While they live thousands of miles from their native lands, Eden Prairie residents Katrin Sigurdardottir from Iceland and Teresa Olson from Chile continue to serve as honorary consuls to their respective countries, representing them to Minnesotans, as well as assisting Icelanders and Chileans now living in the state.
Sigurdardottir was born and raised in Iceland and planned to spend her life there until she met and fell in love with her half Icelandic, half American husband, Tjorvi Perry. In 1999, they moved for his medical residency to Boston, where they stayed before settling in Minnesota in 2011.
Even though she raised her family in Minnesota and happily lives here, Sigurdardottir still considers Iceland her true home. However, being an honorary consul is a great way to remain connected to her country. “I am fortunate enough to be able to visit Iceland a few times a year and spend some concentrated time with family and friends, and they come and visit us, as well. Who knows where we will end up in retirement,” Sigurdardottir says.
Being an honorary consul is a privilege, one that Sigurdardottir was a little unsure that she would be able to fulfill. Orn Arnar, the honorary consul general for Iceland in Minnesota, contacted her and urged her to take the position since she would understand the role and how to help citizens. “I was hesitant at first because I would be following in the footsteps of a great man, and I did not feel I fit the stereotypical image of a consul. After meeting other consuls, I saw that they come in all forms and serve in many different ways, so I said yes,” Sigurdardottir says.
After living much of her life in Chile, Olson moved to the United States in 2000. She and her American husband, Robert Olson, met while he was in Chile on business. Before Olson became an honorary consul, she was president of Chilenos en Minnesota. During her tenure, southern Chile was struck by a devastating earthquake, which impacted about two million people. To aid those affected, Olson and the consul general of Chile in Chicago, Jose Miguel Gonzalez, organized fundraisers. Since there wasn’t an office for consuls in Minnesota, it was decided that a local position was needed, and Olson stepped into the post in 2012. “The consul general of Chile proposed the idea of me becoming an honorary consul, and I agreed to do it because I thought about how people will benefit,” Olson says.
View from Playa Ancha onto a main port in Valparaiso, Chile.
As honorary consuls, Sigurdardottir and Olson are on deck for their countrymen, who seek their assistance and are living in Minnesota. For example, they help them understand local, state and federal laws and connect them with the cultural activities and the like while also assisting tourists from those countries if they lose a passport or require other travel papers. They also help facilitate business opportunities between the United States and their home countries. “We are like a voluntary army of foreign service members all over the world. We [serve] citizens and help promote our country in our area,” Sigurdardottir says.
Sigurdardottir and Olson have met with some interesting and influential people, who foster connections and build relationships, creating stronger bonds between American, Icelandic and Chilean citizens. Sigurdardottir has met several Icelandic ministers, as well as President Gudni Th. Jóhannesson and First Lady Eliza Reid when she attended the Consular Conference in Iceland last year. She also accompanied Geir H. Haarde, the former Icelandic ambassador to the U.S., to the state capitol. Olson has met former Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton, as well as the current Governor Tim Walz.
Sigurdardottir and her son in 2018 near Dettifoss waterfall.
Part of the women’s roles is to encourage Minnesotans to travel to Iceland and Chile. Iceland is known for being a peaceful country with striking natural beauty, some of which include glaciers, rock pools, waterfalls and rock formations that are untouched by humans. “Despite the 2.3 million tourists a year, you can easily find yourself alone with nature, especially if you travel off the beaten path. It is great for nature lovers, eco travelers, history buffs and music lovers to name a few,” Sigurdardottir says. The nation is eco-friendly and focused on the well-being of its citizens, she says, adding, “Iceland is repeatedly at the top of lists for happiness, gender equality, longevity and literacy.”
Katrin Sigurdardotti and her children (Kari, 16; Edda, 23; and Anja, 12) last Christmas with a view over Ísafjörður, a small town, where her mother is from in Iceland.
Chile is ideal for visitors looking for history and cultural vibrancy. It is home to world-class wine producers, stunning natural vistas from the Atacama Desert (one of the driest and most remote places on Earth) to the Andes (one of the world’s largest mountain ranges) and much more.
Olson also spotlights the La Silla Observatory, one of the largest of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere and is host to one of the darkest night skies.
“The origin of the name Chile may come from the indigenous Mapuche word chili, meaning ‘where the land ends.’ It could also be based on the Mapuche imitation of a bird call, which sounds like cheele cheele. Chile is affectionately known by its inhabitants as the pais del poetas or the ‘country of poets,’” Olson says.
Teresa Olson in the Plaza de Armas in Santiago, Chile.
Both women are members of the Minnesota Consular Corps (MNCC), which helps local and traveling Foreign Service representatives meet and discuss issues, as well as connect with any institutions they have to work with during their time as honorary consuls. The organization meets monthly and hosts international guests, who speak on topics, such as politics, immigration and trade. “The mission of the MNCC is to create visibility of the international community in Minnesota through promoting the countries represented, by supporting the members’ initiatives with respect to the diplomatic outreach [and] by fostering foreign trade and cultural initiatives,” Olson says.
A wooden Icelandic bird sculpture.
Photos courtesy of Katrin Sigurdardottir and Teresa Olson