Day Sixteen

“Don’t cover them in a cloak of sameness.” advises a Serbian refugee living in Iceland since 2003. Refugees are not the same, do not need the same, do not adapt the same. How then do you prepare well for families who may have a shared culture, religion, language, and perhaps experiences, and yet are not a homogeneous group?

Flexibility is key. Not being invested in the outcome, but invested in the process is key.


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Day Fifteen

It is an uncomfortable position I am in. I attend meetings where I am the focus, an expert from the States to share my knowledge on welcoming refugees. That is not what is uncomfortable; Donald Trump is what makes me uncomfortable. As an individual I am infinitely amused by his childish outbursts. As a citizen I am appalled that a man with so little emotional intelligence has been able to amass more of the earth’s resources than billions of its inhabitants who wake each day with the intent to care deeply for others.

I am surrounded by these people who wake each day with the intent to care deeply for others. One program manager shared in a meeting, “I think about how to help these refugee families all the time. It is what I have been doing for weeks now.”

My discomfort comes from seeing in the international news Trump’s fear and anger, and how he so easily taps into hundreds of thousands of others’ fear.

Let’s talk about fear a moment. There are two fears here: fear of threat, and fear of scarcity. “What of mine (safety, language, culture, jobs) will be taken? What limited resource (financial assistance, housing) is going to be given to someone else?” This is a reaction, not an assessment. Toddlers behave this way when they have something (a person’s attention, a toy) that they want. They grab it from others and refuse to share. They notice who is getting more of it. But as adults our behavior can be thoughtful and draw from a deeper perspective of the dynamics, a greater generosity of spirit, a shared understanding of our human bonds.

When you look back on a family crisis, or a devastating event, which behavior makes you proud? For me, it is the family in Iceland that called Red Cross to say a family from Syria is welcomeP1040285 in their home.

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Day Fourteen

Humor. Humility. Curiosity. Mix these three ingredients together and what you get is closer to cultural competence than what you could get from any textbook or expert.

Countering Islamphobia via humor

An Icelandic in the States

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Day Thirteen

Akureyri. By many accounts the second largest city in Iceland. Although as Reykjavik expands, the outer towns are quickly growing and may be more populated now than this town of 18,000.

In 2003 this town welcomed refugees from Bosnia and Serbia. Years later when reflecting on this experience, some residents express a mix of pride and warmth that a number of those refugees have remained in Akureyri. “We must have done well if they stayed.”

While I am focused on helping providers develop best practice for the families, to think about the impact of their interventions twenty years from now, this reflection expressed this complicated situation in a simple human reaction: “I hope the families will like it here. I hope they like it as we do.” With willingness, kindness, humility, most are preparing for the arrival of these families as one might an out of town guest: “How can we make them feel comfortable? Will they like us?” As complex, painful, reverberating this process is for all involved, it is also about individuals who know they are part of one very large family. We humans who share this earth are in essence, one very large dysfunctional, complicated, confusing family. May they feel welcome.

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Day 12

I met a man at the airport when four of us were the only ones to show at the airport during the storm that cancelled our flights to Akureyri. He is from Croatia. His second language is German, his third Icelandic, and his fourth English, each with diminishing fluency. He travels to Iceland to work the excavators that are digging through the mountains in preparation for a road that will decrease the travel time between the more isolated north and the heavily populated Reykjavik area. Some estimates have 80% of the population living in this area. He works as long as his work visa allows, travels back to Croatia, waits a few weeks to be eligible again, and then returns. There is something about his journey that reminds me of migration’s force on things we once believed to be fixed and unchanging. The tunnel in the mountain is changing how distance feels on this island country; his commute is changing our understanding of global citizenship.

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Day 11

iceland news A clip of the national news in Iceland regarding the arrival of refugees. Scroll a bit forward.

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Day Ten

While Icelandic agencies are preparing for arriving refugee families,


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Day Nine


The town will be receiving children in a few weeks, some who will go to the elementary level, and some to preschool. What should the schools do in preparation?

Today I met with the Director of Educational Affairs, teachers, special education teachers, school psychologist, youth center head, recreation leader, and program managers.

“Do we put all the children together in the same school/class?”

“Will they do better is with others like them, or the only one in the school like them?”

What is the goal: to assimilate quickly? Parents and school officials might choose to have distribute the children. If the child feels safer, more connected, less on the outside if grouped together, what impact will that have?

How will religious holidays be addressed?

How will clothing styles be managed?

Iceland’s school system has after school programs for which most students attend. Will these children feel comfortable attending? Will their parents want them home? How will this affect the child’s feelings of belonging?

Refugee children, not unlike many children of immigrants, are often placed in-between two worlds: one of their parents who often hold protective feelings of their home culture, and one of their peers with which the child may feel close to but where they may never fully belong. Because they are younger, they often pick up the new language quicker than their parents. With all the new challenges, parents might find it easier to use their children as language and cultural interpreters. This adds an additional burden on the shoulders of these children. At times the children might feel critical of their parents’ desire to hold onto cultural traditions, while also feeling isolated from the society around them. Their world is a mixture and unique, and a gift, and a burden. They are to assimilate, to show others that they are as smart/brave/independent as the dominant group, to show their parents that they will not forget their culture, to show themselves that somewhere in all of this they have an identity separate from it all.

Do you place them together or apart?

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Day Eight


Preparing a community for new arrivals takes forethought, cooperation, extensive communication, and playing on every agency’s strengths. In the United States our agencies are born from the private sector, religious entities, public city/state/federal programs. Coordinating them to communicate and work together is an on-going challenge. Often providers of health and social services feel the burden of these silos of service delivery. Many are aware that services are duplicated or never provided because each entity believes another is providing the service.

Today I met with project managers, Director of Social Services, Red Cross representative, lawyers, public relations manager, representative from the division of education and recreation, Head RN for the health stations and elderly services, and social workers from the Ministry of Welfare. Their goal is to work as a team in the resettlement of refugees. In this meeting, by the members present, is an understanding that the needs of refugees reach across health, education, economics, and housing providers.

Their plan is to have a Background group of administrators of the various agencies meet regularly. They receive information about the needs of refugees and communities from the Action Team that consists of social workers, Red Cross members, and Educators. And, within the communities they will work closely with health stations that have weekly meetings with the primary care physicians, nurses, and midwives. The goal is to work closely together, being aware of the needs and conditions of new arrivals and the community at-large. Electronic medical record sharing is not set up in a way to ease this communication. They have many questions and concerns about confidentiality and privacy. They have a few weeks to go before they receive the first families. If successful in their plan, they may then be challenged with keeping the communication coordinated if the number of families increase.

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