Aija and Mehdi: Home at last in Bjarg
A Latvian country girl
Aija was a 15-year-old Latvian country girl when she left her village and bought a one-way ticket to the capital. "I had enough of the toxic culture, the gossip and the acidity of the Soviet in the small village back home."
Aija finished school in Riga and at the age of eighteen she travelled around Europe. This was 2005, a year after Latvia joined the European Union. The first stop for the young, free Aija was London. Around half of the Latvians working abroad today, some one hundred thousand people, live in England. Aija found London a gray and strange city, so from there the road led to Portugal where she stayed for a while. From the south, Aija headed back north to a Swedish village, living with a family where she did all the housework and rinsed plastic fish containers for the family company. Aija was still on an adventure when her friend tempted her to come to Iceland. Aija packed her bag one more time and said goodbye to the Swedish village, "This was a small community not unlike my old village in Latvia." She landed in Keflavík in 2009.
A migrant worker in Iceland
Since 2010, the number of foreign nationals in Iceland has increased by almost 33,000, most of whom work here, but Aija is one of the many who have been involved in the rapidly expanding tourism industry. "When I came to Iceland, I got a job with a cleaning company and rented a room at a guesthouse in Vogar. At that time, I only paid 35 thousand ISK for a room, shared bathroom and kitchen, which was very reasonable, but the same kind of room is rented out for 60 or 70 thousand ISK today."
Aija says everyone has the right to decent housing. "We who work and pay taxes here should not have to live with ten other individuals or rent a basement room for 100 thousand ISK. Everyone has the right to rent by themselves or be able to live with their loved ones. Sometimes I get so angry when I see what miserable housing people are renting out for exorbitant prices. Also, landlords don’t always comply with the contract. My friend was notified in January to vacate the apartment a month in advance when the landlord's daughter suddenly needed a place to stay. The contract is valid until May. Foreigners are ill-equipped to fight for their rights. They need to maintain their reputation in a small community like ours. Everyone here knows everyone, and you risk losing your job if you make a fuss.“
A worker in the free rental market
Aija met an Icelandic man, and they had a daughter, Amalie, who is now ten years old. Aija and her daughter’s father lived together for several years, but when their relationship ended, she began a tour of the rental market. Aija' s story of moving from rented room to room is reminiscent of the situation after the war when workers flocked to the city and accommodation proved nearly impossible to find in Reykjavík. Aija rented a room with an acquaintance, shared an apartment owned by rental company AFL with several people but when the company sold the apartment six months later, she rented a room in the winter that had to be vacated during summer for tourists. "Following that, I rented a two-room apartment with my friend from Latvia, but finally I found a studio apartment with a balcony in Kópavogur. My own home, finally, in the immediate vicinity of Amalie’s father and her school. The rent I paid was 175 thousand ISK per month and I managed by working full time at a guesthouse and doing part-time cleaning. My daughter was seven years old then.
In order not to endanger the safety of the child, Amalie’ legal domicile has been registered with her paternal family since her parents separated. Aija considers herself lucky. They have a good relationship and are close when it comes to Amalie's affairs.
Foreigners in Iceland
"Foreigners are looked down upon, white as well as brown, and I can’t say that I agree with the reputed Icelandic tolerance towards foreigners, at least not towards us who do the cleaning in this country." Aija thinks Icelanders do their best to look good, own nice cars and nice stuff. "We live in materialistic times and life in Iceland is all about money. When I worked at a guesthouse, tourists said that Icelanders were especially friendly. Of course, Icelanders smile when they meet a tourist with money." Aija's husband Mehdi says: "I'm new to Iceland and don’t know all the things she's describing, maybe because I'm a male, it's always different. “
Mehdi is a trained lawyer and worked in a bank in Qatar until two years ago when he moved across the globe to Aija in Iceland. When no Icelandic bank responded to his applications, Mehdi took a job with a cleaning company, the same one that Aija worked for at the beginning of her stay in Iceland in 2009. "See you in the morning," Aija says. When Mehdi has left she takes the opportunity to talk about how they met. "It's easier to talk about these things when he's not there," she says, laughing out loud. You sense the strength the fifteen-year-old Aija had when she set out into the world.
