Iceland Mag

2 Reykjavik

Iceland Mag


Go north: Icelanders are wonderful people

By Sara McMahon

  • Cold country Liya Yirga Behaga describes Iceland as cold but exciting. Photo/Björn Árnason 

Iceland Magazine met with four people from four African countries who have made their home on this small island in the North Atlantic.


At the age of eleven, Liya Yirga Behaga moved to Iceland from her native Ethiopia to live with her older sister, Tsige. She says the two countries are completely different, especially when it comes to culinary culture.

The two sisters recently opened an Ethiopian restaurant called Teni, located at Skúlagata 17, by the oceanfront, in downtown Reykjavík.

When did you move to Iceland and why?
“I moved to Iceland in 2002, when I was 11 years old. My older sister lived here, and the reason I joined her was because here I had a better opportunity to pursue a higher education.”

Was the country much like you had expected, or were there many surprises?
“I was only a child when I moved, so I didn’t really have any expectations.”

Are there many similarities in the two cultures? What about differences?
“The two countries are completely different, especially when it comes to culture. In Ethiopia, people have great respect for the elderly; one does not disagree or argue with them, you are required to give up your seat for them, people address them more respectfully compared to others, and it’s absolutely crucial that you stand up to welcome them whenever they visit.

The culinary culture is also very different from that in Iceland. Families will often gather and share a meal for no special occasion, and it’s not uncommon for people to literally hand-feed a family member as a sign of their affection. During celebrations, such as weddings, neighbours and friends will come and help prepare the meal. The men usually have the task of slaughtering the animal, while the women cook—all the while singing and dancing.”

What do you like most about Iceland?
“Besides being an exciting country, it’s also peaceful and there is much equality here, something not all countries enjoy to this extent.”

What do you miss most from Ethiopia?
“Mostly my parents, who still live in Addis Ababa. But I also have a clear memory of all the fresh fruit and vegetables that you’d be able to eat all year around.”

“I recommend a visit to Kálfshamarsvík bay on the north-western part of Skagaströnd, North Iceland

Iceland is supposedly one of the happiest countries in the world, but it is also said that Icelanders are quite stand-offish and hard to get to know. What’s your opinion?
“Icelanders are quite stiff, and have a hard time showing emotions such as joy and sorrow. They seem to be rather reluctant to let go of their emotions and lay it all bare. But as soon as they drop the mask and let you inside, most of them are wonderful people.”

If you had to describe Iceland in one word, what would that be?


Kálfshamarsvík lighthouse in North Iceland. Photo/Bromr


Did you find it difficult to learn the Icelandic language?
“No, all you need is some determination and patience.”

Some people say that they feel they have different personalities depending on what language they are speaking – is that something you would agree on?
“No, you’re just adopting another culture and customs, but I don’t believe your core is any different depending on which language you are speaking.”

Any local recommendations for tourists visiting Iceland?
“I recommend a visit to Kálfshamarsvík bay on the north-western part of Skagaströnd, North Iceland. And, of course, a tasty meal at Teni,” she concludes with a laugh. 

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