and audience members,” reads the statement, signed by Efling’s Chairperson Sólveig Anna Jónsdóttir and Vice-Chair Agnieszka Ewa Ziolkowska, who describe Gissur’s discourse as being “completely out of context with the basic premises of the discussion – that people of foreign origin working on the Icelandic labour market are people, human beings.”

According to Efling’s statement, Ásmundur has responded to the situation by saying he is ill-informed about what Gissur said on his behalf in the panel discussion.