Youth of foreign origin face a myriad of unique struggles while navigating Icelandic society, including structural and cultural barriers, social isolation, and imposter syndrome, which often occur because of the treatment they receive from their fellow Icelanders.

Studies show that the number of children of foreign origin in the school system increased by 23 times between 1996-2021, making up over 11% of the Icelandic student body. While dropout rates have steadily declined since 2001, the graduation rate for children of foreign origin is lower than that of their Icelandic peers. According to Statistics Iceland, approximately 46% of immigrants who entered day courses at the upper secondary level for the first time in the autumn of 2016 had graduated in 2020. A 2007 Grétarsdóttir study on educational progress among youth whose heritage language is not Icelandic found that more than half of the respondents either never attended upper secondary education or dropped out (Hama 2020).

Though youth of foreign origin desire to connect with other Icelanders, they often encounter barriers to connection. “Although there aren’t many studies, we still know that young people of foreign origin experience teasing, bullying and exclusion more than children of Icelandic origin. It seems difficult to make friends, especially Icelandic friends. They are more likely to find their classmates unfriendly and thus have less support from them than Icelandic youth,” says scholar Eyrúnar María Rúnarsdóttir in an interview with Morgunblaðið. YOFOM sees these missed connections as an impetus to promote deeper intercultural connection through mentorship. “Friendships between people of different origins can increase empathy and work against prejudice,” notes Eyrún.

Afterschool athletic and social activities are often important ways of connecting with peers, but youth of foreign origin are more likely to not participate in these activities due to responsibilities at home and work or due to cultural differences. A thesis study by Berglind Rós Karlsdóttir on dropout factors among youth of foreign origin in Iceland identified the main risk factors for dropout as poor self-image, inadequate knowledge of Icelandic and social exclusion.

We know that youth of foreign origin make an impact on society. In 2019, 10% of students at the University of Iceland were of foreign origin, and as Friðrika Harðardóttir, then director of the International Relations Office at the University of Iceland noted in an interview with RUV, these students contribute to the diversity of the student body. “I think there is no doubt that having foreign students enriches our university community. Many settle down, enrich society and participate in it,” Harðardóttir said.

YOFOM’s mission is to create pipelines to academic, professional, and social success for youth of foreign origin, so that they can use their talents and skills to help bolster Icelandic society and culture. We believe that strengthening the connections that youth of foreign origin have with Iceland is mutually beneficial for the country and for these bright and determined young people. YOFOM’s program components are designed to build a support network for students in order to combat high dropout rates which are often a direct result of social, cultural, and educational isolation. Providing mentorship and access to these youth today will potentially reverberate through generations.