Árni and Ingvar: A shelter at last
"You can’t go up there," shouted the woman in the lobby. "It’s forbidden to enter the rooms of the refugees." Árni was at the reception at the hotel on Rauðarárstígur, which housed the first refugees from Ukraine. Árni's family was upstairs, mom, dad and sister with two children. Árni and his cohabitant, Ingvar, had travelled to Poland, united with the family at the border and brought them to Iceland to provide a shelter from the war.
"I'm visiting my mother, she's sick and she can’t come down." Árni's family came to Iceland in March and was given a hotel room on Rauðarárstígur. The woman at the reception started searching her computer for something to support her case. "Do you have anything, a regulation or something that confirms this? " he asked. Another employee produced a sheet stating in six different languages that guests were not allowed to enter the rooms. "But here is nothing, no stamp, no date, anyone could write this. Can you show me something credible? " Árni asked politely, but it only seemed to stir up the woman's resentment, and shortly afterwards the police arrived. "The policeman stepped up very close to us, protruding his chest. They were very threatening and we left the hotel. This is the first time we have experienced brutality in Iceland."
The gay paradise
Árni recalls when he and Ingvar first came to Iceland eight years ago and showed the customs officer in Keflavík the gold he pulled out of his pocket. The customs officer leaned forward, looked at the rings, and asked, “Are you getting married? Árni whispered: "yes". And live in Iceland? Yes, maybe. Then the customs officer said: Welcome to the gay paradise, welcome to Iceland. "
Árni remembers it all very well. “I said: maybe we're finally home." Some years have passed and Ingvar and Árni praise bad weather and good weather, snow and bright summer nights in Iceland. "Today, Iceland is our home. I have no other home," Árni says.
The farmer’s son
Every week, Árni has a repeated nightmare of not getting from Ukraine and something bad happening to him and Ingvar. When Árni mentions Ingvar, he gently says "my". "Something bad had happened to me and “my” Ingvar and we were locked up in Ukraine with nowhere to go.”
Árni, a farmer's son, thought of himself as just another boy. “Everyone knew I was gay when I was growing up, everyone except me. I was just an ordinary boy, I didn’t know gays existed," he says. At home on his mother's land, he had a botanical garden larger than the botanical garden in Reykjavík. "I collected 800 plant species and grew lemons and kiwi in a greenhouse, among other things." Árni was 25 years old when he came out of the closet. An educated botanist and university lecturer with a ring in the ear and stripes. "The rector called me into the office and asked me if I was gay. I said I was, and I was forced to resign. In Ukraine, it is not forbidden by law to be gay, but society rejects you. I lost my job, I was fired from the Socialist Party, I was thrown out of politics and my family's life was threatened if I did not follow the rules. Because of my family, I went to Russia."
"My mother always knew I was gay, but she didn’t want to talk about it. When I called home and told her that Ingvar and I had gotten married, she started crying.” Ingvar smiles and says that she has two grandchildren so she should be happy. "Dad sat me down one time, I think he was drunk. Dad said to me: I know how you are, but I will always stand by you, you are my child. I went out, I couldn’t talk to him about it."
Árni moved across the border to Russia and studied at Kursk University. In Russia, being gay is bad and so is being Ukrainian. But Árni believed that Kursk with its 425 thousand inhabitants would prove a more pleasant place to stay than his hometown and for a while he had a job at the university.
Ingvar is Russian, born in Kursk in 1996. Ingvar recalls an incident when he was five years old. His mother was furious because two women were speaking in Ukrainian. "Og home if you do not want to speak Russian," she shouted. "I grew up in this environment. Hatred of anything that was not Russian. Hatred of all who were not white. Homophobia." A shadow moves over Ingvar's face: "This is bad."
Mascho culture is predominant in Russia and this affects attitudes towards women and gays. "The police went from door to door claiming they were looking for child molesters, but in fact they were searching out gays," Ingvar says. On average, twenty-two women lose their lives in Russia every day, and the Penal Code on Domestic Violence was repealed in 2017. Instead of the Penal Code, there are now penalties, fines similar to illegal parking of the car.
"I’ll tell you a fun story," Árni says. "This is not a funny story," Ingvar interrupts, shaking his head. Ingvar has incredibly good command of Icelandic and sometimes comes to Árni's aid. "I met this guy in Kursk and we started living together." I was not that guy," Ingvar states. "No, not you," Árni says and continues with the story: "The landlord's son heard that we were gay. He came drunk as hell with an ax and tried to break down the door and kill us. I called the cops and said we were the two of us and outside there was a man trying to kill us. The policeman laughed and asked: "Are you gay?" Árni still managed to get the police to show up when he lied that the ax killer was brandishing a pistol. "The police came in a few minutes and told us to take our clothes and save ourselves. We rented another room, but then a drunken mob turned up to set the house on fire. When I called the police, they asked: Are you alive? Yes we are alive. The policeman replied: We only come if there are corpses. Fortunately, when the neighbors realized that they would suffer losses were the fire to spread they intervened and managed to get the mob to lay off. Another time, I was beaten so badly for walking hand in hand with a man that it took the doctor four hours to stich my face together. That’s what it's like to be gay in Russia."
Escape from Russia
"When war broke out in Ukraine in 2014, it was clear that we would hardly be able to stay together in Russia," Ingvar says. "At that time, Árni and I lived together. I didn’t tell my father that we were gay and preparing to flee to Iceland. But my father heard about it through my brother and came to our house with the other men in the family. I was very scared. But I let him in. Dad thought Ingvar was taking me to Ireland where he planned to sell me. He confused everything, said that there was terrorism in Iceland and wanted to take me home. I was horrified not to get away. "
Studying in Russia is usually quite demanding, different from here in Iceland," Ingvar says jokingly. “I was studying medicine at the university and I could not miss a single lesson without it affecting my progress which was crucial to getting to Iceland. I was about to apply for Icelandic studies at the University of Iceland and had to finish this year at the Medical University in Kursk. I couldn’t allow Dad to prevent us from getting away. I managed to get Dad out of the house and did not speak to him until six months later, to say goodbye. By then, he had pretty much realized that I was gay and accepted the fact that I was moving out of the country."
