A bright point in darkness

In Iran, Zahra Mesbah was always at the back of the queue. In Iceland, on the other hand, she can even drive a car.

Zahra Mesbah is now living in Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland © UNHCR / ANDERS Aalbu

16 June 2016 | Reykjavik, Iceland | by Anders Aalbu, UNHCR Stockholm

Zahra Mesbah (23) arrived in Iceland as a resettled refugee in October 2012. She is not hiding the fact that it was a bit of a culture shock to enter the remote island far out in the North Atlantic Ocean.

“Every single thing was strange. For me it was like going to the moon”, Zahra says.

With help from the Icelandic Red Cross, Zahra and her family (her mother and one younger sister) were provided with a volunteer support family.

“In the beginning, just a smile meant a lot”, Zahra says.

Arriving in October, daylight in Iceland did not last for many hours. Zahra describes their support family as “a bright point in darkness”.

“They helped us to understand Iceland. We learned from them, and they also learned things from us”, Zahra says.

Iceland, a nation of 320,000 citizens, has 4,500 active Red Cross volunteers. Volunteers work alongside local officials to help families settle down and adjust to the new society. Each refugee family can turn to one of their four designated Red Cross support families if they need any practical advice on living in Iceland.

This arrangement with support families giving help and assistance to refugees started in Iceland already in the late 1970s. During the 1990s it got more formalized and now it is a part of a reception program for resettled refugees, put in place by the Ministry of Welfare in cooperation with the Red Cross.

The Red Cross also manages the publicly donated furniture and appliances for the families’ new homes. The support families undergo specific training before being formally assigned to a refugee, including a psychological aid course and a full briefing on the refugee’s cultural background.

Zahra and her family lived in Iran after fleeing from Afghanistan where her father, involved in politics, had been assassinated.

“In Iran, all our rights were taken from us. No education – no work. We found ourselves at the bottom of society”, Zahra says.

She decided to register for resettlement with UNHCR, even though her mother was very reluctant. However, Zahra could not be held back. In her opinion, everything would be better than her life in Iran. That said, she has gone through challenges in Iceland as well.

“Unfortunately, Muslims are rather negatively portrayed in the media, so quite a few strange questions have come my way. People see my hijab and ask questions like “Are you Taliban?”, Zahra explains.

The way Zahra sees it, these questions come because of lack of knowledge.

After just a few years in Iceland, Zahra has fulfilled some of her dreams in life. She graduated from college, and almost just as important, she got a driver’s licence.

“As an Afghan woman in Iran, I would never have got the opportunity to obtain a driver’s licence”.

Zahra has integrated very well in short time, but at the same time, there have been obstacles. For instance when she finished college and wanted to move on to university, she could not get a loan from LÍN (The Icelandic Student Loan Fund). She did not meet the requirement of being a resident in Iceland for five continuous years preceding the application.

At the same time, Zahra did not want to receive social money. She was about to start working at a hotel, but got rejected because she was wearing a hijab. Currently she works as an interpreter, from Icelandic to Persian, and from Persian to Icelandic. Despite this, her dream is to fulfill dentistry studies and work as a dentist.

Zahra is very grateful for the help she and her family received from UNHCR. In the future she is eager to help others.

“I want to pay back. I hope I get the opportunity to go back to Afghanistan as a dentist and help people. Even if it is just a few it would mean a lot to me.

Last week, Zahra got to share her story at an integration conference in the Icelandic city of Hafnarfjordur. The conference was jointly organized by UNHCR and the Council of Europe. The aim of the conference was to provide a platform to increase the understanding and awareness of States’ obligations in relation to integration of refugees and to provide useful and illustrative examples of how this can be implemented in practice. In addition to Iceland, the conference was aimed towards Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

“It is important for us to support Iceland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in their work to strengthen the integration of refugees in these respective countries. The feedback we get is that the participants find it useful and that it contributes to a continued cooperation”, Karin Davin says, a Senior Resettlement and Integration Associate at the UNHCR Regional representation for Northern Europe.

The conference was also an opportunity for Governments, civil society, and other stakeholders in Northern Europe to exchange views and experiences on the best way to support refugees to integrate in our societies.

Among the speakers, and one that can possibly offer a job to a refugee in Iceland, was Fjola Helgadottir. She is an HR Manager at IKEA Iceland. Recently they hired their first refugee – which complies with their CSR (corporate social responsibility) strategy.

“We are cooperating well with Icelandic Immigration authorities. This is also a part of our sustainability strategy – we see it as a win-win solution”, Helgadottir says.

Iceland has taken part in the UNHCR Resettlement Programme since 1996, and since 2005 the country has focused on Women at Risk in its resettlement programme. The reception and integration of refugees is co-ordinated by the Ministry of Welfare in cooperation with the Icelandic Red Cross and the municipality where the refugees will be resettled.

Zahra now lives in the capital Reykjavik. She has gone from what she describes as an ocean of difficulties, to living in a community where people can be friends and live together.

“That means peace to me”.