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Migrant Lives

In Iceland, The Face Of Immigration Is Distinctly Polish

Although their numbers have been halved by the recent economic meltdown, Poles - who now number an estimated 10,000 - continue to be Iceland's largest ethnic minority.

A construction site in Akranes, Iceland
A construction site in Akranes, Iceland
Henryk M. Broder

"Na zdrowje," says Michal, lifting his beer glass high. "Na zdrowje," answers his friend Marek. The two men are on their second beer, but in a bit of a hurry since their wives are waiting for them at home with dinner. They will order their third drink soon.

"What else are we supposed to do here?" asks Michal rhetorically. In the small town of Akranes, just an hour's drive north of Iceland's capital, Reykjavik, there are really just two ways to spend an evening: either at home or at the "Mömmueldhus" (Mother's Kitchen) restaurant at 8 Kirkjubraut Street.

The restaurant is run by Gabriela and her husband Dariusz, who, like Michal and Marek, are not Icelanders, but Polish. They belong to Iceland's 9,496-strong community of ethnic Poles. Although this is an official count (made earlier this year), it is hard to be sure of its accuracy, since Poles require neither work nor residence permits to live in Iceland. In order to stay here, Polish citizens just need to obtain a valid kennitala, the Icelandic version of a social security number.

Before the financial crisis started in October 2008, there were more than 20,000 Poles in Iceland. And although their numbers have declined significantly over the past three years, Poles remain the largest minority on the island.

Michal was born in 1981 in Dabrowa Gornicza, Poland, and came to Iceland in 2007. He had previously worked in a factory, and had "always dreamed of experiencing Iceland." Within three weeks of his arrival in Akranes, Michal had already found a job as a welder in a machine factory. But in 2009, the factory went bankrupt. Among those laid off were at least a dozen Poles, Michal included.

Michal used this time to take classes in business and Icelandic. Since March, he has been working in an aluminum factory in Walfjord. His wife, whom he met in Poland, works in a canning factory in Akranes. Six months ago, Michal, along with five (unemployed) friends, created a website for Poles living in Iceland: www.informacje.is.

The website is well-designed and offers a lot of information on current events, job offers and discount shopping. According to Michal, the website also tries to foster "a sense of togetherness" among Poles living in Iceland. He hopes that the site, which receives 9,000 visitors each day, will break even within the next two years.

Marek was born in 1969 in Tomaszow, Poland, and he came to Iceland out of love for a Polish woman he met in 2005 on the Internet. He divorced his wife, sold everything, and bought a one-way ticket to Reykjavik to be with her.

Their fling did not last long, but Marek found a job as a welder in the aluminum factory and met another woman, Patricia. A former flute student at the Music Academy in Krakow, she did not hesitate one moment when she was offered a teaching job at an orchestral school in Akranes.

"In Poland, I had to work 60 hours or more a week just to make ends meet. Here, I work 20," Patricia explains. She works less, earns more, and has time to care for her family: Marek, her second husband; Peter, a son from her first marriage; and Stefan, who was born two years ago. They have a spacious condominium, a Japanese family car, and a satellite dish that gives them access to over 300 TV channels, including Polish ones in case they get homesick. But Patricia and Marek have no intention of leaving Iceland.

Only their 17-year-old son Peter, who is fluent in Icelandic and plays drums in a rock band called "Made In The Time Of Crisis," says he will return to Poland after his graduation. He plans to enroll in a Polish police academy. "I want to be a private detective," he explains, adding that he finds Iceland, especially the small town of Akranes, to be "simply boring."

No crime, no corruption

His parents don't necessarily disagree, but they also see a lot of advantages to living in Iceland. "It's a safe country. There is no crime, no corruption. You don't have to worry that you'll go broke in the middle of the month." Their living room window overlooks the sea, and during the dark season, they can see the northern lights from the garden.

Gabriela, the owner of the Mömmueldhus restaurant, has no time for such frivolous pleasures. She works from early morning until late in the evening, and has done so all her working life. Born in 1975 in Gdynia in Poland, she married at 18 and had three children soon afterwards. She has worked as a telegraph operator, a cook, and a baker. Her husband, Dariusz, has been both a silversmith and a driver for an emergency medical service.

In the summer of 2005, he heard that workers were needed to build a new dam in Iceland. Two weeks later, he was working on a construction site in Karahnjukar, in the eastern part of the island. His family followed him the next spring, when he was working in a factory in Borgarnes, 30 km north of Akranes. The children were enrolled in local schools; all three of them now speak fluent Icelandic.

Gabriela found a job in a hotel in Borgarnes, but she explains that she had always wanted to run her own establishment. Last February, she took out all her savings and bought Mömmueldhus. She renovated it, added a few Polish dishes to the menu, and now is looking forward to a tourist-filled summer.

"We live like Poles, but with an Icelandic twist," she says. Every weekend, the restaurant organizes a disco or karaoke evening. Once a month, a priest comes from Reykjavik to hold a Catholic mass.

Iceland's 10,000 Poles live in a true "parallel society," only they don't know it. They speak Polish, marry each other, watch Polish TV, and cling to their own culture. One can hear and see them everywhere: on the bus, on the street, in the supermarket, and in cafés. The fact that they are not as visible as one might expect is only partly explained by the extraordinary tolerance of the native Icelanders.

The reason why Poles blend in so well into their new country is that they understand the principle of Icelandic society: work. People who do not work here are severely frowned upon. Until recently, there was virtually no unemployment on the island. The current figure of 8% is largely due to the financial crisis, and it is considered an astronomical number for the country. Economic difficulties have forced many Polish people to go back to Europe, but if the Icelandic economy recovers in the coming years, more Poles will certainly decide to come back.

In the town of Breidholt, on the outskirts of Reykjavik, a supermarket offers Polish specialties. Piotr, the owner, a former bricklayer from Kashubia, came to Iceland 10 years ago at the age of 20 to work in construction. For the past six years, he has been providing the Polish community in and around Reykjavik with food "Made in Poland." He also hosts an annual "Polish Day" and organizes a Polish "Saturday School," attended by 220 children aged six to 16.

Read the original article in German.

Photo - Atli Haroarson

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