Refugees are helped to settle and rebuild their lives with a new hands-on integration approach in the Icelandic municipality of Reykjanesbær.
Ahlam and Khalifa fled conflict in Iraq and have now received asylum in Iceland, where they are building a new life together with their three young daughters. © UNHCR/Elisabeth Haslund
When Khalifa Mushib, his wife Ahlam and their three young daughters landed in Iceland in January 2021, they did not know much about this small Northern country in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Except that life was safe, people were nice, and the weather was cold.
It was very different from what the family had experienced for more than two and a half years of waiting and struggling to get by in Greece – or the life and situation in Iraq they fled years ago.
“In Iraq, we’ve had 45 years of conflict and fighting, and there is no water and no medicine. There is no life there. We went to Greece, and we were lucky and only needed one try with the boat to cross the Mediterranean. Some families try to cross ten times, and it only takes one second for you to lose a child or your family,” says Khalifa.
However, the situation was far from easy once they reached the shore of the Greek island Kos. Here, they found themselves living with thousands of others in an overcrowded reception centre. Several families shared a caravan, the processing of their cases was slow, and especially the obstacles in seeing a doctor was a big problem, recalls Khalifa.
His wife Ahlam was two months pregnant – but when she experienced complications and couldn’t get to a doctor, she tragically lost the baby. This was when Khalifa Mushib decided that they had no other choice than to find refuge in another country. The few stories he had heard about Iceland convinced him that the Nordic country could ensure safety and a future for his family and himself.
“I am legally blind, and when you are blind in Iraq, there is nothing for you. No job and not a system to help you. People here have been so helpful. My children are in school, they are playing sport and have Icelandic friends,” he says. “I don’t even think the weather is bad. It can also be quite cold in Iraq.”
Khalifa Mushib is telling his story from his cozy and warm living room in a town house in the city of Reykjanesbær in south-east Iceland – the first Nordic city to sign up for the Cities #WithRefugees initiative, launched by UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.
Together with four other municipalities in the country, Reykjanesbær has implemented a new, coordinated approach to refugee reception and integration, aimed at ensuring a quicker and better inclusion of refugees into their new community.
“The program is still work in progress, but it’s all about making sure that people integrate, that they get the services and help they need, and that we follow up. The first step is to make the refugees feel secure, by assisting them in finding a place to live and secure an income,” says Ásta Kristín Guðmundsdóttir, Teamleader at Reykjanesbær Refugee Coordination Center.
While arrivals of asylum-seekers to Iceland is relatively low compared to other countries – in 2021 Iceland registered around 700 spontaneous arrivals – the number has increased recently, hence there is a need to continue to develop and improve integration efforts, explains Ásta Kristín Guðmundsdóttir.
In Reykjanesbær, recognized refugees are provided a contact person who guides them, informs them about their rights and whom they can approach if they face problems or obstacles. They are supported with all those small and practical things in everyday life that might prove challenging for newcomers – opening a bank account, taking the bus and finding the timetable, enrolling children in kindergarten and school and signing them up for sports and leisure activities. They are also provided Icelandic classes to learn the language and follow societal orientation sessions.
“It’s teaching them everything about society, our culture and the life in Iceland, in their own native language. However, it is also important to meet the individuals where they are and assist them on their own terms,” emphasizes Ásta Kristín Guðmundsdóttir.
Strengthening integration goes hand in hand with a welcoming community – and while the experiences have mostly been positive, there is still room for improvement. Plans are in store to establish more opportunities for refugees and the local community to meet, interact and participate in activities together.
“There are some people who are not happy about refugees coming here, and we need to change this way of thinking. The refugees are good people, and they want to become part of our society. We need to embrace them, as they make our community richer,” says Ásta Kristín Guðmundsdóttir.
In Iceland, UNHCR has recently started cooperation with the Multicultural Information Center (MCC) to support local integration actors, such as municipalities, with relevant tools and skills to build holistic integration initiatives.
“Integration is a two-way process. Refugees need to make an effort and participate in their new community, but they also need a welcoming environment, a good integration programme and a helping hand from the local community,” says Karolis Zibas, UNHCR Integration Officer in the Nordic and Baltic Countries. “It’s reassuring to see the work done in Reykjanesbær, which can hopefully help inspire and develop approaches in other cities.”
For Khalifa Mushib, the support and close contact with his social worker has made a world of difference. In less than a year, he and his family are rebuilding their lives – and together with his oldest daughter, he is embracing the typical Icelandic leisure activity of going to the public pools, he explains.
“We’ve been through so much in the last four years, I will never forget, and then I could not see a future for my children or my wife,” says Khalifa “Now, it’s different. This is my home now. This is my country.”