As I sat down to speak to Jewells Chambers – an adventure-seeking native New Yorker who lives in Iceland – I was intrigued to hear all about how she ended up moving to the land of fire and ice.
While Black people can be found in pretty much any part of the world, it is rare to come across one of us who lives in Iceland – and naturally, I had many questions that Jewells was happy to answer.
“My experience living in Iceland has been very positive for me and I feel fortunate,” she says via Zoom. “You can run into stupid people – there’s ignorance everywhere and that can be off-putting – but overall its been great.”
Jewells was born in 1986 in a pre-gentrified Brooklyn, New York – a time she looks back on with fond memories of her family and the sense of community which was fostered from a young age.
“It was a really interesting time to be living in NYC mainly because it was pretty dangerous. My father was from there and he met my mother in Rochester and they ended up moving to Brooklyn. So I was born and raised there with parents who were very supportive, and all about education and community.”
Growing up, Jewells was instilled with the belief that she could do or be anything that she wanted and wasn’t limited by where she came from – a drive that continued throughout her schooling and led to her graduating with a degree in biomedical engineering.
“I graduated with that degree and then I took a year off from school to think about what I really wanted to do. There was a time in between where I decided I wanted to try something else because I’d been working in labs since school doing internships and I was kinda bored with it,” says Jewells.
“I decided to get into non-profits and I found a way in through a fellowship program.” Like many in their twenties, Jewells worked in various industries, from non-profits to marketing, and along her journey, was a friend who would later become a key person in her life.
“I met my husband Gunnar 13 years ago through a friend,” she reveals. “When we met we were attracted to each other but we did not start a relationship at that time. I was young and he was still living in Iceland – also I think he had a girlfriend at that time.”
As they continued on their separate paths, Jewells and Gunnar would check in with one another over Facebook. Years later, the two, who were both single, decided to give their relationship a try.
“We were long distance for three years while I lived in New York and him in Indiana where he was getting his PH.D. I always knew that eventually, he wanted to move back to Iceland, and as our relationship grew, we got engaged and married in his mother’s home which was the natural next step for us. Seven months later I ended up landing a job and we moved to Iceland.”
Jewells made the move to Iceland in the spring of 2016 and dived headfirst into the drastic transition. Gone were the bustling streets of New York City, subways and vast diversity, as she embraced her new normal in Mosfellsbær – a town which is only a 15-minute drive from the capital Reykjavik.
With a population of around 9,000 inhabitants, Mosfellsbær is known as “The Green Town” for its vast vegetation and greenhouses and couldn’t be more different from the life Jewells was previously accustomed to.
“My first day in Iceland I landed and the next day I went to work. I guess it was my way of feeling like I was assimilating fully into a system and rhythm.”
Jewells works as the chief digital and strategy officer at one of the largest advertising agencies in Iceland and has found work-life in Iceland to be particularly welcoming.
“The companies I’ve worked in so far have always been super welcoming and the people have always been curious.”
While the list of positives, from the vast landscapes and peaceful atmosphere, continues to grow, moving to Iceland hasn’t come without its difficulties.
“The Icelandic language is a crucial part of Icelandic culture and it’s been hard because I’m not completely fluent yet,” says Jewells. “I’m definitely at an intermediate level but it’s a process. Because I’ve always worked full time, I haven’t had as much time as I like to study.”
Adjusting to Iceland’s harsh winters has also been a major adjustment, but it also birthed one of her most important projects to date.
“My first winter was pretty harsh. We were living in a darker apartment as well and that makes a huge difference in how you feel.
“For me, winter is a time where I organise and All Things Iceland came about during the winter because I needed something to motivate me and work towards.”
Jewells launched the All Things Iceland blog and podcast in June 2018, out of a desire to create something that was digestible for ex-pats and those who want to know more about the country.
“There are podcasts about Iceland but some of them are older and they just didn’t have the things I wanted. Also, the language part is something some people struggle with if you haven’t been exposed to Iceland before so I wanted to combine both these things.”
Iceland provides a lot of inspiration for Jewells, particularly as the podcast continues to grow. And while she has fully immersed herself in Icelandic culture, there are elements of being a Black woman in Iceland which can still be challenging.
“I’ve been exposed to very lovely people here, but sometimes I do get a lot of staring – children with their mouths open in the supermarket or little white babies when they see you and they can’t help their expressions – it’s almost like there is this childlike curiosity amongst some Icelandic people.”
While the occasional glances are a little easier to get used to, Jewells reveals that there have been occasions that have left her shaken up.
“I’ve seen a swastika that was carved into a bus stop a couple of times and it’s really scary and creepy. I remember posting about it on Facebook and a couple of people disregarded it, saying it was just “stupid kids”.
“Sometimes people will justify this behavior and don’t really want to dig deeper into those types of issues because they don’t want to be associated with it.”
This avoidance of conversations about race is something that is experienced globally. Still, Jewells feels there has been an evolution in the country as more people of colour continue to visit Iceland.
“I do feel like things have evolved over the years as more people who look like me or are just different are coming here. There is a friendliness that they are trying to develop to make people feel more included.”
To find out more about Jewells, visit www.allthingsiceland.com and follow her on Instagram: @allthingsiceland
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