A special community: Why people from all over the world choose Iceland

Merle Schaack

When it comes to migration, Iceland claims a top spot in Europe. Why do people from all over the world come to live and work in this rough place in the north Atlantic? Here, five expats share their personal stories, biggest challenges and ideas on how to tackle them.

The number of foreign citizens in Iceland has constantly increased during the past years, reaching a share of 17.14 % in 2023. As of March 1st 66,823 foreign nationals were registered as residents in Iceland, according to the latest stats from Registers Iceland. Why do people from all over the world come to live and work in this rough place in the north Atlantic? How do you take root in a society so small that most of the members find mutual ancestors just minutes after they met for the first time? And, maybe most important: What are the best tips and tricks to deal with the loooong dark winters?

Meiting Quin.

Meiting Quin. mbl.is/Árni Sæberg

Meiting Qin: Find the right energy resources, 27

About Meiting: 27 years old, from China, Research and Development Project Manager at Arctic Green Energy in Reykjavík

Her enthusiasm for Icelandic music and nature led Meiting to Iceland for the first time in 2019. Her interest in green energy brought her back, first to study geothermal energy, and now as a project manager at Arctic Green Management, working to promote the use of geothermal energy in other countries, such as her home country China.

"The quality of life is high. Nature is right outside the door, it's not so crowded. And as a woman, you have more rights here than I have experienced before," she says. "I like that age and gender hardly play a role here, that you're not judged by those things."

But she’s also been through tough times in Iceland. The long, dark winter season affected her more than she expected when she experienced it for the first time. "Sometimes I just started crying," she remembers. In the meantime, she has found a way to deal with it. "It's important to let it out. To cry when you feel like it, and to talk to others about it. And still go outside, to move around or meet people." Also on her list of winter tricks: "Small things that make you happy. For me, that's listening to music, playing guitar, walking dogs, or cuddling with my hamster. He's like a therapist for me. And of course, taking a lot of fish oil."

Meiting experiences the people in Iceland as open and friendly. "It's often said that it's hard to get in touch with Icelanders. But in my experience, you just have to approach them, invite them for a coffee or a walk, and then they will open up," she says.

There was only one thing that often annoyed her at the beginning: "I am a very structured person and always had a pretty well-planned schedule," she says. "It used to annoy me when Icelanders constantly changed all plans. But now I understand why." The weather... "Now I'm exactly the same. When the sun is shining, you just can't go to the cinema here."

Celina Pablo.

Celina Pablo. Photo/Sent to mbl.is

Celina Pablo: Whenever you miss something, try to create it

About Celina: 26 years old, Filipino Canadian, PR and Events Manager for Lucinity

Even though she never planned to move there, Celina has become something like the core of the expat community in Reykjavík. Traveling Europe, she fell in love with an Icelander. After trying out life in Canada, the couple now works on building a future in Iceland.

Giving up her dream job and starting from scratch was by no means easy for Celina. Especially since it is difficult for non-EU citizens to get a job and the associated residency permit from afar. "The company must basically prove that no Icelander could do this work," she explains. Eventually, she found a job and now works as a PR and Events Manager at an anti-money laundering software company.

An even more challenging task was finding a place where she could pursue her greatest passion, Brazilian Zouk Dancing ("I can't live if I don't have it"). Reykjavík may be Iceland's bustling center, but compared to other cities, its repertoire of opportunities is limited. At least at first glance. Celina's tactic: "Whenever I miss something, I try to create it." And so, she became a Zouk teacher. Her first beginner's course has just reached the next level. Celina also appreciates the "special community feeling" among the many expats in the city, whom she helps network in a Facebook chat that was originally set up to organize a hike for 15 people. Meanwhile, "The local international hangouts" has over 150 members from Iceland and all over the world, who regularly start leisure activities here. Celina is also involved as a Community Leader of Girl Gone International in Reykjavík, a network for women living abroad. "Through that, I've already met so many amazing women here," she says.

However, because Iceland is only a short stop for many during their studies, internships, or work experience, she also experiences the downsides of permanent expat life. "It's hard to invest time in getting to know people, making friends, and then they leave again. Sometimes it can be like a constant heartbreak," she says.

Connecting with locals isn't always easy for her either. "People here are very nice, but sometimes closed," she says. "You have to make an effort to make them talk." At first, she occasionally had the feeling that people were staring at her. “But I no longer notice it. I don't experience significant racism in everyday life."

To make expat life in Iceland even better, she has some suggestions. "For a small community, there are much more events than expected, and also in English. But some activities are hard to find because they aren't documented at all or only in Icelandic. So it's always best to ask people what's up in town." Public transport is another thing that she would like to see improved.

After a year, she can say, "Overall I was happy and made the best of it." Also, because there's one thing in Iceland you just can't get used to: nature. "I've seen volcanoes and the northern lights, gone for snowmobile rides and ice climbing, among others. There were so many out-of-this-world experiences; I'm very grateful," she smiles.

Lisa Nowinski.

Lisa Nowinski. Photo/Sent to mbl.is

Lisa Nowinski: Caught by the Iceland vibe

About Lisa: 32 years old, German, self-employed photographer

The weather? "Terrible". Exotic fruits? "Crazy expensive". The healthcare system? "Really not good". Lisa is far from wearing rose-colored glasses when it comes to Iceland. Nevertheless, she has decided to move here from Germany about a year after her first vacation here. "Nature is just beautiful, that outweighs everything else," says the 32-year-old, who runs a kindergarten photography business and will move to Reykjavik permanently in August after a year of commuting between the two countries. "I just feel more comfortable in Iceland. Also, because there aren't so many people here," she says.