"Árni and I took our cat to his mother, we knew it was almost impossible to take her with us to Iceland. It was all so weird," Ingvar says. "The border guards in Ukraine patted the cat, didn’t demand any bribes and wished us good luck. Everything was as it should be. From Kiev we took the flight to Keflavík."
The shelter in Iceland
Árni and Ingvar have lived in Iceland for 8 years. Today they both work at Klettaskóli and in 2017 they bought a 70 square meter apartment with large windows in Naustabryggja. "First we rented a room and then we moved to a Student Housing apartment. When we realized how much money we were losing in the rental market, we saved for a down payment and somehow got a loan for the apartment. Mind you, this was before the housing prices exploded."
Instead of curtains the windows are covered with flowers and herbs from the botanist. Under the living room table there are three large jars with live kombucha mushrooms. At eight o'clock the plant lights come on for twelve hours and go out when the plants go to sleep. On the wall facing “the jungle” are the Russian literary giants, Tolstoy, Gorky, Gogol, Dostoevsky, Chekov and all the others. The collection comes from Ingvar's grandmother, and he admits that he misses Russian culture. He is a fervent reader and says that he, like many Russians, look to literary heritage when assessing foreign cultures. Vigdís Grímsdóttir is a great favorite while Arnaldur is held in less regard. "I mainly read Icelandic to learn Icelandic," he says apologetically, as if he doesn’t want to be rude or disrespectful towards Icelandic writers.
Until now, Árni has tried to forget Ukraine and concentrated on life with Ingvar much like the plants he nurtures in the living room in Naustabryggja. The beautiful life, however, is threatened these days as Árni is constantly being reminded of war and destruction.
War comes to Iceland
Since Ingvar woke up unusually early on February 22, the war has been raging in his apartment, at work, with his family and in every corner of his everyday existence. They constantly face the consequences of the war, talk to friends and relatives in Ukraine and in Russia. They attend protests, sew flags of blue and yellow satin, help refugees in Iceland and Árni's family on Rauðarárstígur. They stand outside the Russian embassy knowing that "the ambassador is not in the building," Ingvar says.
I thought of myself as an Icelander and tried to think as little as possible about Ukraine. But now I'm sick," Árni says pointing to his heart. "I’m in constant pain." "You said it was like losing someone you love very much," Ingvar says. "Yes, like when I lost my grandfather, whom I loved very much. When Grandpa died, I got this terrible heartache. This is how I feel when I think of Ukraine today, my people, all that is gone, I was sent a picture of our school at home and the dormitory had been razed to the ground. Maybe I was always halfway home in Ukraine," Árni sighs." Maybe it is never possible to completely abandon one’s origins.
The parents flee
"We went to Poland two weeks ago to catch up with my family," Árni says. "My parents don’t have a telephone and don’t know any English. They are like children on this journey. We took them to the border. My mother was very reluctant to come and my sister with her two children refused to leave without my mother. Then the bombing got closer and finally my mother relented and decided to come with us. My mother took the cat and the animals that were alive to her neighbors, she had been told that all animals would be slaughtered, there was a lack of food for the army. Cows and pigs were slaughtered. One cow was about to give birth, it was horrible.” Ingvar says: “It’s impossible to talk about this with his mother, she just starts to cry."
They left the house and their land and took only what was necessary with them. Nobody knows what the situation is now, whether something is left of the house or if it’s been looted as in the desolate Chernobyl farms where thieves stole everything; flowers, books, clothes. "Russians are insane." Árni corrects Ingvar: "Not insane, they have a plan to kill and scare people to surrender."
"I do not know how to stop this genocide. This is my nation. I feel so ashamed.” Ingvar s combatting a guilty conscience. "We didn’t protest, maybe we had a chance to stop this, but I did nothing, I just left. This situation is not my choice, but I wasn’t pushing for the government to change."
"I got into an argument with my dad the other day on the phone. He was going to visit us in Iceland in September but that not going to happen. He supports the criminals and I hung up on him. I don’t know what to do. Wait or try to bring him to his senses? My parents' generation is to blame. They did nothing, they stood by and watched the violence. In Russia the boat must not be rocked. My father was furious when I told him in a phone call that Árni and I had gone to Austurvöllur to protest when the journalists were called in by the police because of the Samherji case. You must not show yourself, this is dangerous, he shouted all the way from Russia."
Árni isn’t so sure they could have made any difference. "My best friend is a university lecturer and historian in Russia, a very well-read visionary who supported the struggle for gay rights." "He is even a Ukrainian," Ingvar interrupts. "Yes, exactly, but now he echos Russian state television propaganda and regarding gays, he says: they are ok, they just need to marry a woman and keep it a secret."
This is bad
The consequences of the war reign on Rauðarárstígur. The face of hospitality turned hostile in the hotel reception a week after Árni's mother came to Iceland, the day the policeman and the woman in the reception prevented him from going to look after her. Arbitrary use of power, as so often before, without explanation, without humanity brutality in flesh and blood. "This is bad," Ingvar says.
The tragedy unfolding in Ukraine
Since the start of the war, 10 million Ukrainians had left their homes, because of the conflict (as of April 2022). Half of those, or 5 million, have left Ukraine and sought refuge in other countries.