Social activities for asylum seekers in Iceland take place under the careful management of the Red Cross’s Julie Ingham, based in Garðabær and Hafnarfjörður. She says it is extremely important to assist asylum seekers when they first reach Iceland.
Upon arrival they are usually vulnerable, don’t know their rights and face an uphill struggle with their applications for asylum. “They have applied for asylum, got a lot of information in a short time, go for an interview with the police about their circumstances. A lot of these people speak very little English but need to take on a lot of information in a short time. While the application proceeds people are maybe put in temporary housing. Then there is a tendency towards isolation. This social work which we provide is therefore very important. We have volunteers who visit asylum seekers and offer them to join the social program,” Julie tells Vísir.
The program has many sides, including the weekly Red Cross open house and regular sightseeing trips. “It gives people the chance to meet other people, maybe from the same cultural background, or who speak the same language. Then we go on various sightseeing trips because it’s essential for people to know their surroundings,” she says—adding that a group of asylum seekers recently helped with the annual sheep roundup at Hraðastaðir; as well as going whale watching and cooking and eating together.
This week, members of the group were offered free haircuts by third-year hairdressing students. Julie says the social program is all based on this sort of volunteering and goodwill. “A whale watching company here in the city regularly offers us free trips and the city museum service has offered asylum seekers free museum visits. Strætó (the city bus service) drove us to the roundup at Hraðastaðir the other day after I encouraged them to “Be Nice,” which is a Red Cross campaign and they happily accepted, which was pleasing.”
Far more than just fun, Julie says the social program is an important part of encouraging asylum seekers to build trust in Icelandic society and a way to start learning its culture. “The open house is a platform for people, and includes opportunities for asylum seekers to build ties with the country, as here we have Icelandic lessons and lessons on Icelandic culture. But we also welcome their cultures: not everything here revolves around Icelandic culture. We are first and foremost creating connections and building trust. People even come back after they have been granted asylum and take part in the program.”