She will run her company in Germany remotely, and on-site the photographer plans to focus on projects such as her "Red Cape Project", in which she wants to combine images of historical sites on the island with the sagas played out there in a book. She also works as a tour guide for small groups or individuals. "It's just nice to see how happy it makes people to see something like the thermal river in Reykjadalur," she says. "And it's fun to convey the knowledge about it."

Even though it is formally uncomplicated for her as an EU citizen to emigrate to Iceland, she considers the move a "giant step". But her previous experiences give her courage. New doors have already opened for her, including those to the tight-knit circles of Icelanders. "80 percent of the people here have known each other since kindergarten, so it's difficult to get in if you don't have an Icelandic partner," she says.

However, making friends hasn't been a problem for her. "I've found many international friends just by posting and creating groups on Facebook." Whether it's for hiking or knitting - which also leads to a life hack: "Once you've learned how to knit your own Lopapeysa, it helps you stay dressed for the Icelandic weather," she laughs.

Jerzy Wlosowicz

Jerzy Wlosowicz Photo/Sent to mbl.is

Jerzy Włosowicz: Finding mental strength and sunshine in the people

About Jerzy: 29 years old, from Poland, Everyday life assistant at the City of Reykjavík

"Even if there's no sun here, there is sun in the people", Jerzy Włosowicz shares his impression of Iceland after three years of living here. The Clinical Psychologist moved away from his home country to pursue new experiences, following the example of many of his fellow countrymen. According to 2022 data from Statistics Iceland, 21,000 people of Polish origin live in Iceland, making it the largest group of immigrants.

Jerzy also had friends who had worked in Iceland. First, he worked as a receptionist in a hotel, then as a recruiter and currently at the City of Reykjavik with people with disabilities. He felt at home right from the start. "There are a lot of parallels between the Polish and Icelandic mentalities," he says. "Just like Icelanders, we aren't super crazy about rules, but we're always optimistic and hardworking people", he laughs.

He has been impressed by the friendliness with which Icelanders meet him. "That is the main reason why I like it here so much. People are open, nice and trustful. When I moved into my first flat, the landlady just handed me the keys because she thought I looked like a nice person. That was a culture shock," he recalls.

However, in his job at the City of Reykjavík with unemployed people, he notices that it is not easy for everyone to settle in in Iceland. Jerzy has worked in different positions, teaching people about finding work, progressing careers or quitting addictions. He helped people with job searches, further education, and also offers psychological support. From his point of view as a psychologist, mental health is an extremely important topic, especially for expats. "It's not easy for everyone to quickly find connections to Icelandic society," he says. "Then the long, dark winters can be difficult."

This is also where he sees his professional future. "I wish I could work more with newcomers in the future and teach them how to prevent depression or anxiety”, he says. And at the same time, encourage them not to work in jobs for which they are actually overqualified for too long. "Giving yourself the chance to move up is the only way to become truly satisfied," he says. He is convinced that this is possible for almost everyone in Iceland. "I see no structural barriers. Everyone has the chance to work their way up here if they believe in themselves.” He himself is the best example - and sees no reason to turn his back on Iceland. "I love it here."

Glenn Allen Barkan.

Glenn Allen Barkan. Photo/Merle Schaack

Glenn Allen Barkan: Finding the World in small Iceland

About Glenn: 55 years old, from the US, Owner of Cafe Babalu

Growing up in New York, Glenn never considered Iceland as a dream destination. In fact, he moved to Los Angeles to escape the cold winters of his hometown. However, everything changed when he met Thor, a man from Iceland who is now his husband. When Thor's visa expired in 2001, the couple had no other option but to leave the United States, as same-sex marriage was not legally recognized at that time. So they decided to move to Iceland.

“I immediately fell in love with this country”, Glenn recalls. Especially because his husband's family warmly welcomed him. Although it has been almost 20 years since they moved there, he still feels that there is a special community vibe in Iceland. "I know that I speak from a privileged position. Others may have different experiences. But my experience is that Icelanders do not intentionally exclude anyone," he says.

As much as Glenn enjoyed being a part of his husband's family, it was also a challenge for him to establish his own identity. The trained graphic designer was able to achieve this through his work. Initially, he worked in various jobs, including at a kindergarten ("I learned many basic vocabulary words from the kids"), and later at the Babalu café, which was not doing well at the time. However, when the owners offered to sell it to him, Glenn saw the opportunity to design the place according to his own vision: uncomplicated, friendly, and cosmopolitan.

"The café helped me find my place. Since then, I am no longer just Thor's husband, but also the owner of Cafe Babalu," he remembers the restart at the age of 40. Meanwhile, the café has grown multiple times and become a meeting point for all those who appreciate the colorful living room atmosphere. The banknotes from all over the world hanging everywhere demonstrate how international the audience on one of Reykjavík's most famous streets is. Glenn particularly enjoys the international exchange.

"Although I´m from New York, here I have found a lot bigger world. People in the US may have international family backgrounds. But many of them never leave their home country. In Iceland, the expat community has grown a lot during the almost 20 years I've lived here," he says. Half of his staff speaks Spanish, and the menu is also a colorful mix of American Cheesecake (Glenn's grandma's recipe), chili, and French crepes.

Glenn himself has been an Icelandic citizen for about ten years now and has learned to slow down the New Yorker pace a bit and accept that people here don't fold their pizza but eat it with a knife and fork. And yet, occasionally he feels that there will always be differences, especially because of the language. "Although I speak Icelandic well enough to make myself understood," he says, "my personality is different in Icelandic. I can't be as charming and witty as I would like to be."

And the cold winters he wanted to escape? "Honestly, the summer affects me more," he says. "The long daylight hours and the temperatures that never become really summery here. So it's always a bit disappointing." His advice: take a vacation in warm weather once a year. With this recipe, Glenn can imagine growing old in Iceland. "I appreciate Iceland for what it is," he says.




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