Seventeen Hour Shifts
“Sometimes I worked sixteen to seventeen hours a day. I worked twelve-hour shifts, until seven in the morning at a guesthouse, and then took another job at a bakery until noon. I rented alone and took out a car loan when the old scrap heap started breaking down every other week. It hurt my health and I had to work my way up. My remedy against depression was to go alone to the countryside or abroad for a few days. If a holiday was coming up, I went online and found something cheap, went to Keflavík and flew away for a few days. I even visited my mother, she has a small house out in the woods with a lot of privacy. “
Aija and her love
During one such trip abroad, Aija met her love. "Fate or Mexican soap opera," Aija shouts, shaking her head. He worked in a bank in Qatar and I in a guesthouse in Iceland, we were in a restaurant in Agadir in Morocco when our paths crossed.” Four days later, Aija returned home to Iceland in love. After daily teleconferences for many months, Mehdi decided to quit his banking job in Qatar and move to Aija, who has no choice but to live in Iceland because of Amalie.
"We got married in September 2019 in Morocco and had to wait for the mandated six months that the Directorate of Immigration needs to check the integrity of the marriage. We were lucky to get the relationship acknowledged, which unfortunately is not always the case. I was preparing for his arrival and Mehdi was expected in April 2020 when the pandemic struck and on March 7 the country was closed. I thought I would lose my mind. The months passed, but fortunately I have good friends in Iceland, and I took on all the work I could to distract myself. In September 2022, a route opened from Morocco to Iceland. Mehdi bought a ticket with a stopover in two countries, despite the high probability that he would be sent back to the Danish border. The journey took two days. The two longest days of my life but he escaped, and I got him home. This is Quarantine, "Aija laughs, pointing to Adam their eight-month-old son in her arms.
Ordinary people at last
"It was a wonderful feeling to sign a lease with Bjarg in January this year, what a relief. We are very grateful. We paid insurance and at the end of each month we pay the same amount, ISK 143,000 minus rent allowance. The apartment is 80 square meters, a separate room for us three oldest in the family.” Aija finally has a secure legal residence for the future and can apply for kindergarten for Adam.
"Finally, we belong to society as ordinary people. Nobody can throw us out without notice. If Bjarg needs to sell or we decide to leave, we have a mutual six-month notice. We have just moved in, but I´m sure all of us in this block of flats will get along just fine. My dream is that we who live here become one big family and look after each other. I'm just getting to know the people here. A Ukrainian woman lives on our floor and her husband uses a wheelchair. I saw her coming home from Bónus and she seemed a bit down, so I knocked on her door to check if she was ok and we had a good conversation.
“Many children live in the building. On both floors, above and below me, there are families with children, and I’m sure we’ll spend time together in the spring, especially if there is a playground as we were promised. We have a Facebook group and the other day there a woman asked whether anyone wanted to join her and her children for a walk."
Aija does not know what the future holds. "I am getting older, and I want security. I prefer not to have to work for a cleaning company for 2,000 ISK per hour for the rest of my life. I watch my husband come home in the morning after a twelve-hour shift and he can hardly stand on his feet. Mehdi will not get a job that suits his education, and I will never get a well-paid job, no matter how hard I try, it will never be fully appreciated. I'm hardworking and I do my best, but in the end, the big picture is that most people don’t care about you.
“I might consider moving to Morocco in the future when Amalie gets older. In Morocco, people seem to be happier than here and content with what they have. Mehdi's family is large, and they live close to each other. They are good people who took good care of me, and our different religion did not complicate our communication one bit. But now it's important to have both feet on the ground and see what time reveals.”
Bjarg is a non-profit rental company intended to ensure low-income individuals and families in the labor market, who are full members of ASÍ or BSRB member associations, access to safe housing for long-term rent. So far, 617 apartments have been handed over to tenants.